Wheeling my way around a 360


— 4:08 PM on June 15, 2007

They say that the only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys, and that sounds about right to me. You see, I'm no stranger to man toys; I have no fewer than six bicycles, for example, including an obscure cyclocross variant and a "fixie" with a single gear and no ability to coast. Throw in some power tools, computer equipment, video game consoles, and a handful of gadgets, and it becomes clear that I haven't outgrown the urges that had me collecting Legos and Transformers as a kid.

I'm usually OK with my juvenile indulgences, but I can't cop to my latest toy without a twinge of embarrassment. Microsoft recently put its wireless racing wheel for the Xbox 360 on sale, and when the price dipped below $100, I started itching for a taste. Then Forza Motorsport 2 hit shelves, shattering what little remained of my resolve. So I did what any man-child would do: I spent $100 on a video game controller in what is perhaps the most ridiculous purchase I've ever made.

Dropping $100 on a video game controller is already suspect, but when you consider in the fact that it's only useful in one game genre, it starts to look particularly silly. There's commitment involved, too. Owning a video game console is one thing; they're pretty discreet, even if you leave the controllers out on the coffee table. But a racing wheel is a whole other story. There's the wheel itself, which must be secured to a table for proper driving. Then there are the pedals, which should be just the right distance from the chair. You're going to want a comfortable chair, too—something supportive, because no matter how ineffective leaning through corners may be, invisible G-forces are going to make you do it anyway.


There's no hiding this
The whole setup is too elaborate to blend unobtrusively into a living environment. There will be questions, and sooner or later you're going to have to explain the wheel to others. Perhaps even to a girl. It's only then, as you awkwardly stammer through your poorly-rehearsed justification, that you realize just how much value Microsoft has packed into its racing wheel. For $100 you not only get the wheel (and an updated version of Project Gotham 3 that's compatible with it), but also a mild form of contraception. And that gives you even more time to play with it—the wheel that is.

You're going to want to put in some serious time with the wheel, because it does take some getting used to, particularly with a realistic racing sim like Forza. But it's well worth the effort, because the two were really designed for each other; the game's remarkable physics engine perfectly exploits the wheel's ability to provide you with meaningful feedback and a real sense of control. The wheel also does a remarkable job of conveying the unique personality of each car in Forza Motorsport 2. Regardless of whether you're perfectly kissing the apex of a turn in a Lotus Exige or recklessly sliding through on a wave of oversteer in a TVR, the controls feel spot on, pulling you deeper into the game.


Forget pulling a trigger—feather the gas instead
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the wheel is how it transforms Forza into a much more engaging simulator. With the standard Xbox 360 controller, Forza still feels like a game. A realistic one, no doubt, but something about holding even a perfectly-modeled power slide by gently manipulating the thumb stick and lightly modulating the trigger leaves me feeling detached. Everything changes when I can actually feel the car pulling through the wheel as my foot feathers the gas. Then, when I nail a corner, it feels like I've driven well rather than learned to master an arbitrary controller interface.

At first, I thought the novelty would wear off. No such luck. After just a few weeks with the wheel, I'm already resigned to the fact that I'll be chasing perfection for quite some time. Forza's 300-odd cars will keep me busy for a while, and the game's expansive tuning options and multiplayer component should give gamers endless hours of distraction and entertainment. The wheel looks like it's going to last, too. Construction is surprisingly solid given the price, and although it doesn't really work well from your lap, an included clamp makes it easy to secure to a table. Indeed, my only gripe with the entire experience is that Forza's a little short on tracks. That should be easy enough to remedy, and I suspect we'll see loads of downloadable content available on Xbox Live before long. Personally, I'm holding out for a Top Gear pack that includes the show's test track and the Reasonably Priced Car.

So while I still feel a little juvenile to have spent $100 on what amounts to a niche video game controller, that's a small price to pay to have such a realistic driving simulator in my living room. Now if only I could come up with a rationale that doesn't make it sound like my pretend race car.

   
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