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E3 2001 - Day 2

by Douglas Helmer

Article Type: Trade Show Report
Article Date: May 18, 2001

ThrustMaster Cougar HOTAS

Rarely does one get the opportunity to meet a true visionary, tireless crusader of a worthy ideal, and all around brilliant dude. Dr. James "Nutty" Hallows is such a person. Just a regular guy who, in addition to getting his medical degree in Dentistry decided to create a highly sophisticated, yet easy-to-use windows-based programming utility called "Fox2" for programming his ThrustMaster F22 Pro joystick and TQS throttle. The professional quality of Dr. Hallow's utility finally caught the eye of the folks at ThrustMaster and they did the wise thing and hired him to help them create the ultimate Hands On Throttle and Stick (HOTAS) for the hardest of the hardcore simmers.

ThrustMaster: HOTAS Cougar Joystick

I own an F22 Pro and TQS and I can atest to the fact that they are incredibly sophisticated yet prone to failure in multiple areas: springs break, buttons snap off, chips need upgrading. Great gear, but a bit tough to maintain. With the new HOTAS Cougar, ThrustMaster is about to raise the authenticity bar to new heights while, I am hopeful, eliminating many of the durability issues that have plagued this otherwise great product.

Dr. Hallows gave me the whirlwind tour (which lasted an hour) and I must say that while he talked I said little more than "Wow!" about every three seconds throughout.

Click For Larger Image
ThrustMaster: Dr. J. Hallows shows off the 2 inch thick manual

At first glance the TM Cougar HOTAS looks like the old F22 Pro and TQS but that's where the similarities end. The Cougar is all metal . . . not just the housings, but everything: metal buttons, metal knobs, metal shafts. What you think is plastic is metal. That red button on the joystick, it's metal. That range knob on the throttle, uh hunh, metal. With all that metal, these things are massively heavy---about 8 lbs a piece! Throwing an "I-can't-believe-I-just-got-shot-down!" hissy fit with these babies in your hands will cause serious damage to your desk.

Oh, and the burning question . . . what about the potentiometers or "pots" as they are called. The Cougar will have very high resolution pots. Normal joystick pots have about 250 individual position points throughout their entire range of motion; the Cougar pots will have over 1,000 individual position points. Spiking and jumping? Forget it . . . according to Dr. Hallows, this simply won't occur.

ThrustMaster: HOTAS Cougar removable grip

Although not on the prototypes on display, the finished units will even have engraved label letters on all the buttons just like the real F-16 stick and throttle. Without a doubt this will be the most mil-spec authentic HOTAS ever produced for the mass market.

I played around with the units for a bit and the feel of them is like nothing I've ever encountered. The detentes on the throttle are metal on metal so they click in and out with a very satisfying click and unparalled precision. The microstick on the throttle (replaces the old eraser head mouse cursor) is just like the real thing in an F-16. The eight position coolie hat on the joystick has the proper height offset and now you can move it into all the corners like you should. Don't like that joystick? Not authentic enough for you because you drive some other crate that doesn't use the F-16 configuration? No worries, turn the retaining collar and pop off the handle. The ingenious design incorporates a simple PS2 connection between handle and base. Eventually, an entire line of different joystick handles will be made available.

ThrustMaster: Blurry image showing grip's PS2 connector

The Cougar HOTAS has a very quick, high-speed processor. How quick? Dr. Hallows wouldn't say but it can compile and install a big program in a few fractions of a second. Oh, and its firmware is flash upgradeable so no more chip replacing. Upgrades are done just like flashing the BIOS on your computer. Hand-in-hand with the high-speed processor will be a true high-speed USB connection. Sorry, USB only so no compatibility with those classic DOS sims.

This will also be the only joystick in existence that uses parallel processing. To illustrate the capability of a parallel processing joystick, say you have the word "THRUSTMASTER" programmed into one of the buttons. Press that button once and the software that runs the stick will print the word "THRUSTMASTER" to the screen. Press that button twice quickly and the stick will print out "TTHHRRUUSSTTMMAASSTTEERR" to the screen. Now, if you are quick, you'll be able to fire guns and drop ordnace simultaneously. I'm sure that's an over-simplification but you get the idea.

ThrustMaster: Dr. J. Hallows hefts the newborn 8lb 6 oz. TQS

Buttons? Twenty-eight. Multiply that by six to get total key commands available. Axis? How about ten when you throw in the new RCS pedals with toe brakes that are also in development. That ought to get you to the objective and back without having to go near your keyboard. Will your existing RCS pedals be compatible with the Cougar? Yes, just plug them into the joystick and you'll be in bidness.

Programming? The new Foxy software is typical Dr. Hallows---brilliant and easy-to-use. He's gone out of his way to make programming the most sophisticated consumer HOTAS on the planet a walk in the park. Will your old progams work with the new COUGAR? Yes, but they will require some minor tweaking and Dr. Hallows has an entire tutorial on that alone just in case you lose your nerve.

