Driving games are a very popular genre in gaming and cover everything from sim racers to Hollywood-ispired arcade racers. While console controllers are decent enough, we all know that they pale in comparison to a good racing wheel, preferably attached to a racing seat.
Not everyone has the space, or the money for a racing wheel setup, so Microsoft think that you should use one of these instead. Are they onto something?
First things first, the Microsoft Wireless Speed Wheel will be selling locally for around R500, which is obviously significantly less than what you pay for a racing wheel. The wheel itself is basically a U-shaped controller with built in X-axis tilt sensors. Thinking that this is nothing but an Xbox 360 version of the Mario Kart wheel would be a big mistake though. The unit is incredibly solid and I was really surprised at how good it felt once it was in my hands, not to mention that it has a really decent weight to it as well. The controller uses two normal AA batteries that slip in the bottom and while they have lasted for hours and hours, you would maybe want to look into some rechargeables if you are going to be playing daily.
Where the controller is lacking however, is in the buttons department. The controller comes with a directional pad, your four standard face buttons, two triggers and then the start, back and guide buttons. If you didn’t notice, that means that the controller doesn’t actually have bumpers or thumbstick inputs at all.
This confusing decision from Microsoft has probably kept the costs low but at what expense? Consoles are usually easy to develop for because developers know that every controller is going to come with a set layout of buttons and triggers, so it becomes a bit of an issue when the controller doesn’t have some of those. Concerned that some games would actually be unplayable due to the lack of controls, I tested a variety of driving games ranging from Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit to Codemasters’ DiRT 3, Forza Motorsport 4 and even the Need for Speed: The Run demo.
I found that most games were playable but mostly required quite a bit of layout customization. Hardly ideal and in most cases I actually had to trade in the ability to do something, for something else, like not having being able to swap between car views on the fly in exchange for being able to look backwards. If however, you happen to play a game that doesn’t allow for custom controller layouts, I can’t be sure that it will work out.
Ironically, the game that I had most of the issues with is in fact Forza Motorsport 4, which can be bought bundled together with the wheel. It’s not the actual driving experience that’s the problem, it’s the menus. Due to Forza’s use of the RB and LB buttons to navigate certain screens like your messages, storefronts and searches, you can’t actually navigate them properly without having to switch off the wheel and switch on your normal controller. The same issue applies to the photo mode, which requires both thumbsticks. I can understand the lack of thumbsticks but really see no reason why two tiny little ‘bumper’ buttons couldn’t have been included around the back of the wheel.
All of this is a bit of a shame really because once you actually get down to using the wheel, you want to forget all of its shortcomings.
When playing games that require precision like Forza Motorsport 4, the wheel is just infinitely better than using a standard controller. Not only that… but it’s a lot more fun as well. The precision offered by the wheel is fantastic, the movements in the game are incredibly smooth and the the sensitivity means that you can dial your car into a corner to clip the apex perfectly every time. In a game like Forza that actually notifies you when you have taken a corner perfectly, I heard the little full-rating blip popping up way more often from the time that I switched over to the wheel.
The triggers at the back of the wheel, used for accelerating and braking, have also had their range increased considerably. What this means is that you can be that much more sensitive with braking and accelerating as you have so much more play from depressed to fully pressed in. This obviously brings in large advantages when you need to carefully power out of a corner with tail-happy rear wheel drive beast.
When it comes to other games like DiRT 3 and Need for Speed, precision takes a backseat to throwing your wheel around and while you will no longer need the precise movements that Forza needs, it really is a whole lot more fun when done with the wheel.
If you are worried about holding a wheel out in front of you for longer than 30 seconds, then fear not as it is merely a misconception brought about by terrible images of people playing Joyride on the Kinect. When you play with the Wireless Speed Wheel, you will find that you can very comfortably sit forward on your couch, resting your forearms on your knees, allowing the wheel to hang between. From there you are able to do all of the major steering using nothing but your wrists and I was easily able to put in hours of gameplay in one sitting without any problems.
For it’s price and for what it offers to driving fans who don’t have the space or money for a wheel, the Microsoft Speed Wheel is a fantastic option. It’s a real pity about the lack of certain buttons though and it’s a problem that will range from game to game.
I can’t say that I can see myself ever going back to Forza without it if I have the choice and for that price, it’s a nice addition despite its flaws although those who only play one racer a year can probably happily give it a skip.
Edit: A commenter below pointed out that the review forgets to mention that there is no microphone jack for the Xbox 360 wired headset, which is in fact completely true. When testing the wheel I used a wireless headset and had no issues as a result. If however, you are looking to play multiplayer but do not have a wireless headset, you won’t be able to chat with your friends while you play. Another strange design choice, considering that it came from Microsoft themselves.
- Precise handling
- Longer range on triggers
- Fun to use
- Great build quality
- Nice weight
- Lacks RB, LB and Thumbstick inputs
- Possible issues with certain games depending on button layout
- No microphone jack for Xbox 360 wired headset
- Uses normal batteries as opposed to rechargeable pack
Final Score: 8.5/10
Last Updated: October 26, 2011