Hardware & Technical $450 Joystick Review - The VKB Gunfighter MK2 (3600+ words and some pics, u were warned ;) )

What do you get for four hundred and fifty dollars? Unboxing pictures used randomly throughout the text...

Ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, I present to you the VKB Gunfighter mk2, with Kosmosima premium grip.



If you don't want to read 3500 words, this is the punchline of this review. "I never imagined a peripheral could make such a huge difference to my combat performance. Buy such a joystick if you can swing it with your other half, and sit in for a long wait. It's worth it." With that said, let's talk about it and look a little deeper if you have a little time. Feel free to go put the kettle on.

Introduction...

I have something I refer to as the 'joystick graveyard' in my man-cave, it may even become an Elite Dangerous meme one day, you can see a picture of it below (Elite related meme style edits welcome). The story of this graveyard starts some 4 years ago when I realised Elite was a game I would be playing for 'some time'. :LOL: I guess I was right. At that time, I bought myself, at great expense (or so I thought at the time, also quite amusing in retrospect), a Saitek X52 pro. This is a perennial favourite of flight sim and space sim enthusiasts and sure enough it served me well. It particularly helps that the developers were using this joystick to develop Elite as well and the even the cockpit stick seems to be roughly modeled after it (disclaimer, this could be an ED Urban Legend, I have no evidence). From the pinky trigger which most use as focus UI to the awesome little hat on the index finger of the throttle for thrusters (my only complaint, why can’t this be analogue!!?), it is a good match for Elite. The X52 is still my 2nd choice and should be 1st choice for anyone who balks at spending the kind of money we're talking about, just to play one or maybe two games.

Still, inevitably, as some would say, particularly those who are not fans of Saitek/Logitech quality control, it started suffering. It lived for about 2000 hours of Elite, so I can't really have any complaints and actually it's not 'broken' as such, it's just some of the hats are getting a bit floppy and sometimes throw a double tap. I've never had the problems that others describe with internal wires breaking or centering issues (it was never perfectly in the center from the day it was bought, it always caught a yaw left command with slightly less arc required than a yaw right, but that never affected performance). So I started searching for replacements.


The joystick graveyard

I wanted an upgrade, and of course the natural thought is the x56, since I had been very happy with the x52. I had the opportunity to acquire a lightly used x56 from a squadron member, so I took the plunge despite that squad-mate warning me that it was a poor quality joystick. In my usual arrogant way I wanted to believe that I could make the best out of it. This was one of the times I should have listened. The less said about that the better. The x56 joined the x52 in the graveyard. Back to the drawing board.

I looked at the Warthog and CH products, but they both have the same deal-breaker for me, no twist-to-yaw. Being an older gamer (not that old! ;) ), I always figured it was worth spending the money on nice things and had always overlooked the Thrustmaster T.16000 with TCS throttle, as a set, mainly due to its price, I was being a snob. This is the best value set on the market by a country mile. It has wickedly accurate sensors and a very nice control setup on the throttle, and after the X56, I was left thinking I might as well give it a try. Despite being highly impressed with the value proposition and genuinely in love with the throttle, it didn’t take long for me to get very frustrated with the lack of hats on the top of the joystick and far more importantly the incredibly aggressive spring rates, which literally snapped the joystick back to center. It is a very accurate joystick, but the aggressive detents and the spring rates make fine control in the center more difficult than it needs to be. However! As mentioned, the throttle is singularly awesome, despite the HORRIBLE cheap sliding motion, everything else about the throttle is top notch. This isn’t a review of that throttle though, so let me just point out the three key features that are why it is still the throttle I use for Elite alongside the VKB stick… 1) So many hats the queen would faint, 2) Analogue thrusters ministick (ftw), and 3) the paddles that sit out in front of it, I use one for FA off and it’s so natural. Moving along…



I've known about VKB, and their direct competition, Virpil, for some time. I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend (what is in euroland, including delivery and tax) the best part of $460, knowing that I would have to wait a long time for it. VKB and Virpil do not seem to mass manufacture, they meet demand only. So let’s get the first (and by far the biggest) gripe out of the way…Supply of the actual product is a chore that shouldn’t exist. I ordered mine in mid-March. Was charged in mid-May, and it arrived mid-June (as promised, it was delivered on time, I can’t really complain, except about the actual 3 month wait). So, if you do decide to take the plunge I hope you hit the resupply cycle at a better moment than I did, but as I pointed out in the beginning, it is well worth the wait. Right, enough rubbish about my joystick graveyard, let’s take a look at this stick...

