I seem to recall that I had heard of the Novint Falcon previously, when it was being shown off as a haptic controller aimed primarily at 3d modelling, but it didn't really come to my attention again until recently, with the announcement of native support for Valve's most recent games, along with the pistol grip controller. After looking at the videos on Novint's website, I was sufficiently interested to consider buying one. My initial attempt at purchasing one was somewhat unsuccessful, as Novint don't do international shipping. Instead, I had to contact an associate in the US and arrange for him to buy it on my behalf (note to potential UK buyers - you WILL get stung by Customs. VAT + clearance fee. Ouch.)
Two weeks later, it arrived. Well, the pistol grip did. The remainder arrived a day later, after the aforementioned Customs incident. I was surprised by how large the box was, given that the Falcon itself is a relatively compact device, and it turns out that most of it is taken up by large polystyrene packing blocks.
I had initial reservations about how well the Falcon would work as a gaming device, but the unit as a whole is very solidly constructed, with the base being made of metal rather than plastic. There's easily sufficient weight there to stop it from sliding around while in use.
Set-Up<hr size="3" noshade color="#ED761C">Installation was relatively simple - install the drivers, attach the Falcon (via USB) and plug in the power. Except my PC really, really didn't want to play ball. Every time I installed the drivers, Vista wouldn't boot. I eventually solved the problem by reinstalling Vista from scratch after testing the Falcon on a different PC where it worked perfectly first time. Special mention should be made of Novint's technical support, who responded quickly and helpfully to my initial query about the problem.
So, with everything set up, it was time to jump in at the deep end and try a game. I clipped on the pistol grip and loaded up Half-Life 2: Episode 2. The front of the Falcon lights up blue when active, and an extra menu appears in the Episode 2 options where you can tweak the force settings. I left everything on the default for my first play, and started a new game.
Playing Episode 2<hr size="3" noshade color="#ED761C"></strong>Navigating using the Falcon is relatively easy - it acts pretty much as a hybrid joystick/mouse. Moving the grip around moves the crosshair like a mouse, but moving the grip to the "edge" of the movement area starts you turning in that direction like a joystick would. Once I got myself some clear space, I gave myself some weapons and set about having some fun.
The Falcon's pistol grip has 3 buttons in addition to the trigger. The upper and lower ones cycle weapons back and forth, and the middle one acts as secondary fire. This works generally well, but if you want a different setup then you have to manually bind the buttons in the console (and then after you've found out what the buttons are named)
I was quite amazed by how much you can actually *feel* the weapons through the Falcon. The pistol is relatively light and has very little kick to it. The revolver, however, feels slightly heavier and you *really* notice the kick. The same goes for the shotgun - use the alternative fire to use both barrels, and there's one hell of a kick back. It's when using these, and the automatic weapons that you realise how much the recoil affects your aim. Rather than having your crosshair drifting gently back to the centre after each shot, the Falcon is moving your hand each time the weapon kicks - you have to manually compensate for the recoil constantly, and that makes it a very different game. Now you have to fire in bursts, and become adept at controlling the constant creep of the gun as the Falcon shoves your hand along.
Then I used the Gravity Gun. This, to me, was the most impressive feature. WIth every object you pick up, you can actually feel the weight of it. Light objects have barely any effect, but if you pick up something heavy - a large rock, for example - and the Falcon pushes constantly down, requiring actual physical effort on your part to hold it steady. If you turn the forces up in the options (as I did for the demonstration video below) and pick up a heavy object, the Falcon itself starts to come off the desk before you're able to lift the object. Likewise, the recoil from firing held objects, or shoving objects with the Gravity Gun corresponds to their mass. It doesn't change the way you use the Gravity Gun, particularly, but it adds a bucket load of immersion. And before anyone says it - yes, I know it doesn't make sense. The Gravity Gun gives objects an effective mass of zero etc etc. I don't care. It's *fun*.<object ><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/0QTFiebEhBQ&hl=en&fs=1&rel=0"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/0QTFiebEhBQ&hl=en&fs=1&rel=0" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true" ></embed></object>
Playing Left 4 Dead<hr size="3" noshade color="#ED761C"></strong>For a different experience, I next tested the Falcon in Left4Dead - a game that has a lot more intense action.
One initial gripe is that, while L4D is natively supported, you have to use the commandline options in order to play with the Falcon. I only found this out after searching through Novint's forums. It would be nice if they included this information somewhere a bit more prominent.
I played through several campaigns on Advanced, with one or more human players and bots making up the numbers. The first thing I will say is that playing with the Falcon *completely* changes the playing experience. The recoil makes it very hard to keep your aim while firing - you absolutely *have* to use short bursts with the automatic weapons. On top of that, aiming is still slower than with the mouse (for me, at least - I acknowledge that I'm still yet to get fully used to using the Falcon) so it can be very difficult to quickly zero in on a target (like the Special Infected.)
For the time being, at least, I pretty much had to forget about long-range shooting. Additionally, you have to bind a key manually for the rifle zoom, either to one of the pistol grip buttons, or on the keyboard, as it's not set by default.
Where it's really different though is when you have to resort to melee combat. The recoil for a melee hit is savage, much like it is when you get hit by a zombie. So, if you get caught up in a horde, it's a hell of a lot more intense trying to melee your way out of it. It makes you that much more anxious to avoid hordes, and to avoid melee situations. With all the extra atmospheric additions (you really feel it when there's a nearby Tank, for example, and you *definitely* notice friendly fire (thanks FishBulb!)) it really adds to the immersion of the game. I will point out, though, that my gameplay stats since playing with the Falcon are significantly lower than they were previously, although they are improving on a daily basis as I get increasingly more used to the controller.<object ><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/gUN5GKoecAk&hl=en&fs=1&rel=0"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/gUN5GKoecAk&hl=en&fs=1&rel=0" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true" ></embed></object>
In Summary<hr size="3" noshade color="#ED761C"></strong>Overall, then, the Novint Falcon is an interesting device. I don't see it replacing the mouse/keyboard combination anytime soon, although Novint's recent challenges to gamers to take on and beat their Falcon-using staff may have piqued some interest. It certainly adds a new element of immersion to the games I've tried it with, and can affect the gameplay in some cases. The learning curve isn't steep, but it *will* take you a while to get to mouse-using levels of aiming.
Novint have promised support for more games - both older and upcoming titles - and more types of grip. It'll be interesting to see where it goes.
So is it a must-have? Probably not. Then is it a gimmick? I would say not. It falls somewhere between the two. If you have money, the space and the inclination, you can definitely get a lot of hours of enjoyment out of using it. One word of advice if you do take the plunge, however - find something padded and comfortable to rest your elbow on. An hour plus of using the pistol grip, and you really feel it if you don't.