Are Force Feedback Wheels and Racing Seats Really Worth It?

 

Everyone should have the experience of driving a sports car down winding roads at least once in their lives. At their best, they are the pinnacle of engineering. A combination of form and function.. Over time, they become an extension of oneself as control becomes effortless between driver and machine.

It’s been a while since having that unique sensation this experience presents.. the pull of the wheel through a tight turn at high-speed, the slip of it on a long drift or even the whirring rumble of a down-shift while taking on that tight hairpin turn. After all, these days my entry into the experience involves gaming with the likes of the Forza series in my living room. But let’s be honest, using a gamepad to control a on-screen representation of a sports-car while sitting on one’s couch doesn’t quite live up to the real experience. It can, at times give you a rush as you out maneuver an opponent right before a finish or cut a turn in just the right way to advance yourself past them. That being said, a console representation is as close as some might get and that’s still fun but in a simpler form. So knowing the limitations of my current setup I wasn’t too keen on trying to recapture those days via a living room conduit. That realization lead me to the inevitable conclusion that I also should not buy a force-feedback steering wheel, let alone a racing seat for which to pop the steering wheel atop of.

After all, I thought – nothing would recapture the feel of driving a sports car except for an actual sports car.
It happened then, by pure happenstance I had won a MadCatz force-feedback wheel for my Xbox One late last year. A completely random event that I was happy to accept and try out. Without a proper table to attach it to in the living-room the wheel was difficult to manage and not an optimal experience. So, with my notion of racing deflated by a jumpy, out-of-control wheel I sadly retired it until such a time as I could decide what to do with it.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago and again by happenstance the opportunity presented itself to try a racing seat. This was the perfect time to truly test that steering wheel. I resigned myself to the fact that if the wheel didn’t work with a seat designed for it ..well, then there was no hope. I would just sell it. So, I brought the wheel out of retirement and assembled the seat. This time I would use the TV downstairs as there was plenty of room for the seat and there was an Xbox One already down there.. perfection!

The Openwheeler Advanced Racing Seat came packed well enough to survive shipping. It’s instructions were mostly images with one or two sentences per image to guide you along, enough to get the job done. Of course you would want to adjust settings for wheel distance, pedal distance, and seat angle. That’s a pretty easy affair with just some minor screw adjustments. Once complete and mounted it was time to race. I have to admit though, at that moment I was hesitant – partially because of the disastrous results of the steering wheel’s first outting and partially because if this set up didn’t work as expected it was time to give up on it entirely.

So, with slight trepidation I sat down and started Forza 5, selecting a custom race – Alpine track and the car style of choice would be – Indy. I then select ‘Start’ and after a brief loading screen I’m at the starting line with a bunch of other Indy cars idling. I can feel my car’s engine revving through the steering wheel’s force feedback and being in a driving seat really helps hammer the point home. Then something happens I wasn’t really expecting, Deja-Vu. I couldn’t figure out why but for a second I thought “maybe it’s the way the seat is positioned? After all it’s low and angled like it was in my sports car in relation to the wheel.. just like back in the day.” The sound of the other car engines now roaring around me refocus my attention on the screen which has already begun counting down the start of the race. “3…2…1..” and all hell broke loose. For the first time in a long time I could feel the rumble on the wheel as I rev the engine while I step on the gas pedal. Muscle memory comes back as I launch off the starting line. I approach the first tight corner and on reflex I down-shift as I begin to take the turn.. but this time unlike a gamepad the wheel is giving me precise feedback. I feel it stutter as I ease off the pedal and the TV speakers give me the acoustic cues of the downshift that I was accustomed to hearing in my car. Halfway through I punch the throttle pedal back down to power through and ease off of the wheel while shifting into a higher gear. I think – my god, I’ve become the racing equivalent of Pavlov’s dog as muscle memory is just taking over and getting me around the first few cars with no effort. I can feel the pull of the steering wheel tighten up coming out of the turn as it’s simulating the g-force against the car. Too much acceleration and now I’m moving into the shoulder. The wheel now at a lighter rumble as I edge into the marbles, I quickly course correct and am back on path.

I finish the race in 2nd and am surprised at what just transpired – an actual simulation of racing with G-forces and wheel tension related to the course and what was transpiring throughout. Suffice to say, that was more than I ever expected from a game on a console. Back I went for another round, and another, It was like giving matches to a pyro.

After thinking it over I thought of only three main questions one would have for me about the experience:

  1. Is it just like being in the real thing?
    Not quite, but it’s close enough that it can offer a palatable experience of realistic driving in the most exotic of cars on world-renowned tracks. It does resurface the old racing memories but you’d had to have experience those to begin with in order to appreciate that feeling.
  2. Should you go out and spend the your hard-earned cash on a wheel and a driving seat for a simulation?
    As with anything, that depends. I think that if you had at some point driven a sports car then you absolutely should as you would recognize just how much a simulation of the real experience this is.
  3. What if I haven’t driven a sports car?
    Put it on your bucket list and if you can afford it, buy the chair and steering wheel. It blows the doors off of gamepad racing.

See you at the races!

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