Product Review: Microsoft Wireless Speed Wheel
November 10, 2011, Author: Andy Corrigan
It’s funny; when Mario Kart Wii was announced, complete with motion control and a free plastic wheel, I felt a little insulted. I mean, sure, turning the pad is a decent concept, but did we really need the gimmicky wheel along with it? I recently reacquired a Wii, packed with Mario Kart, and after trying the wheel for myself, I have to admit… it kinda worked. Where trying to steer with just the pad left me feeling detached with chaotic results, the wheel helped it all fall into place, with gameplay feeling smoother and more enjoyable.
On the other side of the fence, Microsoft have obviously realised that not everyone wants to use Kinect for steering, or has the room for the big-ass official force-feedback wheel. Not ones for being left out, they’ve released the Speed Wheel controller for those of us who sit between both of those options. Fresh from my positive experience with Mario Kart, I was eager to see how it worked, and picked one up bundled with Forza 4 at a bargain price.
Still, I couldn’t shake that feeling that this kind of thing is fine for the Mario Karts of the world (light and breezy racers that are more about combat than the actual racing), but it couldn’t possibly work just as well with a serious racer, could it?
Better, in fact, but you might still want to keep that controller handy…
Opening the box, it’s instantly apparent how well made and robust the Speed Wheel is. From the original images provided, it was easy to liken it to a double-ended dildo; however, like a lot of Microsoft’s first party hardware, it’s sleek and stylish, has a nice weight to it and fits lovely in your hands (just like a double-ended dildo then, fnar fnar!).
Now, there have been some casualties in terms of the functionality. There are no analogue sticks, meaning that you have to navigate with the d-pad; nor are there bumper buttons. There is no way to power the controller using a recharge kit, meaning you’ll be buying batteries, or at best a set of rechargeable AAs, and there is no port to plug in a headset, leaving you mute should you want to play online.
The omission that caused me the most problems, surprisingly, was the lack of bumpers, as FORZA 4 requires these to navigate the menus to its fullest. Considering that the controller was designed with FORZA in mind, it’s a little bit ridiculous to see them left out. Still, you can get through the Career mode easily enough; you just can’t use the messaging functionality or some other menus to their fullest. My advice? Load the game, do all the tinkering you need to with a normal pad, then switch over to the wheel when you’re ready to commit to doing race after race.
When you’re actually in a race, it works flawlessly. The 1:1 motion sensing and the weighty feel that I mentioned above goes some way into giving you full control over the car, though the realistic weighting of the cars in FORZA helps too. Honestly, because it feels so well centred in your hands, you can feel when you’ve hit the sweet-spot to take the corners perfectly, and satisfying it is too. The rumble feature is subtle; so much so that you’ll often forget its there until you have a bump, but it does just enough to reinforce what’s happening to you in the game. Just be warned if you’re a manual transmission driver; the lack of bumpers or paddles will mean that you’ll need to remap the buttons before you can manually shift. A pain, but not wholly a tragedy.
The ends of the controller have little green lights that indicate when you’ve pressed either button, though at times they seem to have a mind of their own, to the point where I wasn’t always sure what they were indicating. Probably an unnecessary addition, but it looks nice when they’re both lit.
I also tested the wheel with some older games, namely Race Driver: GRID, and DiRT 3 with decent results. A word of caution, though. The weighting of the cars in GRID, as with most of Codies’ racers is pretty non-existent, and coming to it from FORZA is tough. GRID requires so much finesse to power your way around corners, that the slightest oversteer will see you off; however, the wheel did seem to be quite good when it came to power-sliding. That said, I’m sure that if you’re a seasoned racer or are going into the game without having sampled a more thoughtful game first, then you’ll be fine. DiRT 3 fared a lot better in this respect, and I found myself instantly able to adjust, so it’ll just boil down to how quickly you can be versatile between games, but I certainly feel it was better suited to FORZA Motorsport.
Not only does the Speed Wheel work with older games, it works with the oldest games, as Outrun: Online Arcade worked perfectly with it, as did the recent re-release of Daytona USA. Both were more enjoyable with the wheel than without, and helped bring back some of those old arcade memories.
Now, being a non-driver, when FORZA 2 released I had an experimental phase with the official Force Feedback Wheel, which always got the better of me. My lap times suffered in transition from a standard gamepad and I would get easily frustrated as the slightest error in judgement would simply end my race. As a result, I just did not have an enjoyable experience when it came to using it.
To my credit, I stuck with it for a good month before giving up, but I must admit that I put this failure down to my lack of experience behind a real wheel; having all those limbs working independently was not something I was used to. Here with the Speed Wheel and everything in one space between my hands, my lap times remained as good as ever, and my patience was not tested once. Yet, I felt like I still had a more interactive and authentic racing experience.
With that, I think I’ve just summed up the type of person for whom this wheel is best suited. It’s a great entry-to-mid level race controller that will suit those looking for a more hands-on experience with their driving, but aren’t quite disciplined enough to handle a full racing rig.
If that sounds like you, then you should certainly look at giving this a try; just be aware of the cut-backs before you do, as they can put a dampener on the bits that come in-between the actual racing.