Helicopters are not spaceships.
They do seem a bit alien sometimes (I’m looking at you KMax) and do alien stuff like hovering and all that black magic stuff we love so much in helicopters.
Here’s something else that’s shocking. My usual disclaimer on these products: VIRPIL sent me this product for free. As usual, I will be completely unbiased and totally honest with both you and VIRPIL. If something is not right, I will call it. But if it is, I will say so as well.
In our search for great controls, some of us try to find models that resemble their real counterparts. At least as much as we can. There’s no way of doing so with a lot of different products out there, like the Saitek (now Logitech) hardware, but we try.
VIRPIL has a great line of joystick grips. At the time I am writing this, the company has 5 different grips . Well, 7 really, but of 5 different models. Both the VPC Constellation ALPHA Prime and its older brother, the VPC Constellation ALPHA have left and right-hand versions.
Both the Constellation ALPHAs are mostly aimed at the sci-fi community. I’m not saying that the other grips they manufacture are replicas of actual aircraft (although the VPC V.F.X Grip does resemble a certain cat stick), but these seem to have been built specifically for that. The fact that there’s a left and right-hand version is a clear nudge at the way ships are flown in Elite Dangerous or Star Citizen , for example.
These models also have something else that is more aimed at the sci-fi folks but could be very handy for some of you.
Let’s imagine you are starting to invest in sims. You have decided on which sim you are going to, use based on your preferences. You have researched quite a bit, asked some questions in a very helpful community (shameless plug there) and by now you have a pretty good notion about both software and hardware.
And the prices too. This is not a cheap hobby.
All right you are all set, and you realized that perhaps VIRPIL is the stuff you want to put your hands on. They have a nice collective setup , their newest joystick base is exactly what you need for helicopters and the ACE-Torq pedals seem fantastic.
But you are a bit limited budget-wise so you can’t get it all right now. Nor do you want to spend money on alternative hardware so that it gets replaced by this stuff that you really want, later on.
What do you do? Do you wait until you have the money to get everything?
That’s a bummer. But perhaps there’s an alternative.
What if you didn’t get the pedals?
What… If… You… Didn’t get the thing… Makes the helicopter stop spinning and send you to your death in a flaming spiral of doom?
Well with this grip (and the previous Constellation ALPHA as well) you can have a non-perfect, yet usable solution until you save for the nice pedals because the grip offers you a twist-grip solution.
I said it was not perfect.
But it works.
The way VIRPIL added the feature to the stick is rather clever and I’ll cover it later. Let’s start with the beginning.
The grip comes inside a nice VIRPIL box, well protected. It would be very hard for something to happen to the grip. In fact, the box comes inside another box, adding a bit more protection. Not a huge amount but enough to be able to sustain some more rough handling. This combined with all the internal foam and bubble wrap probably makes sure you’ll get your grip in excellent condition.
If you don’t, something very, very, VERY wrong has happened during the shipment. If you get a messed-up grip because the box didn’t protect it, someone probably threw a grenade into the delivery van or something like that.
Picking up the grip and holding it in your hand is very satisfying. If you know VIRPIL’s grips, you are used to their build quality. The plastic is very nice and feels solid.
When you pick up the VPC Constellation ALPHA Prime, you are handling a metal grip. That’s right: metal.
The same beautiful flat black finish that VIRPIL uses in their bases and pedals is present here. Holding the grip feels right. You immediately have a feeling of quality. It’s sturdy, heavy but not too heavy. It gives you that feeling that you have made a good investment.
Don’t you love that feeling?
What’s in the box?
Inside the box, we have the grip, of course, 2 hex keys, and what seems like a replacement cap for one of the hats, although it’s not like any of them and I couldn’t figure out how to replace it. I couldn’t find anything about it in the manual either.
One of the hex keys (or Allen keys) is a bit different from the ones we are used to seeing as the tip is shorter. It was weird but I found out later why the key looked like that.
After you attach the grip to a base and screw the base cap, you will have to tighten 3 screws that hold the cap in place. Since the space between the cap and the bottom of the base is very short, the key has to be short too. You can see the position of the screws in the image below.
Important note: if you have multiple VIRPIL controls, make sure you connect one at a time and set them up separately to prevent issues, conflicts or even damaging your controls.
Read the thing above? Good. Pay attention to it. I’m not saying bad stuff will happen for sure but better be safe than sorry.
Installation is pretty much the same as with a base, so I will just refer you to my previous review, where I cover the MongoosT-50CM3 base and go through the installation process. I reviewed the base with this grip, so the steps are the same.
- Download the VIRPIL software and run it
- Connect the base with the grip
- Update the firmware
- Calibrate your axes
I already talked about the twist grip, which I will cover a bit more in the next section. “It’s just a twist grip! What’s there to cover?”. Well, there is.
