“Christmas is a time when Ars people get toys. January is a time when they review them.” Thus tweeteth Deputy Editor Jon Stokes, and right he is. Under the tree this year (well, on the UPS truck) was a new steering wheel for my Xbox 360. Not just any wheel, but a (deep breath) Fanatec Porsche Turbo S steering wheel and Clubsport pedal setup, available directly from the manufacturer for the princely sum of $499.95. Yes, that’s a lot of money, but as we’ll see, you get quite a lot in return, and you could spend quite a lot less on the standard edition and still have what’s probably the best driving wheel peripheral on the market right now. Compared to the Microsoft Wireless Racing Wheel, the Porsche-licensed peripheral is a massive leap forward for Xbox gamers, and the ability to use the rig with a PS3 and the forthcoming Gran Turismo 5 should put it high on any racing nut’s wish list.
Video games used to be simple. Your NES came with a rectangular joypad that was all you needed to steer Mario from one end of the screen to the other, down pipes, up vines—and you’d get a nice dose of sore thumbs as an added bonus. Soon, the four points of the compass weren’t enough, and neither were A and B alone. We got shoulder buttons, analog sticks, and a proliferation of buttons to twitch, mash, and press in order to get to the end of the level and trigger that little flush of dopamine that’s the gamers’ equivalent of one of those chicken-flavoured cat treats that I reward my pets with when they’ve been especially adorable.
The standard game controller might be fine for some folks, but thankfully for the gaming peripheral manufacturers of this world, lots of us demand more faithful ways of interacting with our virtual pastimes. Different genres obviously have their own peripherals, from arcade sticks to musical instruments to the reason I’m writing this and (hopefully) the reason you’re still reading: steering wheels for driving games.
For a while, Microsoft has had a fairly good steering wheel available for the Xbox 360, which is a good thing since almost no one else has been able to offer one. Microsoft chose to use a different standard for the 360, so wheels that work fine on PCs and PlayStations have been useless on Redmond’s console, much to the chagrin of Logitech wheel owners. Their G25 and more recent G27 wheels have been the gold standard for driving sim players, but there’s a new player in town called Fanatec, and if you’re looking for a wheel that will work with both Xbox 360 and PS3, look no further.
I first became aware of this German company in the middle of 2008. They were already offering PC wheels, helped along with a license from Porsche. The wheels were replicas of those found in Carreras or GT3s, but what got my wallet out back then was the answer to every couchlocked racer’s dreams, the RennSport wheel stand ($129.95). Named after Porsche’s legendary series of stripped-down road monsters, this is a folding wheel stand that comes with a wife acceptance factor that’s several orders of magnitude higher than anything you could build for yourself out of shipping palettes or MDF. But more about the wheel stand later. Back to the main event.
Word on the street was that Fanatec was releasing a wheel that would work with the Xbox 360. So what, you ask. Microsoft makes a pretty good wheel that works brilliantly with the 360. But couple that news with finding out that for the first time, a console racing game would support the use of a clutch pedal as well as an accelerator and brake, and now you have something interesting on your hands. Not only that, but a proper H-pattern gearbox like you’d find in your average car. The game of course is Forza Motorsport 3, already covered on these pages at launch, and a mighty fine game it is. But here we are, 500 words in, and still I’ve told you nothing about it. What a poor reviewer I am.
Off to the races
The Fanatec Porsche Turbo S Wheel, to give it it’s full name, comes in three flavors. The Pure edition (the cheapest version at $249.95, sans pedals or shifter set), the regular edition ($349.95), which comes with a three pedal set, a sequential shifter, and an H-pattern shifter, along with an RF dongle that looks like the key to a 911 and lets you use the wheel with a PC or PS3, and finally the Clubsport package (now sold out, unfortunately), which is all of the above, but instead of the base pedal set you get Fanatec’s hefty Clubsport pedals ($199.95 on their own), which wouldn’t look out of place in an actual track-going 911 GT3 RSR racecar.
These superduper pedals (which are available separately and will work with just about any other wheel in conjunction with a PC) use contactless sensors and are light years ahead of the plastic ones that come with the Microsoft wheel we know and love. The brake pedal comes with a pair of very nifty features: a load cell sensor that allows you to vary the amount of pressure needed to reach full activation (i.e. how hard you have to press it to get 100%) and in conjunction with the wheel, force feedback that pulses the pedal at the point that the wheels are locked up, in the same way your car’s ABS behaves (yes, it still does this when you race with ABS turned off, which is a good thing as we shall see).