What the Cougar HOTAS hardware and Foxy software can do together is too much for this introductory preview, but as our friend Dr. Hallows says, it'll do anything you can do with your mouse and keyboard. Here are a few highlights:

Say you are in Falcon 4.0 and you take you mouse and move the cursor over a knob which your turn clockwise four notches. You could program that into your Cougar HOTAS if you like. Want to change an axis in flight? perhaps change your throttle's forward and back movement from thrust to nozzle position in your AV-8 Harrier? No problem. Want to dampen your joystick inputs on the fly (no pun intended) for mid-air refueling or landing a wounded bird, also no problem. Auto-trim? Hold the joystick where you have straight and level, press a button, your are trimmed. Program any axis or range knob to output analog or digital on the fly, or both analog and digital simultaneosly! Once again, no problem. Excited? If you aren't, check your pulse.

Best of Show? Absolutely!

Watch for our complete reviews when the ThrustMaster Cougar HOTAS is released in September of 2001. Price will be $299 for both the joystick and throttle.

ThrustMaster: X-box Joystick. Maybe consoles aren't so bad after all.

Destroyer Command

This title was looking good last year at E3 and now it really looks great. From my point of view, everything in the game looks about ready for prime time. All the user interfaces are complete and they look stunning. Of note, in the user interface department, is the fact that many of the stations inside the destroyer will have a porthole to the outside so you never lose your sense of being at sea. So, whether you are at the helm, or catching up on radio messages, you'll always be able to see the ocean, weather, and amount of sunshine or darkness through a porthole. In addition, the horizon will be bobbing up and down so take your Dramamine if you tend to get seasick.

Destroyer Command: Ship Status

Feature wise, I was introduced to the "F" key which when depressed while in map mode will show you what formation your group of ships are trying to get into. For example, if you ordered a wedge formation, but then a while later forgot if you issued that command or not, you can press the "F" key and the game will show you via dimmed ship icons where the ships in your flotilla want to be. It's a bit more difficult to explain that see, but you naval simmers will know what I mean.

Destroyer Command: Early A-Radar

There are a dozen or so stations you can man from the helm, to the engine room and everything in between. Manning the deck guns was high on my priority list and I tried my hand at sending a few volleys at some enemy ships.

Destroyer Command: Engine Room

The graphics are very, very good (even at 800 x 600): day and night conditions play a major role in finding and identifying enemy ships, muzzle blast from deck guns light up the surrounding area and reflect off the water's surface, ships burn and smoke when hit. Smoke trails follow the course of your ship so if you get a jammed rudder you'll be leaving black smoke donuts in the sky above you. Speaking of jammed rudders, the physics of the game will let you find creative ways out of, er . . . jams (pun intended, I guess). If your rudder gets damaged and jams so you can only move in a clockwise circle, you can apply full power to your starboard propeller and no power to the port propeller in an attempt to compensate for the jammed rudder.

Sound of any title is hard to judge at E3 because of the high ambient noise level, but I can say that the boom of the deck guns was satisfyingly thunderous even with all the surrounding noise pollution in the show hall.

Destroyer Command: Plenty of dials for the micromanager

Gameplay wise, DC looks to be the Burger King of surface ship sims because you can "have it your way". If you like to micro-manage every station yourself you can. If you are like me and just like to blow stuff up, you can sit in one of the deck guns and blast away and the computer will man all the other stations for you.

Silent Hunter

Interface-wise, Silent Hunter is the twin sister of Destroyer Command. All the mannable stations from helm to engine room are listed in clickable icons along the bottom of the screen just as they are in Destroyer Command. The maps look the same and the way the user interfaces with the game is identical. This visual compatibility is a good thing considering that you can multiplay these games together. So, if you decide to swap from a sub commander one evening to a destroyer commander the next, there won't be a learning curve for the new game.

Silent Hunter 2: Sonar room

Features that I noticed: You can use your mouse to pan your view above and below the water line. In other words, you can look at your submerged sub and the water's surface and any surface threats at the same time. Before, you could only see your sub submerged from the external view and not the surface at the same time.

Damage: Silent Hunter II now tracks casualties and not just fire and flooding damage. Crush depths are modeled separately for each of the four types of submarines.

Milch cows (supply submarines) are in the game but not playable. Shawn told us that the more intrepid hackers will probably figure out how to pilot the milch cows in short order.

Graphics: Water in SH2 is environmentally bump mapped as it is in Destroyer Command and the effect is stunning. You really feel you are on the water. Star fields are accurate and do move with time throughout the night.

Objects: Airplanes will play a significant role in the game. We all know about the "Air Gap" in the Atlantic during WWII. Well, best not to assume, my mother always said . . . The Air Gap was that stretch of mid-Atlantic ocean where Allied planes could not patrol for marauding wolf packs because they didn't have the ability to carry enough fuel to reach this remote no man's land. In SH2, as in the later stages of the War of the Atlantic, the B-24 Liberators will be flying out of Greenland to patrol the zone and protect Allied convoys destined for Murmansk and the UK.

