by Bob "Groucho" Marks
Event: Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3)
Category: Trade Show
Developers: Electronic Gaming Pimps, Hustlers, & Shills
Show Date: May 17, 18, and 19, 2001
Article Type: News
Article Date: May 23, 2001
PrefaceAs some of the more astute readers of COMBATSIM.COM may have noticed, yours truly sort of disappeared from the hallowed virtual halls of this fine webzine. I’m sure the rumors flew. Was it an alien abduction? Did he go jet skiing in the Bermuda Triangle? Has Groucho faked his own death in order to escape the clutches of the IRS? Or, much more plausibly, has he merely been under heavy sedation?
|Where be Bob? |
The answer, my friends, is None Of The Above. OK . . . I was under sedation for a short time (under the strict supervision of a medical professional) but that had very little to do with my lack of activity. Very simply, I hit the proverbial wall and burned out on simulations. Perhaps more accurately is that I re-entered into the Real World, leaving behind little more than a plume of incandescent, ionized gasses. For about the last four months, the prospect of escaping into computer gaming held no more interest to me than a segment explaining the wonders of peat moss on the Home & Garden Network.
It was therefore with this less-than enthusiastic heart that my wife—er, editorial assistant—and I began our trek into the heart of Darkest Los Angeles for the E3 2001 convention. Cheating death and possible dismemberment through rush-hour freeway traffic, we cursed the lobotomized bozos driving the posted speed limit in the fast lane and followed the GPS moving-map display on my PocketPC to the LA Convention Center. We arrived physically intact, if slightly frazzled mentally.
I came back from the show a changed hombre: energized and ready to once again fire up my grossly unstable Alienware rig for purposes other than making CAD drawings or crafting cranky, malicious letters to the editor of the local newspaper. Now, I normally consider myself blessed with a healthy amount of distrust, suspicion, and cynicism—like white blood cells, it’s an immunity response. And yet, when shown some of the paradigm-squishing juggernauts that will be unleashed on the desktop simulation world later this year, however, I became a wide-eyed, slack-jawed believer once again.
Into the Fray
|Logo for the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) |
Your intrepid Editor, Douglas Helmer, has already laid out The Word on some of the most exciting rollouts at this year’s E3. He’s described in some detail the masterpieces of the software art such as IL-2 Sturmovik and Lock On: Modern Air Combat (LO:MAC). Folks, the Russians are coming, and they are heavily armed with talent and a passion that has been sorely missing in the sim world recently. Combine that with American program management with gobs of French money, and it become obvious how international the simulation world has become. Doug has has also waxed on about the frontal lobe-smoking coolness that is the Thrustmaster Cougar HOTAS. Read what Doug has written on this beauty, and believe. Mere words are woefully inadequate to describe the divinely inspired trickness of the Cougar, but Doug has done a bang-up job trying. You’re going to have to trust us on this—you will want one. Do what you must in order to get one of these units, incredibly cheap at the projected $299US asking price.
|You can live on this stuff. For a while. |
Delay buying that GeForce3 card for a bit, live exclusively on Top Ramen for two months (the shrimp flavor is the best), or sell your children for medical experiments—whatever it takes. Quite simply, the Thrustmaster Cougar will change the way you fly sims. Really.
But enough of this rehashed gibberish. What other simulation jewels were hidden among the herds of geeks, freaks, and suits?
|The Saitek X45 |
Saitek, known for their quality gear, has continued the evolution of their stuff. Most notably for those of us with a hardcore bent, the excellent X36F/X35T HOTAS has a worthy successor in the X45. The X45 sports an almost identical overall design to the X36, with several small but important improvements. The already excellent ergonomics of the X36 has been tweaked for the better with the inclusion of an even grippier rubberized coating on both the throttle and stick handles. The now-rubberized pinkie trigger, or “shift” function, is placed in a more natural and accessible location. One new improvement of note is the fact that the top “launch” button on the stick now sports a cover flips down to safety the switch rather than the bass-ackwards configuration of the X36.
