With at least four new state-of-the-art flight combat games having recently been developed for the Xbox 360, the timing was just right for taking a look at the Mad Catz Cyborg F.L.Y 9 wireless flight stick. For the purposes of our trial flights with the Cyborg, we selected Activision’s new Apache Air Assault
for its ostensibly more accurate, simulation-like flight model and because it is arguably more difficult to provide controls suitable for operating something as complex as a combat helicopter in a single control unit than it is for a more stable, fixed-wing aircraft.
Our first impression upon seeing the Cyborg flight stick was similar to our response the last time we bought a vacuum cleaner: the aesthetic design looked like something put together by a frustrated Hollywood special effects artist. Design elements including exposed wiring, sharp angular edges, open spaces in normally solid areas, and a distinctly Terminator style that gave it a futuristic flavor, which was more than likely exactly the overall look that Mad Catz was going for. That said, none of these details say much about how the controller will perform; much in the way we’ve always believed that fishing lures are designed to hook the fisherman rather than a fish, the design of the Cyborg is very much a measure of Mad Catz’s view of their target audience. And frankly, there’s not one thing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with a product looking state-of-the-art for so long as it is, well, somewhere near the state of the art.
Does the Cyborg F.L.Y. 9 meet that goal, or is the most evolutionary feature of what is admittedly a relatively expensive peripheral its aesthetic design? The answer to that is, as usual, “it depends.” To answer the question requires an understanding of the current products available that the Cyborg will be competing against. When it comes to flight sticks in the Xbox 360 arena, that is a very sparse list indeed. As it stands today, your choices realistically boil down to the Saitek AV8R or.... the Mad Catz F.L.Y. 9. In the interest of brevity, we can simply jump straight to a conclusion: the F.L.Y. 9 is better than the AV8R in every aspect but price. The question then becomes “how much better?”
Again, it depends. Perhaps the most compelling feature of the F.L.Y. 9 is the level of adjustability it provides. When it comes to gaming peripherals, being able to adapt to the wide disparity of hand sizes that will be using the controller is probably more important than just about anything else. In that area, the F.L.Y. 9 is the hands-down winner, so to speak. The length of the stick itself is easily adjustable by pressing a spring-loaded release, and a couple of other settings can be adjust by use of the included hex tool. With the ability to configure length and angles, the controller can be set to work with just about any hand size and preferred gaming position. Lefties beware, though: there is no conversion available to go from right-handed to left-handed. You won’t be finding one of these at your local Leftorium.
Configurability extends to the base platform as well. As shipped, the F.L.Y. 9 is configured for setting flat on a hard surface such as a desktop. It is a simple matter, though, to attach the two included leg braces that allow the positioning of the base of the controller on your leg as you play.
While unpacking the flight stick required scissors to cut through the tie wraps, anything is better than clam shell packaging. Within a few minutes we had the stick portion of the controller mounted to the base, the leg braces installed, a pair of AA batteries firmly ensconced in the battery tray (which thankfully does not require a screwdriver to open), and the joystick configured to fit our right hand. Turning on the Xbox and pressing a couple of connect buttons, one on the Xbox and the other embedded in the base of the joystick, was all that it took to get the joystick and the Xbox communicating like long lost brothers. All of this would have been slightly easier had the included directions been printed in something more usable than a 2 point font, but it wasn’t hard to figure it out with the help of a magnifying glass.As mentioned above, we chose Apache Air Assault as our test vehicle for the F.L.Y. 9. The game has pre-configured settings for this stick so it was a simple matter to get the controls mapped. The only change we made to the default settings was to invert the throttle axis so that lifting up on the controller’s throttle control equated to adding collective to the helicopter’s rotors and thereby causing the chopper to climb. It seemed more intuitive that way.
One of the most important yet subjective qualities of a flight stick is the spring forces. They need to be strong enough to provide sufficient resistance to help prevent over-controlling, yet not so tight as to make it difficult to keep the base of the flight stick stable on the desktop or your leg. The F.L.Y. 9 seemed to have met that delicate compromise quite well. It’s also important that the break-out force required to move the stick away from center be small enough that delicate motions around the center (required for precise control while hovering, for example) are possible. The F.L.Y. 9 break-out forces were a little high for our tastes, but not horribly so.
The thumb switches at the top of the joystick are conveniently and comfortably placed and their shape makes it easy to determine which button your thumb is on without having to look down at the stick. The buttons have a nice tactile click to them when pressed and resist accidental pressing quite well. We were particularly impressed with the positioning and the feel of the tiny nipple control positioned in the center of the array of buttons. It was extremely useful for slewing the aiming reticule in Air Assault. The trigger button feels natural in both location and feel. There are two left buttons that fall comfortably under the fingers of your left hand as you use it to hold the base, and your left thumb rests on the D-pad controller.
The stick twists to provide yaw control. All in all, while a set of rudder pedals would be preferable to twisting the stick, the controller worked very well with Apache Air Assault and was a vast improvement over the standard Xbox controller. The wireless connection was rock solid and did not introduce any untoward lag into the control of the helicopter. In fact, our only criticism was that it required more physical twisting action than it should have to get the helicopter to respond to yaw inputs, but that may not necessarily be the fault of the controller; that problem could be innate to the game itself.
As the quality and realism of air combat simulations on the Xbox improves with titles like IL-2 Sturmovik and Apache Air Assault, the demands on the quality and appropriateness of the controller are also going to get more stringent. In anything but “arcade” mode, the standard controller is going to be deficient and anyone hoping to hold their own in multiplayer dogfights is going to need a good flight stick. The Mad Catz Cyborg F.L.Y. 9 will provide the level of control required to survive in those demanding environments.