Thrustmaster Warthog HOTAS – Overview & Impressions

Guest Contributor Alex “Hobbnob” Hobbs takes a look at the Thrustmaster Warthog and gives us some of his impressions…

 

Over the past few weeks I’ve been taking a look at the venerable Thrustmaster Warthog HOTAS system, kindly provided by the guys at Thrustmaster. (Note: Getting free stuff does not mean I will cover up any faults, it just means I like the people more. If you give me free stuff, I’ll probably like you more too!)

The Product

The Warthog is considered one of the best options available to flight simmers without going for something more highly specialized like a Komodo or VKB setup. It’s supplied in a box which contained a box which contained two boxes which contained polystyrene form fitting containers. Even virtual war is harmful to the environment!

It comprises of a separate throttle and joystick setup (each with their own USB cables) and can either be mounted with screw holes or desk mounted as I did. Both units have rubber grips on the underside which proved very effective on my generic wooden desk, and they don’t move at all when flying. It’s based off of the control systems of an A-10C Warthog ground attack aircraft, so this obviously meant that I immediately plugged it in and hopped into DCS’ A-10C module for a ramp start and some circuits.

It worked. Instantly. I had heard that DCS automatically maps everything from the HOTAS to its in-game counterpart, but it really is great to start up the jet by physically flicking the APU switch, then moving the throttles off of their stops to start the engines, then setting the EAC and Radar Altimeter once alignment has finished. It’s really nothing more than a novelty compared to the combative functionality of the system, but it’s a nice touch.

The real benefit of any good HOTAS is how efficiently it allows the pilot to complete essential functions. The Warthog’s weighted throttle panel allows for flap control, autopilot control and a few engine/system management things that no one cares about, as well as the plethora of controls on the throttles themselves.

I move the throttles up a little and start taxiing out of my parking spot, pressing the NWS button under my right pinky to activate the steering. Thrustmaster notes on their site that their buttons and switches require ‘realistic pressure’ to use, which basically means you’ll pull all the muscles in your fingers trying to use the buttons the first time round. My pinky groans in protest but the nosewheel steering arms and I make it onto the taxiway without ploughing into a hangar. It’s important to note that the TM Warthog doesn’t have a rudder control, so be prepared to either use pedals or one of the many hat switches/levers available.

Once I’d mapped the lever on the stick to the wheel brakes (one of the few elements of the unit that isn’t present on the real deal) I ran up the throttles and began takeoff.  I smoothly took off, soaring majestically into the heavens.

I lie. My nose went in every conceivable direction and I only barely made it off the ground. The Warthog doesn’t come with any stick extension by default so it’s just as sensitive as any other stick to begin with, so I would recommend sticking in a curve of 20-30 on pitch/roll to keep everything controllable. The quality of the stick itself is brilliant, with full steel construction going into the stick and lever with decent plastics for the buttons and hats. The throttle is a similar story with full metal everything apart from a shiny lacquer faceplate, some of the throttle housing, and the buttons and flap switch. There’s also a throttle friction dial on the far side which isn’t actually the visible grey lever on the right side (that’s a non returning linear axis, so useful for constant things like zoom), this dial turns the throttle from sensibly light to silly stiff. Mercifully, even when stiff the throttles are very smooth and suffer none of the ‘stiction’ I would expect from such a large system.

My flight continued as planned and I started to turn my thoughts toward more lethal intentions. I powered up my weapons and targeting systems and quickly realized that the little slew control is rubbish. The real A10C uses pressure sensors to determine how fast the slew control moves, but Thrustmaster’s offering uses a simple joystick control minimized into the back of the throttle. Put simply, it’s crap. It’s like using one of those little nubs on a Blackberry phone that are so bad they have their own syndrome. It’s alright for occasional precise corrections to aim, but for broad movements like searching I found myself reverting back to keyboard slew very quickly. Even DCS puts a 50% central deadzone in by default because its centre point is so imprecise.

With the rest of the HOTAS controls working perfectly I picked out some target trucks and put some Mavericks downrange. I’ve noticed people praising the Warthog’s perfect placement of everything on the stick, but with my tiny microhuman hands there’s absolutely no way I could get onto the release button while doing any maneuvering. As such, precise releases are a somewhat acrobatic two-hand job involving setting the throttle/speedbrakes and holding the stick steady while the throttle hand reaches for the release button.

On the subject of speedbrakes, the throttles have a switch that toggles to one position and sticks there like a normal switch, and then springs back like a button from the other position. This allows you to deploy the speedbrakes ‘manually’ by pulling the switch back and holding it, and then stop deployment by simply letting go of the switch. Then you can retract them by pushing the switch forward and then you can forget about it because it will stay there and keep retracting. Pretty neat huh? If that’s your thing then there is also a pair of ‘Eng Oper’ switches that do the same thing on the main panel. There’s also a pinky switch on the throttle that determines what the external lights are doing, so you can easily fence in without pressing every conceivable key combination with a P in it and watching your wingtips.

Non-combat antics are also made easier. The long travel of the throttles mean hassle free engine management, and the smoothness and resolution of the stick make precision flying such as tight formations and air-to-air refueling a breeze. Having flaps and the landing gear silencer button are handy for getting back on the black stuff, but all these named switches have one flaw.

