A few weeks ago, my trusty old Saitek X-52 started to act up. After 9-years of service, the twist sensors were spiking and causing all kinds of trouble so I started my research project on what stick I should get to replace it. I was faced with a difficult decision to go with what I knew or to go out on a bit of a limb and try something else. After doing extensive research I picked the VKB Gladiator as my next stick – I haven’t regretted that choice.
This is my review of the VKB Gladiator.
What I’m comparing it to
A common flaw in reviewing something like a flight stick is knowing where the reviewer is coming from. Everyone is going to have different experiences and preferences and so here are mine.
I started with WWII air combat back in 1991 with Aces Over the Pacific and I had a Gravis Analog Joystick. Later I moved on to a Logitech Wingman Extreme, a Microsoft Precision Pro 2 (a cousin of the infamous Force Feedback 2) and finally the Saitek X-52 which I’ve owned for about 9 years before it started giving me grief.
I’ve flown flight sims (from Aces of the Pacific to DCS and IL-2) and space sims (from Wing Commander and TIE Fighter to FreeSpace – still haven’t picked up Star Citizen yet) for most of that time and put in hundreds or thousands of hours on all of them.
The VKB Gladiator is VKB’s next generation of flight stick after the VKB Cobra M5 and after a couple of generations worth of rudder pedals. VKB is not well known outside of Europe and Russia. A collection of Russian and Belorussian engineers, the company has only more recently been selling products in North America and their stuff is a bit difficult to come by. That said, I found that there was a supply available and placed an order on Amazon.com (with shipping to Canada). The MSRP was a very reasonable $99 USD. More about the supply issue later in the review.
The Gladiator is a World War II themed flight stick with pitch, roll and yaw and resembles a German made KG12 Grip – something not out of place in the cockpit of a Bf109.
Some basic features:
- Real WWII KG12 Grip Replica
- Ergonomic Grip Angle
- Smooth Precise Movement
- Pitch, Roll and Twist Axes (regular Gladiator only, Pro model has no twist)
- Sturdy Internal Structure for Long Use
The Gladiator uses something called a MaRS sensor – I’m not clear on how it works exactly except that it’s using magnetic resistance and that it’s a contactless system. In theory, it should offer precision and durability over the long-haul.
This stick has its own 32-bit ARM controller built in and it was designed to operate on Windows without any extra drivers being required. I presume this is because of the ARM controller handling most of the features of the stick and Windows has a very good USB game controller system built in these days anyways. It’s a very easy stick to plugin and use. Certainly, that was my experience on my Windows 10 machine.
I should mention that VKB also offers the Gladiator Pro, a stick that is essentially the same but with metal gimbals and no rudder twist axis. I hear its even smoother and nicer than the Gladiator and the metal parts will probably last longer than the plastic parts (although VKB claims that they use a higher grade of plastic so it should last a while).
The stick and stick movement
True to the marketing material, the Gladiator is very smooth to operate. It doesn’t have the kind of weight that the X-52 does in the hand but it still has ample resistance so that you don’t over control your aircraft too easily. The return to center is extremely precise and that action is also smooth.
Compared to the spring which was starting to wear on my X-52, the Gladiator is like butter and it makes initiating rolls, dives, and more complex maneuvers without difficulty. There is a tiny bit of wobble around the centre, however, this is by design and VKB’s engineers claim it helps with aim. Once you get to know it a little I’ve found that my aim is more precise with this stick than with the X-52. It took a little while to get used to as I was used to over-correcting quite a bit more to get the nose on target.
The twist movement is extremely smooth.
If you opt for the more expensive Gladiator Pro (with metal gimbals), you don’t get the twist movement and instead you’ll need to use some pedals. The two are otherwise the same basic stick with excellent sensors and catering to slightly different audiences. Kudos on VKB for offering both options.
Buttons & Throttle
The Gladiator has a clean and retro industrial look about it and despite this appearance, it is quite useable and it has a large number of buttons – both physical and logical.
