Nobody has ever watched a car race without secretly thinking they could do a better job, indeed most young men tend to imitate the greats of motorsport with reckless abandon on our public roads without the need for any encouragement whatsoever. The need for talent, however, is slightly more important if you want to experience your third decade of breathing, and now thanks to the Futuretronics Wireless Racing Wheel you can practise the most idiotic of racing manoeuvres in the relative safety of your own home. You won't even trip over the cord.
Futuretronics is an Australian outfit who market a wide range of gaming peripherals over here in New Zealand. If you're after an Xbox or PlayStation controller, chances are they'll have something to suit. They've even been around since 1979, which is probably longer than you have. The Wireless Racing Wheel we've been given to evaluate has around the same retail price as a large tank of high-octane petrol, so it's really the perfect entry-level wheel if you're after a basic simulation experience. The package contains the wheel, two foot pedals, the remote wireless receiver, installation manual and driver disk, and is compatible with the PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 and PC up to a range of 10 metres.
The wheel is secured to your desk by means of seven relatively hefty suction cups. For the most part, these work well, but you would be wise to prepare your desk surface if you're using the wheel for prolonged periods. Likewise, the floor pedals have basic Velcro-style grips to prevent them from sliding around the show, but again in practise you'll probably want to lever them up against another surface for extra stability.
The wheel requires four AA batteries (not supplied) which are inserted in compartments on each side of the wheel, adjacent to the on/off switch. At this point the first annoyance becomes apparent - having the on/off switch at the base of the wheel requires you to physically unstick the wheel from the surface of the desk to activate it. Fortunately the wheel does go into a standby mode when not used for a bit, so this is probably something you'll only encounter when you're initially setting the wheel up, or packing it away at the end of the day.
As for the wheel itself - it's really quite well constructed. The surface is finished with a leather feel, and the small diameter gives a quick steering lock (ninety degrees left and right). Each thumb is provided with four buttons, along with gear paddles behind the wheel, and a sequential shifter to the right of the wheel. The chrome-styled centre boss is furnished with six additional buttons, along with the select, start and mode controls, so there is a huge amount of customisation that can be applied to suit whatever game you want to play.
TOCA 3 was first on our list. It detected the wheel as soon as the game started, and allowed configuration of the wheel controls immediately. After selecting the go-kart challenge, it became obvious that a lot of practise was going to be necessary to approximate the time you'd normally get just using the keys. The real problem with all wheels is that they can't switch between full and opposite lock at the same speed made possible by simply using keys, so attempting to use a wheel for example with Trackmania: Nations would be extremely difficult. The very thing that makes keys so appealing is actually detrimental on the likes of TOCA 3, because having instant lock left or right depending on what key you press is not exactly how a car is designed to be controlled. Neither is having the choice between no throttle, full throttle or full brakes.
After getting used to a slightly vague feeling at centre, and after about ten laps, things started to get decidedly easier, doubly so when perfecting gradual throttle control around corners. By sometime about the twentieth lap, it really felt like I could keep up with the sort of times I could set with the keys, but more importantly it had dawned on me that using the wheel and foot pedals was actually more fun. There's nothing quite like hitting the apex of the corner, dipping one wheel on the grass and having the force feedback rumble for a second as you scream past the opposition.
Taking time out to test the analogue nature of the wheel, a spot of circuit racing was in order. First time on the dirt oval, I happily trounced all opposition without any effort - this is where the wheel really shines, as you get to tell it exactly what level of steering lock is required to establish a drift, and keep it there. Coupled with the analogue throttle, you can push a vehicle to the limit and leave it going sideways with virtually no effort at all.
Moving on to Test Drive Unlimited, the vague feeling at centre became slightly more irritating, as the car tends to track over bumps in the road that don't exist on racing simulators. Try to compensate for this ends up in wild fish-tailing sessions that seem to go on for hundreds of metres. Not always desirable, despite being hugely comical. Practise is the key here, just don't assume you'll be a better player simply because you have a controller.
The Futuretronics Wireless Racing Wheel isn't pitched at the type of person who would actually use a driving simulator to improve their own knowledge of a track, it's a fun, easy to use and well priced accessory that looks good on your coffee table, and is challenging enough so that you'll actually want to take time out to perfect your skills. If you're in the market for a wheel and you've never really used one before, this is a great place to start.