|They finally got the concept right. |
The quality still has that rock-solid feel and continues with the SGE programming interface. The price for all of this has actually come down, at a suggested retail of $80US. The only bummer with this is that it's hard to brag to your buddies about a HOTAS that costs less than a hundred bucks. Do yourself a favor and lie.
|The Cyborg Force 3D |
It's no huge secret that I HATE most Force Feedback (FF) sticks. The Microsoft FF Sidewinder Pro and Logitech Strike Force 3D sticks are sloppy, imprecise, gimmicky pieces of garbage that I don’t feel are quite up to the task of holding papers down in a stiff breeze. Saitek, however, has signed up with Immersion Corporation to start up a new line of FF controllers. They’ve launched a new line, topped by the Cyborg 3D Force stick, the prototype of which was unfortunately down with firmware problems. From what I could tell while trying out the lower mid-range Rumble-Stick, however, this is a FF technology that I may be able to live with. For one thing, it actually has a discernable centering force that puts the stick back to neutral, unlike the aforementioned unmentionables. If this trait is carried on to the Cyborg 3D Force stick, they may have a true winner on their hands.
|The P8000 Command Pad |
Worth further mention in the Saitek booth was the P8000 Command Pad USB keyboard emulator. With a high-quality “feel” and sporting a very deep level of programmability, the P8000 is a promising piece of gear for those simmers who tire of the hunt-and-peck school of desktop aviation. Supposedly, it’s a trick unit for web surfing also, though why a mouse and keyboard are inadequate for that task I have no idea. Hopefully I’ll have a demo unit in my hot little hands soon.
CH Products is another controller company known for their bulletproof gear. They have been a bit hamstrung recently, however, by their late entry into the USB combat flight controller market. Sure, they have the excellent Flight Sim Yoke USB and Pro Pedals USB, but unless you are a buff jock or P-38 driver you have been pretty much out of luck on CH gear. CH Products offers up the decent Combatstick USB at present, but the lack of compatible USB throttle and software able to take advantage of the USB protocol have left it of questionable value.
|The Fighterstick USB. Well, not really...but it looks just like this. |
That is about to change next month with the release of their Fighterstick USB and Pro Throttle USB controllers. Looking outwardly similar to their game port precursors except for the tri-colored LED program level indicator lamps, the USB variants feature that high-quality feel that is expected of CH products gear.
|Pro Throttle USB |
Both the Fighterstick USB and the Pro Throttle USB each feature one eight-way and three four-way switches, with four push buttons on the Fighterstick USB and three on the Pro Throttle. The throttle also sports a mini-joystick for mouse cursor actuation or whatever. All of the switches have a very smooth and high-quality feeling These new controllers will come with the new Control Manager software—created by Bob Church of Thrustmaster modification fame—finally allowing for all of the well-known Stupid USB Tricks like axis switching and full-up programmability. CH is also introducing the USB version of their venerable Flightstick . . . but that particular unit seems very ho-hum. Hands-on report with the cool stuff to follow soon, I hope.
In addition to their excellent video cards, examined in-depth in Viking1’s recent Graphic Wisdom article here on COMBATSIM, Hercules has stepped up to the plate with some tres trick audio cards.
|Fortissimo II Sound Card |
There are the budget-minded internal-only Gamesurround series of sound cards featuring the Fortissimo II and MUSE XL cards. Very tough to comment on, however, as I haven’t really had a good demo of these units.
|The business end of the Game Theater XP |
One in particular should appeal strongly to the sim crowd: the Game Theater XP. Consisting of a PCI card with an onboard DSP (digital signal processor) audio accelerator and a “rack” external interface, the Game Theater XP puts all of the connections you may need right at your fingertips. Without having to reach behind the *#@*&%* computer, you now have easy access to your mic input, a powered USB hub, gold-plated analog & coax/optical digital audio output for two, four, and even six speaker Dolby 5.1 surround-sound output, and a host of audio software that allows one to blast MP3s of Papa Roach's Last Resort while busily smoking bandits. All of this cool stuff comes cheap at only $149, and I for one am drooling over the chance to plug my 400W Klipsch Good Neighbor Eliminators™ into the Game Theater XP.