The VKB Gunfighter mk2 is a modular joystick. This means you can buy the base and the ‘grip’ as it is called (the stick part with buttons on it that Yamiks enjoys moving so vigorously) separately. You can buy them as a bundle with a small discount, and they do come in the same box, the point being you can interchange other VKB grips, both current and future editions, on the Gunfighter mk2.

Incredible engineering…

Immediately I pulled the base out of the box and turned it over (see pic somewhere below), I was greeted by an impressive sight even for my jaded eyes (as a professional reviewer of Radio Control products in the past, I’ve seen my share of nicely machined aluminum and steel moving parts). In the photo below you can see the PHAT (that’s not a word, but there’s no other word for it, sorry), all-steel mechanism that keeps this unit accurate and slop free, and is likely to do so for many years to come under even the heaviest of abuse. I wonder if even industrial forklift joysticks and stuff like that have such unbelievably PHAT (sorry) steel parts that make the moving joints, etc. Everything that needs it has a steel bearing as well. This construction ethos is evident throughout, including what appear to be military grade microswitches. I certainly have a lot of experience with ‘buttons’ (I refer you back to the graveyard :D) and I have never felt such strong, hard, positive clicks. They might even be a little too heavy for some people, but I can’t imagine these switches getting sloppy any time soon, they are monster microswitches and the heaviness, at least for me, does nothing to detract from their performance, there is simply no ambiguity regarding whether one actually pressed a button or not. You either heard (and felt) a loud(ish) snap or you didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not mechanical keyboard levels of loud, but it’s certainly gonna be clickier than you are used to.



Options…

I’m kinda premature with this review, but I’m excited to get it out for you guys, and the truth is I haven’t yet messed around with the myriad options included with the stick. It has 5 different spring rates supplied, and a different set of arms which do something to the throw or the stick angle or some such (I'll get back to the manual at the end). I’m very happy with its default springs and throw, so I haven’t been motivated to dismount the thing and play around with it (I bolted it into my sim rig already).

Apart from those critical choices, due to my selection of the Kosmosima ’premium’ grip, I also have options for certain stick controls included with the grip. There is another heavy duty hat supplied in the box which can be used to replace the thumb button and there’s a button which can be used to replace what is currently a hat on the lower thumb position, so it basically allows to swap around between what type of control you actually have under the two controls intended for your right thumb (if right handed). These controls are critical to me, they are a big part of what makes a good joystick, and simultaneously my biggest complaint of the x56 (no usable thumb button for secondary fire), so these options are gold. The stick came to me as it is in the picture, as I want it, with a button on the high thumb, and a hat on the low thumb, though I may experiment with a button on the low thumb too in future, it just seems a shame to reduce the number of buttons. There are also two different thicknesses of spacer at the bottom of the grip, to allow adjustment for larger/smaller hands. I have average to large hands and removed this completely to allow maximum space for my palm on the stick. More about the size of the actual grip in a later section.



Accuracy…

The accuracy of a 'pro' stick is a function of two things…the sweetness of movement at the center of the stick and the actual electronic method by which movement of the stick is detected and translated into movement in a game. Dear reader, if you are not familiar with this particular concept, please read this next bit carefully and understand it, because this is the single most important part of the review, as it’s the ONE thing that separates ‘pro’ sticks from ‘high street’ sticks.

95% of all joysticks are sprung in such a way that the most effort required to move the stick is expended when you begin a movement from center. You apply enough force to the stick in a desired direction to overcome its centering spring force. This force usually gets weaker toward the edge as the stick is already in motion and requires less effort to defeat the spring preload and stay ‘in motion’, this leads to the stick both failing to resist over extended (accidental knee-jerk reactions) movements, and also ‘pulling’ you back to center harder than is preferable. The VKB stick is sprung, such that the opposite is the case. It requires zero effort to move from center and progressively gets more resistant as you increase the arc of movement, yet still returns to center when left.