Let’s go through the official features list first:
- 1 x Dual-Stage Trigger
- 1 x Dual-Position Flip Trigger (tactile switch trigger + button input for “UP” position)
- Combination Trigger Stages - flip trigger and dual stage trigger and be pressed simultaneously as a combined trigger for additional trigger stages
- 1 x Analogue Stick (+ Push)
- 3 x 4-way Hats (+ Push)
- 1 x 2-way Hat (+ Push)
- 3 x Momentary buttons
- 1 x Brake lever (VPC Contactless Sensor) + Momentary button
- 1 x Scroll Encoder (+ Dual Push)
- Lockable Twist Axis (VPC Contactless Sensor)
- Adjustable Hand Rest
- Metal Flip Trigger and Brake Lever
- Programmable RGB Lighting
That’s a ton of buttons. A. TON. Seriously, this stick has so many things to it. And that scroll encoder? It resembles a mouse wheel, and it works the same too. Scroll up or down and press.
And you have 2 axes accessible to your thumb as well! With this stick and one of the collectives or throttles, you’re pretty much set up!
The twist grip
Ah, the twist grip.
You grab the stick, you twist, and voilá. You have an extra axis, and you can control your anti-torque pedals that way. If you are saving for your pedals, this may be a good temporary solution.
I’m kidding, that’s not it. I’ve been postponing talking about this because there is a bit more to it, really. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s interesting.
One of the things that can be very annoying with the use of a twist grip system is exactly that, the fact that the grip moves on the Z axis. As you are flying around it can feel weird and you can even lose a bit of control as you will be putting some force on the stick and instead of deflection, you may get a bit of yaw input.
When you have no pedals, you’ll have to learn how to live with them. Some folks are perfectly fine with it, some don’t. If you are one of those that are not, this may be a problem for you.
VIRPIL being VIRPIL has solved it.
In fact, they not only solved it, but they added a nice feature to the twist grip system.
You can lock and unlock the twist system. But the cool thing is that this is not an on-off system. It’s not like it’s “just” locked or “just” unlocked. The locking mechanism is configured via a screw at the base of the joystick, facing you. It’s a small screw for which you will need that other Allen key.
Tightening the screw in will lock the grip. Loosening it will unlock the grip. But the angle at which the grip rotates is depending on that screw.
What I mean by that is that you can have the grip locked, have it move a little in the Z axis, a lot more, or anywhere in between. You have control over how much the grip twists or rotates.
And that can be very, very handy, depending on the use. For helicopters, I can’t imagine anyone using the smallest setting. The bigger the angle, the finer control you have on the controls. But having this option allows you to use the stick for other functions and better suit it to your needs.
As a side note, I tried the stick with the twist grip unlocked and I never felt it moving when I didn’t want to. I would say it’s not necessary to lock it, but you always have that option.
There’s another good customization setting that you can change to make it more comfortable to use the stick. There’s a small platform on the side of the stick (the right side if you have the right-handed version, the left side if otherwise).
This platform is where you can rest your hand and you can place it at different heights, by simply moving a screw at the bottom (no key is needed here).
Testing and performance
Like I said before, I tested the grip with the VPC MongoosT-50CM3 base .
Operating the base and the stick, along with the VPC Flightstick 200mm Extension was very comfortable. All the buttons, hats, and any controls on the stick are very responsive and feel very solid.
LEDs, LEDs everywhere
OK not everywhere. I may be exaggerating a bit.
But the VPC Constellation ALPHA Prime DOES have quite a few LEDs in it. These are customizable. I found that the VIRPIL software allows to set up 10 zones but the joystick only seems to have 9.
You can assign different colors for those 9 areas/LEDs or, of course, the same color for all of them. You can do it as simple or go as crazy and wild as you wish.
And yes: you can turn them off. Thankfully! I do like LEDs but not so much on my cyclic, to be honest. Not that this is a bad point or acts against the product, mind you. It’s an option and we are not forced to use it so, despite not liking to have it turned on, I still appreciate the fact that the feature is there, and others can use it if they so wish to.
This is another brilliant product by VIRPIL. Granted, a grip doesn’t have a whole lot to it, but it does need to feel comfortable and adapt to your needs.
The VPC Constellation ALPHA Prime is customizable enough to make it comfortable to use for long periods of time it performs very well, and I don’t think anyone would be let down by it. It’s not a small stick but the ergonomics allow you to access all the controls, even if you have to move your hand a bit to reach the buttons, which can happen if you have small hands.
Nonetheless, I think that even if you do need to move your hands a bit, this is a great choice since all but perhaps 3 controls will be harder to reach (1 button, 1 4-way hat, and the analog stick).
You can always set these up for secondary/less important functions that could be harder to reach if you are flying combat missions in DCS, for example, and you need to be in full control of your cyclic. For civilian sims, that may not be the case.
VIRPIL did an amazing job, once again.
I have to ask: does anyone else think of a Xenomorph when looking at it?