Microsoft Wireless Speed Wheel Review
In my Forza Motorsport 4 review, I might have said some mean things about Microsoft's latest peripheral, the Wireless Speed Wheel. Sure, it's better than a gamepad, but it's pretty expensive at sixty bucks, and I felt that, despite my limited time to play with it, this new accessory didn't do enough to reproduce the feel of driving to be worth it.
Going into this review, I still felt the same, but after getting sick of dragging out the force feedback wheel and having to repeatedly bring out a table into the middle of the living room to mount the thing on, I decided to give this new contraption a more serious look. So I spent $60, took it home, and fired up Forza 4.
The Wireless Speed Wheel is a U-shaped device with a directional pad on the left, face buttons on the right, and triggers on the underside right where you'd expect them. Back, Start, and Guide buttons reside on the center piece that sticks up, and the device takes two AA batteries (only - the battery packs you use in 360 controllers won't work here) and uses that juice to deliver some subtle rumble effects are included while you're driving. Steering your vehicle is achieved by holding the controller in the air and turning it like you did when you'd pretend to drive around as a kid: by holding the wheel up, optionally making "vroom vroom" sounds, and twisting it in the air. (Microsoft says that the the motion sensors in this controller do sense all degrees of movement for the games that support them, but everything I played only used a single turning axis.)
The first thing you'll likely notice when starting a race is that the Wireless Speed Wheel has very accurate tracking, which you can easily see in any racing game's cockpit view. Of course, we're not talking about the two-and-a-half turns you get out of a consumer car's wheel, and instead you get just over 180 degrees of usable turning axis - like you would in a real life Formula One or high-end supercar - and that's also what you get out of Microsoft's own Force Feedback wheel. It's hard to make comparisons to a bolted-down wheel that costs double the price (and isn't even available in stores anymore), but at least compared to a standard gamepad, using this hand-held wheel in racing games was a pleasure and it offered much more nuance in the steering - even in full simulation modes in the games that had those settings. I'm not saying you'll immediately improve on your gamepad-controlled lap times, especially if you've got a lot of hours in with the analog stick for steering, but I do think it's likely for you to get better lap times eventually.
The gas and brake are applied with the triggers, and if you're trying to eke out the absolute most in-game credits, you can also set up manual shifting that's probably best set to use the up and down arrows on the d-pad. Manual with Clutch mode is available just like on a gamepad, with a face button probably being the easiest choice for engaging the clutch. Note that there are no bumpers on this controller at all, and I think that's actually a pretty serious design flaw, especially since there are functions in Forza 4's menus that are accessible only by hitting those bumpers. If you're a casual racing fan, this is fine, but if you go into storefronts, tune cars, or make frequent use of the online and community-oriented features this game has, then this is not a good choice. (It's also a pain in F1 2011.)
"OK", you say, "well what if I just switch to a gamepad during the time I spend in the menus?" Sure, champ, but Forza 4 won't let two controllers navigate the menus; every time you want to switch, you have to hold the Guide button, turn off the controller, then turn on a 360 controller, make your selections, then reverse the process to get your shiny new device running in the next race. What's worst about this is that Microsoft could have just added a couple of small buttons somewhere on the backside of this controller so at least the game that they themselves publish works fully with the only new peripheral they were releasing this fall, but they didn't. And developers Turn 10 Studios could've issued a patch by now to reassign the bumpers' menu functions to some other buttons, but that didn't happen either. It makes no sense.
But in some ways, the whole device seems to make little sense when you think about what else you could have gotten for the money. Sure, now you can play Forza 4 with a little more legitimacy than a controller, or maybe as a second player in split-screen mode while someone else get to use the real wheel. Additionally, you won't have to keep putting away a wired-up steering controller (and table or wheelstand) when you're having company over.
But even with those considerations, this sturdy-looking but rather costly little device still does not even remotely reproducing the feeling of driving. The rumble motor doesn't feel half as realistic as that slight jolt when the force feedback bites back at you a bit. You also the subtlety of pedals for gas and brake over finger-driven triggers. And for that matter, the simple feel of a steering wheel that's actually attached to something solid is rather important, and that's lost here as well. One thing I do not question is this controller's reliability - I have 360 controllers that are six years old and still work like they did on day one, unlike the consoles they came bundled with - but the price tag is steep, and the lack of bumper buttons means that you can't even use this thing for every function in the one game it was clearly designed to work with best.
Maybe I'm just bitter that Microsoft discontinued the Force Feedback wheel, which was priced very reasonably at $100, in favor of selling this; maybe I want to feel more like I'm driving a car than I am playing a cartoony Wii racing game; maybe I just feel like I paid too much for an accurate, but feature-poor device that only works on racing games. But at this point, I think I'm returning mine, mostly because the feel of racing turned out to be worth the effort to set up a more dedicated device, even if I'm only going to race for an hour. Your mileage may vary, but if you want to race for real in Forza 4 and still be able to afford rent, get on the secondary market and track down a Microsoft Force Feedback wheel in good shape. It turns out that the prices on even used hardware have now been inflated even beyond their original new-in-box retail price (which is a good indicator that Microsoft made a mistake in discontinuing them), but it beats spending the $300+ you'd need for a Fanatec setup and you'll feel like you got more of your money's worth than you will from the Wireless Speed, er, "Wheel".