This is a critical concept as it gives you that extraordinary fine control in the center when adjusting for a target (joystick 'curves' help with this even more, naturally), and also works to prevent you overreacting, as to get full lock, you do have to apply a little force. With the addition of some very agile ships in the last year or so (chieftain, challenger, particularly), this became really important and noticeable to me. I had often described the chieftain and challenger as ‘slightly twitchy’, but I can now confirm that with a properly set up curves profile and an appropriately sprung joystick, they are much easier to handle. Therefore, to anyone else who also finds these ships twitchy, try a properly sprung joystick (and get your wallet out, cos as far as I know there is no cheap stick with this feature). It’s amazing to me in this day and age that high street brands haven’t caught on to this most important facet of joystick quality.

Regarding the electronic method by which signals are sent to the PC, please see the references at the end of the review and feel free to read about this on your own, I don’t pretend to understand anything more than the fact that it uses a relatively new (in consumer technology) method involving magnetic resistance, and that it is ultra reliable and ultra accurate. I can certainly confirm the latter already.



Look and feel, features, ergonomics, button and hat layout…

Yes! It features twist to yaw! I know at least one of you only clicked on this review to learn that!! However, and this is the second of the two (only) gripes I have about the unit. The yaw is really not as smooth as the rest of the axes. The detent that marks the center is too aggressively angled or cut, it needs to be smoother, and I think the metal surfaces that slide against each other when using this, are probably not as well finished as they could be. Despite a medium strength spring (nowhere near as strong as the X56 yaw spring), it is possible to leave the stick after yawing and it can stick along its path back to center. I will probably see what I can do about that in future on my own with a little bit more grease. I checked the grease in the unit before mounting it and it seemed like enough, maybe it could use some more.

The rest of the product is pretty damn amazing. On most of my ships I use the main trigger to fire railguns and the secondary to fire PAs or frags. The secondary fire thumb-button is exactly where it needs to be and the aforementioned palm rests will help other users move their resting hand position up and down the stick (stop snickering) to find the sweet spot (no, really stop it now) for them. Despite that I had already got used to using the pinky button on the x56 for secondary fire, within two play sessions I was back to the thumb and hitting far more reliably. This also frees up the pinky button to use for something else again, I haven’t decided what yet.



The hat layout you can see from the photos. They are all 4 way hats in a sense. There is only one true ‘hat’ (a control that is seen by hardware and software as one, non analogue, directional stick) and it is ‘like’ an analogue ministick in the way it moves, but it isn’t, it is simply a hat that ‘feels’ like an analogue mini-stick. It has very soft and wide range of movement, no click (except a press, it clicks when the whole unit is pushed in, as do all the ‘hats’). There are no 8 way hats that I have been able to determine (nor are apparent from the calibration, which shows only the aforementioned top left hat as an actual ‘hat’). This simply means that all the other hats represent 4 independent joystick buttons each. This is actually a good thing in terms of setting up certain games, although Elite handles hats and independent buttons the same way, some other sims don’t, they look for true multi-directional hats or prefer to simply have a button mapped to a control. Basically, any control that can be mapped to a button can therefore be mapped to a hat direction on this stick.

There is a button on the top right of the top bell or hood, which can be reached with an extended index finger comfortably, I use this for night vision myself. Topping off the buttons and stuff, there is a last hat (not a real hat) as mentioned, in the position of the secondary fire button on some sticks (left side of the stick just above middle, for a low thumb press), I haven’t found a use for this yet (it's an analogue mini-stick also in that position on the x56 which again I didn't use). The thumb reaches all 4 hats easily, although that is also because the stick is definitely smaller overall than I expected it to be after looking at pics. It is approximately 15% smaller than the Logitech X56, and maybe 8-10% smaller than the x52 (arbitrary guesstimates are arbitrary) and if my hands were any bigger this might be an issue. If you have very large hands, the Kosmosima grip is not for you. I haven't tried the jetfighter grip (the only alternative they currently offer), and it is unlikely to interest me, once again due to the secondary fire button not existing on that grip or rather not in the best spot. Therefore, I cannot confirm if it is smaller or larger, however it does look a little larger to me in the pics, could be an illusion.



If they don’t already, VKB should offer a premium version of the jetfighter type stick in order to provide that secondary fire button option for the upper thumb position for those with larger hands as the grips are otherwise quite similar. There are no buttons or other controls on the base or controller unit. Last mention on the buttons…see that odd looking secondary frontal trigger thing? Right on the front of the stick? That’s a rocker trigger. You can push it forward, or hook your finger behind it and pull it toward you, it’s very useful and natural for me to use it to change fire groups, it has become instinctual after only a few days.

