miniblue2.gif (10698 bytes)
Review

Assassin 3D Game Controller - First-Person Gaming, Inc.
Reviewed by Jason "loonyboi" Bergman

"It's a trackball," he said, "you're the Trackman."

As if all trackballs were created equal.


The Assassin 3D

July 13, 1997

Ah, the trackball. Surely the king of all computer-related input devices. I have always been a fan of the trackball. I can't help but picture that first true genius who discovered that turning a mouse upside down produced a more accurate device. And more accurate it is. Sure, mouse users outnumber us trackball people, but once you go 'ball, you never go back.

There have been big trackballs, little trackballs, and grotesquely large trackballs over the years (that big goofy Microsoft monstrosity gives me nightmares). But for me, none ever compared to the Logitech Trackman Marble. Yes, the Trackman. Sleek, with a nice compact red orb on the side, covered with tiny little black dots. From the first time my hand slid around its curves, I knew I was destined to spent many hours of fragging while in absolute comfort.


Logitech's Trackman Marble
After a few days of experimenting with the Trackman, I realized that its unique shape actually allowed me to play Quake with one hand. Even better than that, that hand didn't even have to move. All movement was controlled via the thumb and fingers, while the hand sat in pure ecstasy. Admittedly, this didn't improve my Quake game much, and made me the butt of several "thumb" jokes, but hey, I liked it. I used to love to scoff at other people with their mouse and keyboard combo, as I sipped on a soft drink while blowing myself away. Surely, this was heaven.

One evening, a strange man (whose name shall remain unspoken) asked me to review the Assassin 3D for his tiny little unheard of web site.

"It's a trackball," he said, "you're the Trackman."

As if all trackballs were created equal.

Trackballs, for those with their heads buried in the land of the two-button mouse, are not all the same. You see, several years of using the Trackman Marble have me somewhat...hostile towards other input devices (with the exception of my Wacom Tablet). After all, the Trackman is the lazy-man's mouse. And I, lest there be doubt, am a lazy man.

Cautiously, I accepted this large orb, and set about to install it on my system. I moved aside my Trackman (with extreme care, lest I offend the holy 'ball) and plugged the Assassin into my computer. It requires a gameport, which is both a benefit, and a crutch. A benefit, because it makes setup much easier, and a crutch because those of us who own (and love, mind you) gamepads will have to disconnect them when using the Assassin, as only some joysticks can utilize the Assassin's Y-Cable. As I looked over the documentation for the Assassin, I discovered something quite disheartening. The Assassin is intended for use with two hands. There simply isn't any way around it. You have the choice of either a joystick (such as the Wingman, or Sidewinder) or the keyboard, but there simply isn't a way to effectively set up the Assassin for one-handed gaming.

As I began plotting out my configuration, I saw my cup of coffee frowning at me. Gone were the days of playing Quake while elegantly sipping from my Alice in Wonderland mug. Quietly fragging while engaged in a teleconference would require one of those "hands-free" telephones. I was going to have to give up my choice of Quake-lifestyle and move to this wired looking monstrosity. Worst of all, I would have to use the keyboard.

I have nothing against the keyboard as a concept. I have spent many hours typing away weird and strange reviews much like this one using the keyboard, but as a gaming device its usefulness has long passed. As I pondered this awful turn of events, I realized that this would mean I would have to learn to strafe.

With visions of carpal-tunnel syndrome in my mind, I set the odd shaped ball up, and contemplated my config file. While the Assassin features three buttons, one of them is rendered essentially useless by its position immediately below the ball itself. If you plan on leaving your hand in a semi-comfortable position, then this means forcing your thumb to swing back and forth between two buttons. Not a good place for a fire button, certainly not for a jump (I'm no rocket jumper, but I do appreciate the ability to jump like a madman for no apparent reason). Bearing this in mind, I configured this irritatingly placed button to the "switch weapon" command. Useful, but not entirely necessary. The right and left buttons I set to fire, and jump, respectively.

"Trackballs, for those with their heads buried in the
land of the two-button mouse, are not all the same."

And so, I launched into a game of Quake. At first, I found myself walking into walls and lava even more than normal (thank god I wasn't playing multiplayer...someone would have thought me insane. Or at least more so than normal). Of course, this may have been due more to not fully understanding the strafe command (hey, some of us are new to this thing!) than the Assassin. Once I got the hang of keyboard movement (or at least a decent grasp of it) I started to attempt to play against some actual monsters.

Jumping from a tiny thing like the Trackman to anything is a bit of a task, but moving the ball from the thumb to the center is like learning to walk all over again. The ball itself seems created entirely for gaming. When moving the ball, resistance is felt when moving outside the natural X and Z coordinates. This helps immensely when trying to turn while staying level, but at the same time makes it much more difficult to use as a non-gaming device. Whereas with the Trackman I could give my ball a serious flip and turn 180 degrees, I found myself using less force with the Assassin.

The Assassin comes with an optional handrest, which while made of plastic, is quite effective. Again, proper use of the handrest means sacrificing a button, but it is a price I am more than willing to pay for comfort. One of the nicest things about the Assassin, are the ridiculously large buttons. Obviously put in for the gamer, these feature the added novelty of being able to get a really good "wack" into them when firing. Coming directly from the whisper-soft Trackman to this device of audible destruction was hard to get used to, but a nice touch in the end.

As I played Quake for my allotted ten minutes of the week, I came to a terrifying conclusion. I enjoyed playing with this weird-monstrosity of a trackball. My thumb, which had been downgraded from central-movement appendage to simply trigger finger seemed to be having a fine old time pounding at the giant happy buttons. Strangest of all, was that I wasn't playing half-badly either. Granted, I still blew myself up more than anyone else, but I managed to keep my score happily around the 0 to -1 range. For me, this is quite an accomplishment.

My ten minutes up, I exited Quake, with a bit of a confused feeling. What would this mean for me? Could I go back to the smaller Trackman marble after playing with this larger, more masterful 'ball? More importantly, how does the Assassin fare as a mouse?

The true test of the Assassin came there. As a mouse, the Assassin performs fairly well. Not perfect, but fairly well. The major problem comes from the fact that it uses the Gameport, and not a com port. As a result, when the computer becomes especially loaded down memory wise, the Assassin will begin to stop functioning for a few seconds. This is not a good thing. Just for the heck of it during one of these "stutters" I reached over and tried my Trackman (sadly cold, from lack of use over the last hour or so) and sure enough, it still functioned perfectly.

Also, the large ball, which would make it ideal for extremely precise movements in Photoshop, or CAD programs, is somewhat burdened by the tension settings off the X and Y axis. It's not extreme, but when you're trying to make a single pixel change in an image, that tiny bit of tension makes a world of a difference.

So what did I do in the end? Well, to be honest that bit of tension did disturb me, as I don't have the time to play as much Quake as I'd like to, so I need a very precise mouse. However, the added benefits I discovered in Quake (that bottom button, however misplaced can be quite useful) were enough to make me leave it plugged in (although whenever a Bomberman challenge comes up, it's getting ripped out in favor of that gamepad). And the Trackman Marble? I'm still using it, as a mouse. No more silly thumb jokes kids, you're going to have to find somebody else to make fun of.


When he isn't trackballing around Quake levels
and keeping the SurfWatch people on their toes,
loonyboi is maintainer of QuakeLab:MultiMedia,
and the web's first Trespasser site, Keep Out!