Game Extras: There's a "vehicle" museum which not only provides 3D images of all the subs (of which there are fifteen, most of which are playable), ships, and aircraft modeled in the game but also several, exclusive to Silent Hunter II, film clips. These film clips are from an interview with the legendary German submarine commander, Konteradmiral Erich Topp.

Silent Hunter 2: Torpedo

Interoperabilitiy with Destroyer Command: SSI Producer Shawn Storc and one of the Ultimation fellows created a multiplayer session between SH2 and DC and went head-to-head, sub vs. destroyer. This is a fantastic feature and one that should make the naval sim community very happy indeed. It's one thing to be a sub commander and hide from AI ships trying to destroy you and an entirely other thing hiding from real humans commanding destroyers who are trying to hunt you. I'm not a big naval sim fan, but I'm looking forward to the opportunity to do some hunting of destroyers and vice versa when these titles are both released in August of this year (2001). To add to the authenticity, it is well known that the allied ships could triangulate the location of German subs if they used their radios to communicate with each other while at sea. Shawn tells us that the Destroyer Command players will have the chance to pinpoint enemy subs whenever online multiplay players use their sub-to-sub in game text chat utility. Now that ought to make the online sub captains think twice about shootin' the breeze during a multiplayer session. I pity the newbie who breaks radio silence with a "Hi everybody! I'm new, where do I start?" question during a heated session.

Because of the graphics, gameplay, and especially the multiplay interoperability of Destroyer Command and Silent Hunter both are getting Best of Show awards. Look for an August 2001 release.

IL-2 Sturmovik

What can I say, I'm totally agog over IL-Sturmovik. This sim is simply stunning in every detail. The demo that I saw was running through a KYRO II video card and every imaginable graphic effect was being displayed: environmental bump mapping, spectral lighting, fog of varying density, etc. I asked Oleg Maddox how many visual effects were employed and he said too many to list. I wanted to press him further on this but my tongue got stepped on by someone and I lost my train of thought.

IL-2: 109 Over Berlin

I've played the early alpha of IL-2 Sturmovik and I thought that was impressive, this code, some six months later is simply amazing (gosh, I'm repeating myself I'm so blown away by this sim). Damage modeling and physics are so real looking its spooky. For example, I watched as a bomber first got shot up by a Russian fighter: identifiable bits of the bomber were ripped off by the fusillade of lead, then the bomber exploded. Dozens of bits of the bomber, all individually modeled, some on fire and some not, exploded into a cloud of junk yet they still kept moving forward as they would in real life and then began to fall downward in their freefall ballistic arc toward the ground. When one of the engines hit the ground it bounced a few times before its flaming hulk ground to a stop. Sheesh! Amazing.

IL-2: He-111Z tows mammoth Me-321 Glider

This is a WWII air combat sim right? Well, you may forget that fact while you watch some of the naval battles in the Caspian Sea. Ships fire at each other and at you with all sorts of munitions from light to heavy machine guns and at least two types of flak. I watched a replay of four IL-2's fitted with torpedoes going after a very large German destroyer. As the pics below show, the torpedoes show the characteristic V-shaped nose wake and trailing tail wake just like real torpedoes would. Impact was great with a huge geyser of water and then explosions and then smoke and fire.

IL-2: Me-321 gets a tow

There are now twenty-nine flyable and seventy-five non-flyable aircraft in IL-2 Sturmovik. Below is a rather grainy image I took of the screen showing a truly stunning image I never expected to see in a flight sim: A five-engine He-111 "Zwilling" towing a behemoth Me-321 glider with it's 50m wingspan! When the glider lands, German troops jump out! Speaking of troops, after spending a day perfecting your torpedo dropping and glider cable severing, you can go strafe tanks, trucks, and hapless soldiers.

Truck and tanks columns will stop if you blow up a bridge in front of them but they will try to find an alternative route to their destination. Tanks will go off-road if they can, but, according to Oleg, they decided to make the trucks stay to the roads simply because their speed and agility makes them too hard to destroy using strafing runs if they are allowed to scatter and go overland to their destination.

IL-2: Torpedoes on right move toward ship

There is, as we have learned in past previews, a semi-dynamic branching campaign. What I didn't know until today was that if you do decide to blow up a bridge in one mission that bridge will stay blown up in the successive branches of the campaign unless its presence is necessary for the friendly or enemy armor's or transport vehicle's completion of the mission objective.

IL-2: Torpedoes impact Ship

Multiplay will not only allow head-to-head conflicts, but will also allow two people to fly in one aircraft as would be the case in an IL-2 with a rear-facing gunner. There are more than one half million buildings in IL-2's world and they are all destroyable if you have a hankering for doing some aircraft-based urban planning.

Without any hesitation I awarded IL-2 Sturmovik a COMBATSIM.COM Best of Show award.

Release is November 2001.

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