As you can see, it 'looks' frickin' spectacular. Even the wife was like 'oh, impressive 'thing'!' Wow, cheers love (she didn't even ask how much it cost). The machining on the edges of the black anodised aluminium casing and baseplate, give it a modern, yet elegant look and feel, and incidentally my favourite brand of radio controlled CNC bits and pieces (Hudy/Xray), also uses this combination to consistently impress (black anodising with diamond cut edges). The plastic is flawless, no weirdness or signs of the manufacturing process and all the hardware (screws and such) are hex head, which is also a sign of a higher level of 'care' in design and construction. Overall, it is a finely finished 'thing of beauty'.



So what’s it like to play with?

It is…cream. In fact it is Bailey’s Irish cream poured all over Ariana Grande, sitting on a chocolate cake, peeling off body paint (sorry ladies, hey for you, let’s say…Keanu Reeves, doing the same?) Mm, there’s an image I could dwell on (Ariana Grande! Not Keanu Reeves!!)…moving along swiftly…

As I mentioned at the start of this review, here’s the punchline; I never expected a peripheral to make such a large difference to my combat performance. I’ve changed 4 joysticks in a year and my muscle memory always gives me issues, but fortunately, this stick’s plethora of buttons and placement, allowed me to use almost all the same buttons in the same positions, and that has made muscle memory much less of a chore to reset this time around. What has changed though, is my accuracy in the first 15% of the movement range (fine control). I struggled to be consistent (but I was, just about) with railguns using the X56. It was ‘good enough’ for shooting railguns accurately, for sure. I rarely bothered with module sniping, because it was usually faster to take down the hull than try to snipe a module. This is most definitely no longer the case, I can now take out shield generator and then powerplant of NPCs way before I could have taken out their hull before, at leasst a 15% increase in railgun shots hit per encounter (arbitrary guess is, yeh, you guessed it, arbitrary ;)). A similar difference can be observed with slow fixed ordnance, such as efficient PAs. Tracking the reticle as well as getting the actual fire button click out at exactly the right time have both improved measurably.

Essentially, yes, the money you spent can be realised in terms of real performance gains, and I would have paid a lot more had they been asking it. That’s not an excuse for VKB to hike the price, it is probably the right price for the materials, design and development effort, including a small profit on each item, however, it is that good, that I would have paid more for the way it feels and the way it has improved my performance.



Drivers, software, setup and installation…

Final very minor gripe, the manual is poor, it is barely even a page, and difficult to understand what some of the diagrams are trying to convey. There are no drivers or software supplied, nor are any required. Windows recognises the device by full name ‘VKB Gunfighter mk2’ not ‘Generic PnP Joystick device’, and all buttons and controls are correctly identified.

Most of the ‘better’ high street joysticks (and even some of the midrange ones) supply software to set up things like macros and curves. I feel given the ease of movement at the center and accuracy, a curves profile is absolutely required. I'm not suggesting VKB supply curves software with its hardware, no no no, they are a hardware company, they should stick to that, Thrustmaster made that mistake by forcing that Target crap on its customers (apologies to those who like it, I think it's diabolical, and not because I can't use it, just because it's diabolical). What I'm saying is that the customer should definitely find their own curves solution for the stick, but do find one, it's so sensitive in the center, don't expect to buy it and not do this. I tried without and I was over adjusting for everything, every movement was erratic without a fairly strong curve profile applied. I already have a tutorial on youtube for how to set up macros for Joystick Gremlin, and I plan to make a similar one to accompany this review on setting up curves using the same software, which is a little more complicated. If it’s not up at the time I publish this review, it will be soon after (don't hold your collective breaths though, either, no promises!! Done when its done! ;)) and I'll add both links when done.



Conclusion…

If you have $400-$500 depending where you live, to spend on a joystick (just a joystick, there is no throttle), and the patience to wait 3 months for it, there are likely few better choices for the money. Virpil offers a competing product which is near identical, but I don’t like any of their grips, for various and mostly the same reasons I mentioned, why this grip does satisfy me for Elite. Between the engineering that looks like it’s straight from a Russian tank, the ergonomics which are only achieved by copying military designs, the modern technology to provide the accuracy, the nice machining that makes the unit just look so expensive and awesome, and the sweet, sweet way the stick is sprung, I know that I’ve found my joystick for the next ten years. Or until VKB come out with something better.

o7 cmdrs, fly quietly but pack railguns.