- 17 programmable
- 29 total logical buttons with Shift and Mode functions
- 1 eight-way hat switch
- Throttle axis
The throttle is mounted on the side of the stick and although it looks a little cheap it has some weight to it. More than I was expecting when I first used it. The action is very smooth and it makes throttling an aircraft up and down precise and easy. I’m still using my old X-52 throttle with the Gladiator so most of the time I’m still using that in conjunction with the Gladiator – thus the throttle on the stick has had very little use from me. That said, it works just fine and its better than I expected and it means that the Gladiator is perfectly usable on its own without a HOTAS.
The trigger is very clicky. Maybe too clicky. It’s a smooth action but a loud one. Not something you necessarily notice while playing but it is not as nice as it could be. The trigger is also one of the cheapest pieces of plastic on an otherwise brilliantly constructed stick. That said, the action on the trigger is precise. I do miss the two-stage metal trigger on my X-52.
I had one problem here. Early on the trigger fell off while I was using it. A screw that holds the hinge in place was loose and one tightened I haven’t had any trouble.
There are two functions that makes setting up the stick flexible. First, there is a shift button located on the front of the stick that is easy to hit while gripping the stick. The shift button gives you more button options and is useful for setting up a cannons vs machine guns scenario.
Second, there is a mode button which gives you an entirely different set of buttons. I use the mode function to switch between air to air and air to ground modes. In air to ground the trigger becomes my rocket release button and the top thumb button is my bomb release.
The top thumb button is just a little hard to reach for my hands. Mine are perhaps slightly smaller than average so others may be just fine with it.
One of the marketing features for the Gladiator is centered on driver-less installation and function. I only tested it on one PC running Windows 10 but the marketing forks were right. I plugged the stick in and it just works. That’s what you want to hear.
I’ve tested it with IL-2: Battle of Stalingrad/Moscow, Rise of Flight, IL-2: 1946 and DCS and it works flawlessly in each of them. The shift and mode switches are all fully recognized and there are no real problems.
VKB also offers an optional software package called Wizzo. It lets you do re-calibration, custom programming and settings and a bunch of other features, however, its not needed. For most players, you can plug the stick in and not touch this software ever. Wizzo gives you some added functionality for when you need it and that’s great. Could it have more? Probably and it sounds like VKB intends to build up the functionality over the coming years but I’m satisfied with the defaults myself.
VKB products are hard to come by in North America. GoStratoJet based in California was shipping their products for a while but that seems to have fallen through (and the site has been essentially taken down). I ordered my stick through Amazon as they still had stock. I’m not sure how long that will last but I’ve heard encouraging remarks around the community that a new supplier for North America will be available in 2017.
I also know that many trying to get a Gladiator Pro have had a great deal of difficulty. I hope to hear more positive news on that in the future. If I do, I will update this section of my review.
Conclusion and Rating
- Precision: 10
- Quality: 8.5
- Software: 9
- Comfort: 9
- Overall: 9/10*
*Overall score is not an average. Just how I feel about the whole package.
Bottom line: If you need a flight stick and you want to spend a little but not too much then the VKB Gladiator should be at the very top of your list.
The Gladiator is a great buy for $99.99 USD for both the flight sim enthusiast as well as a more casual player who wants to start to dive in a little deeper. Significantly more capable than a cheap $40-50 stick and very much a middle market stick. It doesn’t have the all metal robustness of a high end Thrustmaster or CH Products stick but then it isn’t being offered for those prices either.
The Gladiator is best suited to World War I and II and it lacks a few extra buttons that might be useful in DCS’ complex jet setup. That said, it’s quality construction and overall feel make it useful in any scenario. Some people reading this might want to use it with Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous. I haven’t played either but I can tell you that you would be hard pressed to find a better more precise stick at this or any price range. There may be some other sticks out there that fit the bill but this is certainly up there.
I hear through the grapevine that VKB is working on a throttle system to go with the Gladiator. A World War II themed throttle with appropriate knobs/switches for use with radiators, oil coolers, fuel mixtures and prop pitch controls would be great. Bring it on VKB! And keep up that North American retail outlet.