Seeing that His High Editorship, Douglas Helmer, has previously spilled the beans on the upcoming really cool flight sims—both of ‘em (that’s IL-2 and LO:MAC for those of you in Palm Beach County, Florida . . . try and stay with us, OK?)—I am left with the also-rans. Sure, I could do another take on what Doug has reported already, but this would be a pointless exercise as I agree 127.3% with him. No, I didn’t spend any time gazing longingly at the promising naval sims, primarily because I don’t play them and therefore would set myself up as the Target Sim . . . er, Ship Sim, whipping boy. Ditto on the first person shooter and real time strategy games. Hey, I’m a shallow sort of guy, OK? Well, I must admit, Return to Castle Wolfstein looks really cool . . .
But I digress. Return to Castle Wolfstein is no more a combat sim than Carmageddon III is a racing sim. It just looks like a hoot, OK?
|Austin Meyer's X-Plane |
One cool piece of news came from Reto Bodmer, President of Xicat Interactive. Xicat is the company that brought Austin Meyer’s X-Plane to retail shelves. He states that while he can’t really talk about it, they’ve signed a deal for the production of an X-Plane-like military/combat sim. I got all tingly (design your own airplane, then dogfight in it???) and had to fight off the urge to find ways to make him talk . . . luckily my Editorial Assistant had hidden my can of Chemical Billy.
He also reports that X-Plane is selling extremely well, and that Austin is on the verge of having X-Plane v6.0 ready “soon”. Will that mean the end of the free upgrade gravy train for us lowly v5.X types? I think so. Hopefully, v6.X will be worth it.
|Another crappy Screen-cap via Camera. Trust me, it looks pretty. |
Microsoft was displaying Flight Sim 2002 in an area stuffed way behind the massive X-Box Re-Education Camp & Hype Factory. It appears—surprise, surprise—like a slightly enhanced FS2K. The terrain is much more detailed yet seems to eat up CPU cycles far less greedily than the current terrain engine. According to one of the MS software engineer types at the show, this was their main thrust: clean up the inefficient legacy code that could bring even Gig-class machines to their silicon-based knees. A noble goal indeed. Graphically, there are some zoot “chrome” textures that have been introduced. The Concorde is no longer part of the package, but the Boeing 747 has been introduced along with the land and floatplane variants of the Cessna Caravan turbine single.
|Excitement, the name is....*yawn* |
The panels seemed only slightly improved from FS2K, though a new virtual cockpit mode a’la CFS2 has been introduced. Exciting stuff, eh? (Insert mental soundtrack of cricket sounds here).
|Fly II: Not ready for prime time? |
Terminal Reality was there . . . without Fly! II. This was indeed a bummer, as we had to run a gauntlet of panhandlers and schoolgirl transvestites (don’t ask) to get to the TRI trailer in the GodGames “Chosen Lot” beer-garden cum faux trailer park across the street. TRI was pimping an off-road driving game and the obviously hung-over yet earnest TRI rep there knew absolutely nothing about Fly! II. A bit disappointed, we slinked away…avoiding the transvestites (again, don’t ask.)
And that, really, was about it. Am I frightened about the future of flight simming, what with the numerically low turnout of flight sims? No way, though I found the idea of guys wearing makeup and plaid skirts a bit unsettling. The new Iron Triangle of future flight sim stuff—IL-2 Sturmovik, Lock On: Modern Air Combat, and the new Thrustmaster Cougar—are prime examples of the triumph of quality over quantity. The way things are going, however, we of the hardcore ranks may have to start speaking Russian or even—choke—French. I would secure the Gaillic jokes for a while, people . . . the French now control all of the cool sim stuff, and they appear to be in good hands. The fact that Saitek and CH Products are continuing to pour capital into the flight-sim genre is encouraging. So buck up, sim-fiend, for I have seen the future, and it is severe clear!
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