Ashenfox out…

P.S. See that orange box thing? Looks cool doesn't it? It's high tech I reckon. I haven't the first clue what it's for. Please don't judge me. :) Point is, I'm not a true sim head, I'm just a lugnut who plays shooty spaceships, so I haven't even touched on what this could do in the right hands with the right configuration. This is not the definitive review of this stick, look out for others for more expert opinions on the product. For Elite? Mahoosive Overkill, I assure you. Enjoy. :)

References:

US shop (no idea on lead times, for all I know it's in stock now)... https://vkbcontrollers.com/
EU shop (long wait)... https://flightsimcontrols.com/product/gunfighter-mk-ii/
Sensor technology... https://vkbcontrollers.com/?faq=what-is-the-vkb-mars-sensor-technology-how-is-it-different-from-hall-effect

This review was not endorsed or paid for in any way shape or form, I did not receive a discount or free product in exchange for this review. I was not coerced into this review, my family was not kidnapped and this review demanded as the ransom.
 
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I kinda miss the days when a Competition Pro was the top of the line. Simple, solid and you could switch out the clickers with a simple screwdriver should you wear it out. And all of that for some thirty bucks.
 
I kinda miss the days when a Competition Pro was the top of the line. Simple, solid and you could switch out the clickers with a simple screwdriver should you wear it out. And all of that for some thirty bucks.
Aw, I miss the old days too, but this is progress. Real, superhot, sexy, performance enhancing to the point of wondering if it's allowed, full on progress. :)
 
great review!
So what do you use as a throttle if this is your stick in Elite?
Thanks!

I'm still using the Thrustmaster TCS throttle from the T16000 set, because I love its bewildering array of hats, dual paddles and analogue ministick for thrusters There is no other product that has all these features, and even this....which I will soon be buying (and reviewing of course)...

https://virpil-controls.eu/vpc-mongoost-50cm-throttle.html

...doesn't have the paddles which I will miss.
 
A nice review! I picked up a half price 16000M stick and paired it in a left handed configuration with my x52 pro stick to replace the x52's throttle which has begun acting up. I would (and have many times before) advise against ever buying an x52 pro, the build quality is truly bad and the MFD is useless. The 16000M has some really cool scripting capabilities, and I have written a TARGET script that rebinds its x/y axis to mouse look when I hold a button down, which is neat. BUT I am looking to get a CH products combination at some point, my only issue is that the stick has no z axis.
 
I like to mix my sticks up. My setup right now is Right handed Saitek X52 Pro and ST290 Pro left-handed and I use the X52 Pro Throttle.
I used to have a 16000M set up for left handed and swapped it for X52 Pro. I definitely don't have the skillz I used to have. At least thats what I'm blaming it on
 
I can't agree more on the T16K throttle.

I bought a whole new Logitech X56 rig, and ended up keeping the T16K throttle for the index finger thruster stick and thumb HATs. The X56 stick however, is so much better than the T16K.
 
That Thrustmaster TWCS throttle feels a lot better after it's cleaned and has fresh damping grease applied.
Absolutely right. The throttle is actually much nicer than the T16000 stick it's paired with, imho. And a quality dampening grease makes all the difference in the world.
 
What do you get for four hundred and fifty dollars? Unboxing pictures used randomly throughout the text...

Ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, I present to you the VKB Gunfighter mk2, with Kosmosima premium grip.



...
Oh Aashenfox, you're such a nerd. :) Congratulations with your new toy. :)
 
What do you get for four hundred and fifty dollars? Unboxing pictures used randomly throughout the text...
...
This review was not endorsed or paid for in any way shape or form, I did not receive a discount or free product in exchange for this review. I was not coerced into this review, my family was not kidnapped and this review demanded as the ransom.
It's not "THAT" expensive anyway compared to other hi-quality products.
Some years ago I was building a homecockpit for the B737. I was saving money to buy the yoke control column (1500€) and the motorized throttle pedestal (2500€).
For 300€ I could by the "cheap" version of the FMC.
Then the first kid arrived and I changed my priorities (I still have my CBR 600RR parked in garage though :p)

So if you like that kind of stuff the price I can say it's preatty competitive so go for it!

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