The Problem

Aside from the rather lackluster slew control, the Warthog has one other major issue. Having all those nice labels telling me exactly what everything does is great, but making it so specific means that it loses its edge when dealing with anything other than an A-10C. You won’t find an EAC control in a Focke Wulf 190 for example, so all those pretty buttons become an exercise in translation, where a Radar Altimeter switch can turn on a weapons system, an autopilot button could bring up a map, or any other mix of eclectic combinations. The stick resistance itself is pretty heavy, but it’s so constant and smooth that I’ve never had to worry about over or under correcting. Even so, my first evening of flight did result in two minor strained fingers from moving the stick from left to right. The pinky is out of action on the NWS button, the trigger finger is on the trigger and the thumb is doing fancy HOTAS related things, which leaves two fingers to do the heavy lifting. It hasn’t happened since thankfully, but it is important to note that the extra weight might take a little getting used to.

The Epiphany

Being unable to use the stick the next day left me looking at it longingly as I started setting up my new wheel, and I realized something. The TM Warthog might actually be the single best value product on the market for flight sim enthusiasts. Once I put aside the fact it’s meant for combat in a very specific aircraft I realized that the immense variety of buttons, switches and levers could provide someone with incredible control of anything from a Piper Cub to the Battlestar Galactica. If you can look past the labels and the expectations of what it’s ‘supposed’ to be used for, you have a highly competent and versatile HOTAS system made out of the best materials available for a price that’s not much more than its plastic competitors.

Before I received the Warthog I was on my second Mad Catz FLY 5, a stick that was previously reviewed on this site. It’s great, and I still use it as a handbrake when driving, but going from that to a Warthog was like a bus driver being provided with an airliner. It was better in every way, but I had no idea what everything did and it took a little while to remap all the commands in my brain. I was used to having all my HOTAS related things being the arrow keys with specific combinations of modifiers, and the speedbrake was deployed by putting my shifter into 6th gear. I’ve always been accustomed to the ghetto simmer lifestyle (my first FLY 5 served three years as a makeshift clutch pedal and then another two years as an actual flight stick) so once I got my hands on the Warthog it felt like I finally had the perfect tools for the job.

With this in mind I hopped into a BF109. The K4 had proven too much for me to handle properly with my previous hardware, but I was determined not to let it get the best of me. One of the main problems with the 109 is that good rudder control is necessary for airborne maneuvers, and individual toe brakes are necessary for slow ground handling like taxiing. I’m rubbish with twist grips so I never got on with the FLY 5’s rudder, but I used the Warthog’s throttle side lever as a fresh attempt at proper rudder control, with my pedals being the toe brakes.

I took off snaking down the runway, still getting used to the somewhat unorthodox rudder control. I just about got it off the ground and did some circuits. I had to set a curve in the rudder to make it more precise, but I could set a throttle, set elevator trim and set rudder to get a stable cruise. Actual cruising in a K4! Practically unheard of. I started getting it turned round onto a landing path and pointed it at the runway. Flying this thing at approach speed is like flying a helicopter on steroids, every change in throttle requires a corresponding change in rudder to counteract the torque. Using the lever as a rudder though was actually surprisingly effective, and I successfully landed first try with only a minor hydraulics leak emanating from the fuselage (I like to think my pilot just wet himself in excitement).

Over the past few weeks I’ve also taken up the Huey and Mi-8, but it’s a bittersweet experience. As I mentioned earlier, the Warthog is best at aircraft that require very deliberate movements. It doesn’t deal very well with the flying necessary from a helicopter. Its precision around the center is great, but there’s none of the ‘lighter’ center resistance that I’ve grown accustomed to, so for every small correction you need to put in the same amount of force as anything larger. This gets tiresome when combining constant forward and sideways force of evasive heli flying with the repetitive corrections necessary for a hover. Thankfully this does seem to be the only type of aircraft where the Warthog falls short, everything else has proven stellar. Heli pilots be warned though, you may be better off with something with changeable springs like the X55 or something specialized to helicopters like Komodo Sims’ products.

TARGET

Thrustmaster has its own proprietary software for the Warthog/Cougar called TARGET. With it you can define curves and mappings outside whatever game you’re playing, and then copy/modify them freely between other games. It has simple, advanced, and scripted capability depending on the user’s preference and allows the switches to either send repeating/single keypresses or normal controller signals, as well as modify any of the other potential functions of the system. I’ve always been one to do that kind of thing in-sim, but even for those of you that want the extra functionality, but don’t want the hassle, there is a big culture of sharing profiles for setting up your own Warthog with the best possible configuration for your chosen game.

Conclusion

It’s always going to be true that you get what you pay for. Considering how much the Warthog costs, you can already guess what to expect even without this review. Even with this review though I can’t convey how good it looks in person, how solid it feels and how perfectly it all works.

Apart from that damn slew control that is.

Guest Writer Alex “Hobbnob”

Editor’s Note: The Thrustmaster WARTHOG has a list price of $499.99 but can be found for much less than that at most retailers (currently $365 USD on Amazon and  $399 USD on Newgg).