I finally bought an Elite Dangerous HOTAS and I might dare to call it my best hardware purchase of the year.

I’m by no means an expert when it comes to Elite Dangerous. In fact, with a grand total of 10 hours of game time before writing this post, it’s fair to say I’m pretty fresh when it comes to ED. Nine of those 10 hours were spent struggling with the controls in some way or another. I started with a mouse and keyboard (“How hard could it be?”) then graduated (forcibly) to using a Bluetooth gamepad; this got me closer, but I gave up in frustration before long.

Enter the Elite Dangerous HOTAS

More than a year on, one of my friends finally convinced me to splash out on an Elite Dangerous HOTAS. “HOTAS” is an acronym for “Hands On Throttle-And-Stick” and really makes you feel like you’re in the cockpit. It’s a little intimidating, but I found within minutes of using it that I was in for a smoother ride – literally – this time around.

I’ve joined the legion of gamers that have purchased a HOTAS for the sole reason of playing ED. There’s pretty much one go-to model: Thrustmaster T.Flight Hotas X. My previous reference to “splashing out” was a bit of an overstatement; the Thrustmaster is a steal and comes very highly rated.

You can consider any of the other HOTAS models, depending on your budget!

Configuring for Elite Dangerous

With the number of buttons and axes available in a HOTAS, combined with the complexity of controls in ED, configuration can seem an insurmountable challenge, especially if you just want an easy way to play the game (like me). Luckily, many others have already figured it out. You can find a vast number of “bindings” files pre-configured – just Google something sensible.

I went with a this bindings file and performed the edits below. The edited version is available here. Note that I didn’t configure this bindings file; it was something I picked up from the official Frontier Forums and have stored for posterity.

Elite Dangerous HOTAS - Bindings diagram
Elite Dangerous HOTAS – Bindings diagram for linked .binds file. Google diagram available here.

Note that I actually have Elite Dangerous: Horizons, for which the linked file was created, but I don’t imagine there’s too much difference between bindings compared to the base game.

Step-by-Step Bindings Installation Guide

  1. Download the bindings file (either the original or my edited version). The file will have the extension .binds.
  2. If you’re using the original you need to manually edit a single line. You can edit by right-clicking the file and opening it in a plain text editor such as Notepad. The second line will start <Root PresetName="TMHotasXModsSM"… and will contain a MajorVersion and MinorVersion. The MajorVersion needs to be set to "2" and the MinorVersion to "0" so that the full line will look like: <Root PresetName="TMHotasXModsSM" MajorVersion="2" MinorVersion="0">
  3. Copy the bindings file to C:\Users\<Username>\AppData\Local\Frontier Developments\Elite Dangerous\Options\Bindings.
  4. Rename the bindings file so that the version 1.8 in the name is changed to 2.0.
  5. Make sure to select the TMHotasXModsSM preset in the in-game Controls menu.

And you’re done!

HOTAS Installation Debug

The Thrustmaster claims to be plug-and-play, but if it’s not working, you might want to try the following:

  • Use one of the rear USB ports in your computer; the front one probably won’t work.
  • Make sure the “Home” button on the front of the HOTAS is green by pressing it.
  • Make sure the HOTAS is configured for PC if you’re using it on the PC. (It’s also got a PS3 mode but, come on.)
  • If it’s still not working, download and install the latest drivers from the Thrustmaster website.

This should be all you need to do.

Acclimatisation

There is still some learning to do when it comes to using the Elite Dangerous HOTAS. There are so many ways to control your spacecraft in ED that it would be silly to think otherwise. The advantage is that pretty much everything is at your fingertips thanks to the ergonomic design of the system. The training missions will give advice according to the new bindings so it will tell you which actual buttons to press; you won’t have to be constantly referring to the controls menu.

What does take a little getting used to is button combinations. There are four buttons within reach of your left thumb (on the “throttle”) which can be held before pressing some other button with your right hand (on the “stick”) to perform an action. Thinking about the buttons on the throttle as a modifier (in a similar way to CTRL, ALT, or SHIFT on a keyboard) can help you get used to these combinations. Indeed, with a couple of hours of practice, the bindings for the HOTAS were sticking with me in a way that the mouse and keyboard or gamepad weren’t.

Hat-Switch Hat Trick

One thing I particularly like about the Thrustmaster is the tiny control pad on the head of the joystick, called a hat-switch. This can be used to navigate menus instead of a mouse or the arrow keys. But there are two functions that I particularly enjoy using it for:

  • fine adjustment when docking – with one of the aforementioned modifiers, you can use this pad to thrust in the x-y plane;
  • quick power redistribution between system, engine, and weapons.

This latter function in particular really struck me. There is a lot of power in being able to balance your subsystems in the middle of a dogfight, but this wasn’t really feasible with the other control methods. The HOTAS lets you do it, and let me tell you: it’s brilliant.

Verdict

I wish I’d got one of these sooner. If I had, I might not have shelved ED so quickly the first time. Just do yourself a favour and get one!


Have you got a favourite HOTAS? A particular bindings file? Some other way of playing Elite Dangerous? Let me know on Twitter. If you want notifications for more simulation game related articles, consider subscribing to Odin Gaming.

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