From the sublime to the ridiculous is this the worst official hardware downgrade ever?

I like racing games. In fact, I’ve personally spent a lot of money on making the experience of playing a racing game as close to the real thing as my budget will allow. I bought a racing seat to complement my Xbox 360 Wireless Racing Wheel and I was pretty satisfied with the set-up. Sure, it’s not quite the fabled D-Box (opens in new tab), but the MS Wireless Wheel and I were getting along just fine. But why the past tense?

Because it broke.

The damn thing has been plagued with problems ever since I bought my original set in 2007. First the AC Adaptor stopped working so I had to send off for an entire replacement wheel. Then the left paddle stopped working. I fixed that by taking it apart and cleaning the connection. Then the pedals developed a squeak louder than my TV at regular volume, which WD-40 fixed for about a day.

Finally, the face buttons on the wheel are now playing up. Sometimes they’ll be fine, sometimes they don’t work at all. Sometimes ‘A’ only works if you hold in both the paddles, and ‘downshift’ only works if you hold down both the pedals. Sometimes I can’t even switch off the console because it won’t let me select ‘Turn off’ with the A button. In layman’s terms, it’s f***ed. I’m all for ‘technical failures’ in a sim, but not when every single race is a battle between man and machine like Senna at Sao Paulo ’91. Imagine trying to keep all this in mind when you’re racing:

Above: My personal Wireless Racing Wheel has a few ‘issues’

So I called Microsoft. No, wait, that’s not true – to Microsoft’s credit, they called me within 1 minute after my request over their website. A nice Irish man named Peter helped me out. My fears over the unit itself being discontinued appear to be allayed. “Yes, Mr Towell, we can get that fixed for you. Just let me put you on hold a minute while I ask our tech team”. I love the Irish accent so all is going well. And then the bombshell.

“I’m sorry, Mr Towell, but that steering wheel has been discontinued so we can’t repair it any longer. I recommend you either look on eBay for one or buy the Xbox 360 Speed Wheel – I’ve got one myself and they’re amazing. I can’t put it down”.

Above: See? The answer is simple. It’s the new official Xbox 360 wheel

What are you meant to say to that? My Force Feedback wheel cost me £80 and now it can’t be repaired? I consider asking whether they could try anyway as I’ll be reviewing F1 2012 soon for GamesRadar, but then I think to myself: “No. If I can’t get a wireless MS wheel, then there’s no point reviewing the game on it because nobody else can either”. So I did what any self-respecting journo would do. I took the advice and bought a Speed Wheel. It’s a hand-held motion controller that you wave about in the air and costs £45. Here it is:

Above: I know it’s not meant to attach to your chin, it’s just the camera perspective

I load up Sega Rally Online Arcade and discover it’s impossible to play with manual gears because the device literally doesn’t have LB/RB. They’re just not there. The game won’t let you reconfigure the buttons, so that’s that. In fairness, the official Xbox site (opens in new tab) does warn you that the wheel “Does not contain shoulder buttons which may limit functionality in some games”, but I have to say, not being able to change gear in a racing game is a pretty big problem. Imagine not being able to reload at will in CoD – it’s like that.

Missing functionality aside, I actually quite like the analogue acceleration and braking triggers for your index fingers to squeeze, as they’re solid and responsive, with plenty of play for gradual feeding in of power. But why not add in paddle shift levers too? For that matter, why not bung in some wireless pedals? Even digital ‘go’ and ‘stop’ buttons to place under your feet like that awful old Mega Drive pedal set (opens in new tab) would be better than nothing.

Let’s get serious

I tentatively load up F1 2011, and it’s heart-breaking. Gone is my lovely force feedback and pedals, replaced with flickering green lights on the top of the Speed Wheel. Going from lock to lock requires ludicrous free-hand twisting of the device, unless you change the advanced control settings, which allows for small movements to turn the car. In fairness, the analogue steering sensor is precise and responsive. But even though I’m getting around the track, I feel like a tool. I feel like I did when I played Kinect Joy Ride.

Above: That’s not me, it’s Matt and Dave. But they’re playing Kinect Joy Ride and look suitably perplexed for illustrative purposes

I find it very strange that the Speed Wheel even exists. Surely Kinect should be enough to allow casual gamers to wave their hands around in the air in make-believe steering wheel gestures. The Speed Wheel is essentially a heavier version of the Wii Wheel that comes with Mario Kart Wii (opens in new tab). And that’s just a Wii Remote in a plastic shell, hardly masquerading as a serious option for racing fans.

I look from my new purchase to my malfunctioning but essentially loveable Force Feedback wheel. Maybe I should buy a Madcatz wheel – I used one at Gamescom and it was excellent. But the only one my local GameStation can get in costs £179.99. At this stage in Xbox 360’s life, dropping that much money on a peripheral that isn’t guaranteed to work with next-gen would be madness. Same goes for any of the other officially-licensed wheels (opens in new tab) made by third-parties, all of which cost more than the Speed Wheel and most still lack force feedback.

Above: The MadCatz Force Feedback wheel is great but pricey

That’s when I start to count up how much my set-up has cost me. My 1080p TV, the racing seat, the Xbox 360 itself, the now mostly-broken Wireless Race Wheel… that’s about over £1000 over six years. And I still can’t play F1 properly (camera cuts to single tear rolling down my cheek). Now I have to make the choice – either Xbox 360 F1 2011 and second-guess what’s going to happen when I press a button, or I switch to the Logitech-controlled but visually sketchy PS3 version – and give up my season 3 game save.

I thought gaming had grown up to the point where it wasn’t seen as a child’s plaything. So I can’t understand why Microsoft’s first-party, flagship steering wheel should be outright replaced with something so toy-like. Was it getting returned for repair too often? I sincerely hope the PS3 version of F1 2012 is up to scratch (so I can use my Logitech wheel), or I’m literally going to buy a PC. True fact. Knowing how great GRID 2 looks on a PC, it’s a very tempting prospect.

One final ‘true fact’ – my Speed Wheel is going back to the shop. To be blunt, I’d rather use a joypad. So I’ll sit in my racing seat and play F1 with a joypad.

What a truly sorry state of affairs that is.

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.

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