By Jason "loonyboi" Bergman
hen it comes to PC controllers, you pretty much have to specialize. Unlike console systems, where the standard pack-in gamepad works with everything, when purchasing a controller for your computer, you really have to take into consideration just how many games you'll want to use with this. Flight sticks are great for flying games, but absolutely useless in racing or platform titles…gamepads are cool for platform and racing games, but simply annoying in flight sims. And then there's steering wheels, which well…are made for racing games…and only racing games. Using them with anything else may entertain your guests…but it’s not really a serious way to play non-racing titles.
You'd think the specialized nature of steering wheels would have made them go the way of the dodo, but in fact, it turns out they're quite popular with racing fans. After playing a few games with the Wingman Formula Force, it's not especially difficult to see why. If you've ever played a racing game with a gamepad, I urge you to try it with a steering wheel. The difference is really night and day….and I can't imagine how I survived for so long without one.
First things first here…let's talk about the name of the steering wheel in question. The "Wingman Formula Force" it's called, and that "force" bit comes from the fact that it's a force feedback wheel. The part that baffles me, is the "wingman" part. I can get down with the whole "better business through branding" schtick as much as the next guy…but jeez…what's going on there? The name seems to imply that it's part of Logitech's "Wingman" line of controllers, but they're all flight stick style controllers, and this is a big ol' wheel. Am I supposed to be using this in Falcon 4.0? (I tried it, by the way…I wouldn't recommend it. It's very odd.) Maybe it's just me…but I found that a bit on the strange side. But hey…I'm a loon…what do I know.
Regardless (or perhaps in spite) of its name, the Wingman Formula Force is a steering wheel. Installation was pretty simple…the WFF comes with the option of either connecting via the USB or serial port, and both are extremely simple to use. A nice side note here, by the way…if you've already got a Logitech joystick installed, there's no additional software to install (assuming you've got the latest version). Just plug it in, restart the computer (if you're using the serial version, that is…if it's USB it's hot-pluggable) and you're ready to race. You can even have two Logitech joysticks plugged in simultaneously, and the taskbar app lets you choose with a simple right click which you'd like to set as default. You can even set up "profiles" for each game that will switch them on launch. Of course, this only works with Logitech controllers…it didn't seem to like my Microsoft Force Feedback Pro stick very much…I had to disconnect it when I wanted to use that stick.
The wheel is fairly large 23 inches wide and 13 inches long, so you'll need to clear a few things off your desk before you plug this in. Actually, I had a small problem there, as there isn't much room on my desk (the scanner, keyboard, mouse, ZIP drive, CDs, ashtray, and lord only knows what else sort of take up all the space) so I had to actually take my keyboard and place it next to the computer (or on top of the monitor) whenever I wanted to use it. The wheel has a pair of clamps to hook it onto your desk, and being 13 inches long, the thing just barely fit on my desk without hitting my monitor. Each time I use it it's a bit of a production…but that's my fault, not Logitech's. :)
The pedals are pretty beefy as well at 14 inches long, but those go on the floor, so I didn't have such a hard time hooking those up. The pedals are pretty swanky looking, with some coolbeans treads on the base, and little circles on the pedals themselves, which are supposed to give them the feel of a real race car. I guess that's pretty much lost on me, since I've never actually been inside one of those, but I appreciate the sentiment. What I didn't like about the pedals, is that while they look really cool, and I would imagine feel just like the real thing when you're wearing shoes, they just feel a bit awkward when you're sitting at your desk with just socks on. The little circles don't stand out enough to make it painful or anything, but it does feel a bit funky. And while I like racing games as much as the nice guy, I'm not going to get all dressed up for them or anything. :)
For gear shifting there isn't a dedicated pedal, but the wheel has two, "European style paddle shifters." Essentially these are flat panels that can be pulled not unlike the washer fluid control in any real car. They can be assigned just like any other button, and since I tend to use an automatic transmission in most games, I played around with a few different configurations, and I found myself really digging these things. They're very ergonomic…they're right in front of your hand, so it's not as difficult to use these as it is with the ordinary buttons. Perhaps difficult is the wrong word, since it's not exactly hard to reach the buttons (four of which are positioned around the center of the wheel) but the thumb on either hand is necessary to control them, and I found it much easier to simply keep both thumbs on the wheel at all times, and activate the paddles with my pinky. Either way, these are pretty cool little things, and a nice addition to the wheel.
As far as force feedback goes, the Wingman Formula Force handles it extremely well. Like Logitech's other force feedback offering, this uses their cable-based system for incorporating feedback, and like the Wingman Force flight stick, the results are extremely impressive. Unlike the clunky nature of many force feedback controllers that use gears to deliver blunt jolts and the like, the Formula Force uses its cables to deliver much more subtle responses. In Need for Speed 3 I found the feedback when driving over wooden bridges especially realistic, and it's really this sort of thing that's the true test of any force feedback controller. Anything can jolt when you hit a wall…it takes some real finesse to convince me I'm driving on gravel. While Force Feedback is still young, the Wingman Formula Force is probably the best I've used yet in this regard.
The Formula Force is a digital controller, which means that when you turn the wheel to the right, it sends the "right" command to your computer. Press the accelerate pedal, and it sends, "up". Turn the wheel left, and it sends "left". This is different from analog controllers, where turning it to the right will send first, "barely right" followed by, "almost right" and "right" and eventually "really right". Analog controllers offer a greater level of control, and they're just starting to make a splash on the PC. There isn't a seriously dramatic difference in racing games, but there is a difference. I'd suggest trying an analog wheel before plunking down the $200 for the Logitech Formula Force. If you're really anal about your racing games, you might find the digital controls detrimental to your gaming experience.
The wheel ships with Motorhead, which is one of those games that uses so much hardware, you'd swear it was written just for OEM sales. It's basically a Wipeout clone with no weapons and better AI, and while it's a decent game and a good way of showing off the hardware, it's no classic. It also ships with Ubi-Soft's F1 Racing, which is pretty much your generic F1 game. Nothing new to be found there. Disappointing as the included software might be, anyone who's going to be buying a $200 steering wheel obviously owns a few kickass racing games, or at least won't mind the extra $50 it will cost to get one.
I'm a huge fan of Need for Speed 3, so after uninstalling the pack in software, I immediately hopped right onto NFS3's kickass highways. And I tell ya, I'll never suffer with a gamepad in a driving game again. As I sat there, totally immersed in the driving experience, it occurred to me. My PC is better than an arcade with this thing. Think about it. I'm sitting there, with my force feedback steering wheel, playing Need for Speed 3 in 1024x768 off my SLI Voodoo 2 cards, opera blaring out of my speakers (hey, some people race to techno, I choose Puccini…got a problem with that?). The force feedback might not be completely realistic, but it is just about as good as you're likely to find in any arcade…and the graphics certainly can't be beat.
Is that enough to justify laying out $200 for a steering wheel? Well, that depends on you, really. If you're into racing games, and I mean really into racing games, then you're just going to die when you try this. Its force feedback is the best you're going to find anywhere, and while the wheel itself might not be analog, it is exceptional. If you're only a casual driver, then this probably isn't for you…but I'd suggest finding a friend with one of these so you can try it from time to time…it can be a ton of fun.
Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some cops to outrun.
- Jason "loonyboi" Bergman didn't get drunk tonight. Whee!
|Credits: Geek Toys logo illustrated and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. This edition of Geek Toysf is © 1998 Jason Bergman. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is a majorly hostile gesture.|