Last week on the day Forza 4 came out, I was poking around in Best Buy (a favorite way to kill time on my lunch hour) and I saw this weird U-shaped contraption in the same ‘end cap’ display case as Forza: The Microsoft Wireless Speed Wheel [MWSW]. My first thought was that it was just a prop for Kinect, like the plastic Wii steering wheel that you snap the Wii Remote into. Then I saw it was $60 and figured it had to be more. I was vaguely intrigued and more so when Scott from Pumping Irony mentioned he had one pre-ordered.
This week I was back in Best Buy and now they had an Xbox station set up running the Forza 4 demo with the MWSW. I gave it a whirl and it actually felt pretty good. Much better than I thought it would. I was in need of a bit of retail therapy anyway, and the next thing you know (OK truth? I had to go to 3 stores to find it in stock. Target had it) I’m the owner of a copy of Forza 4 and the wheel.
Last night I spent a few hours driving with it, and I continue to be impressed, but let’s get the bad news out of the way first. There’re no bumper buttons and no jack for a headset. I don’t care about the latter but it was enough to cause Scott to cancel his pre-order. I do miss the buttons; they aren’t used while driving in Forza but they are used while navigating the interface. Also in other parts of the game where you’d use the right analog stick to move the camera around…you’re out of luck. The Wheel has no analog sticks.
This wouldn’t be a huge issue except that (unless I’m missing something) the Xbox 360 is stupid about having two controllers connected at the same time, without two Xbox Live accounts to go with them. Switching between Wheel and standard controller was a hassle, forcing me to constantly log in to my Xbox Live account each time I picked up the other controller. Eventually the system got so confused that the main display thought I was logged in but the pop-up ‘blade’ display [what do you call that?] thought I wasn’t.
I’m no Xbox 360 guru so if there’s a better way of handling this I’d love to hear it. I don’t mind setting down one controller and grabbing another between races if I don’t have to do all this logging in and out.
So that’s the bad stuff. The good? The wheel works really well when actually racing in Forza 4. I could hold a line nicely and my lane transitions were very smooth. At the end of each arm of the U, underneath, is a trigger. The right is for gas, the left is for brakes. There’s a D-pad on the tip of the left arm, used for shifting, and the face buttons are on the tip of the right, used for handbrake, clutch, look back and rewind. The game defaulted to a manual transition and I decided, for once, to stick with it. Shifting quickly came to feel natural; as you hold the Wheel your thumb rests easily on that D-pad.
How you hold the wheel doesn’t matter (in Forza at least). You can hold it up vertically or almost rest it horizontally in your lap. I thought my arms would get tired after a while but that wasn’t really a problem. Sometimes I’d rest the base of it on my lap while driving. You can also easily scratch your nose in the middle of a race…steering one-handed for a few seconds isn’t a problem using the wheel.
The wheel is heavier than you might expect it to be but that gives it some…inertia maybe? I think if it was any lighter you’d lose some stability. Eventually one hand started to cramp a little bit but I think that was due to my deathgrip on the thing during tense racing action.
According to the docs, the wheel can read pitch and yaw in games that require it to, so presumably it’d be a good controller in flight or space games too.
I do think Forza 4, or other games that have a simulation feel, would be a better fit than an arcade racer where you’re throwing your car violently into turns or ramming other cars off the road. The wheel feels like it’s better for finesse than for radical movements, and Forza 4 is a game of finesse. You rarely have to turn more than (total guesstimate) 20 degrees. Turning the wheel more than 90 degrees would feel really awkward.
As a test, at the end of the night I put down the wheel and picked up the controller and went back to Forza 4. Sure enough, my driving suffered. Maybe you’re better than I am, but I find in driving games my car tends to wobble a bit as I push the analog stick through the dead zone and then over-steer slightly as I leave the dead zone. I can correct of course but it doesn’t feel or look like real driving. With the wheel my replays look like there’s a person actually driving the car.
If you have a force-feedback steering wheel, I’m sure that’s going to be better than the MWSW. But for those of us without the room for a proper wheel and pedal setup, in my opinion the Microsoft Wireless Speed Wheel is a better alternative to driving with a standard controller.