Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
VTOL VR: Hands-on Flight Controls Feel Just Right
Updated: Sep 23, 2022
The greatest strength of VTOL VR remains in the hands of its pilots. From the title screen to the shutdown of an aircraft after a successful sortie, it is the hands of the players that are the most essential instrument. And yet, its game-making virtual reality controller use seems to be frequently challenged by people seeking full flight controller support to replace or augment the default controls. After spending time learning to fly and fight in VTOL VR, I can't help but feel like trying to replace or sidestep its touch controls would be detrimental to the overall experience and dilute its identity.
Developed by Boundless Dynamics, VTOL VR was first available to the general public on August 3rd, 2017, as an early access title on Steam. Over the course of exactly three years, it was refined and expanded upon until it left early access on August 3rd, 2020. At first glance, its non-photorealistic look and use of fictional aircraft may be off-putting to those seeking a 1:1 real-world combat flight simulator experience. But everything you'd want from that type of flight simulator is there. Hardpoint weapon management, campaigns specifically created for each aircraft, an in-depth mission editor, and most importantly, fully interactive cockpits.
In VTOL VR, everything is indeed done with your own (virtual) hands. Letting go of the throttle to reach up and press the buttons around the multi-function displays to manage aircraft systems adds a considerable layer of immersion to this flight sim. Using your thumb to TDC slew and tag contacts in the radar/attack interface, raise and lower the collective for vertical lift flight profiles and flip switches to cold start the aircraft - all of it adds a significant immersion factor. While either one or both hands are not gripping the hands-on throttle and stick, the player can reach and lean around the cockpit without any fear of accidentally inputting a radical throttle or stick input while managing systems or commanding wingmen. Only intentionally gripping the stick and/or throttle allows for flight control input.
While in flight, the controls are sensitive enough to pick up even the most minor wrist rotations while not over exaggerating maximum input movements, like maximum pitch input while performing evasive maneuvers. Much to my surprise, I have not had a single instance of losing controller response in unexpected dead zones or felt as though controls were incomplete over the past few weeks I've been playing it. These are touch controls done right.
There are very few flight simulators out there that can provide the same type of virtual reality experience. Generally, virtual reality support for a flight arcade or flight simulator title usually only means VR headset support. This allows for looking around the cockpit, which significantly adds to the experience, but usually doesn't do much in terms of interaction with the cockpit. Maybe besides looking around the cockpit, the headset also acts as a type of helmet-mounted display to track targets and fire on them with off-boresight capable weaponry. The reliance on physical controllers like keyboards, mice, gamepads, and more advanced flight controllers remains.
The first combat flight sim with full VR controller support that comes to mind is, of course, Digital Combat Simulator World. But even it doesn't match up entirely in terms. That's not to say DCS World has done it wrong - you can effectively "finger gun" your way through a mission with a bit of practice and the correct module. But pointing at instruments in the cockpit to interact with them without hands "touching" the instruments leaves a bit desired. Though it's not a combat-focused simulator, it should be mentioned that civilian aviation-focused AeroFly FS 2 has controls in the same vein as VTOL VR but with one or two unusual input decisions. For example, controlling the throttle and yoke with the thumbsticks or touchpads on the VR hand controllers without grasping the flight yoke or flight stick.
The primary gripe against the choice to only support VR controllers in VTOL VR and not support physical peripherals primarily comes from flight sim enthusiasts that have invested in high-quality hardware. The inability to hook up their finest Virpil flight stick or trusty Thrustmaster Warthog throttle is a significant sticking point for some. I can relate to that to an extent. It's a bit frustrating to have my high-performance multi-function displays and rudder pedals be incompatible with any flight title I plug them into. Though some users have found software workarounds to use their equipment, Paolo Encarnacion, the developer of VTOL VR, has been asked repeatedly for official hardware support over the years. An official statement from the developer about extended device support can be found in an FAQ on the official VTOL VR Discord server:
"I got my first VR headset with the sole intention of using it to play flight sims. The very first time I tried it, I was immediately frustrated by having to feel around for my keyboard and peek through the nose hole to make sure I was pressing the right keys to access the different cockpit functions. This was not the level of immersion I was looking for, so I got to work on VTOL VR. The game was designed from the beginning to be entirely virtual, allowing you to directly interact with the various controls as if you were sitting there in the cockpit. Call me stupid, but in my opinion, looking for HOTAS support here is like looking for mouse/keyboard support in Onward, H3VR, HL:A, etc." - BahamutoD, Developer of VTOL VR
Honestly, that's a fair point with some good examples. There are flight simpits out there where every physical piece of hardware is at the exact position it should be to enable 1:1 physical interaction with the cockpit seen in the virtual reality headset. As mind-blowing as that is, it's also quite the financial investment that is only compatible with a single aircraft's cockpit.
Sure, VTOL VR has somewhat simplified cockpit systems to manage. Almost every function in the cockpit could probably be rebound to a physical HOTAS with a few modifier buttons. But at that point, wouldn't plugging in all this extra equipment be changing the foundation of what this particular flight sim is?
With VTOL VR designed in a way that intentionally and effectively avoids the need for extra hardware and peeking beneath the headset, support for more peripherals just defeats the entire purpose of a built for VR title that only needs two touch controllers to work perfectly fine. Without investing hundreds of dollars in equipment beyond their virtual reality setup, players have access to a fully functional cockpit. One that's easy enough to pick up and learn in a handful of tutorial missions but more advanced than most of the VR combat flight games and sims on modern game consoles and PC gaming platforms like Steam.
The saying "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" is accurate, and it feels like it applies here. I personally strongly believe that future flight sim titles should take note of VTOL VR's application of VR controllers and take that extra step to have virtual aviators reach out to grab every switch, knob, and button their eyes can see.
About the Writer
Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza
Co-founder of Skyward Flight Media. After founding Electrosphere.info, the first English Ace Combat database, he has been involved in creating flight game-related websites, communities, and events since 2005. He explores past and present flight games and simulators with his extensive collection of game consoles and computers. Read Staff Profile.