For quite awhile now, I’ve been telling anyone that would listen (a rapidly dwindling group, as you can imagine) that the only real difference between commonly available 3D games, available on both the venerable PC and the new-fangled consoles, and video arcades such as Dave & Busters is the quality of the input devices. High resolution graphics being pumped to your retinas at substantial frame rates? Got that at home, thanks. Multiple monitors? Well, I don’t have that, but I could if I could find a way to convince the CFO that such capability is both desirable and necessary. Multi-player battles, races, whatever? Yep, no problem. Force feedback steering, three pedal control, six-speed gated shifter? Well, not so much. Until now, that is.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve gone through any number of force feedback (FF) steering wheels on my PC. I’ve worn out the best of them. The closest I ever got to a full driving experience was with the Act Labs Force RS system with the optional pedals and shifter, but it too eventually stopped working, as did Act Labs itself as it ultimately turned out. My most recent wheel was the excellent Logitech Momo Force. Electronically, it held up well; it was a physical failure of the plastic case that sent the Momo to its final resting place atop the mountain of defunct controllers that I’ve created down in my basement.
I was gathering my pennies in hopes of buying a replacement for the Momo when I was offered the opportunity to try out Logitech’s new G25 FF wheel. Was I enthusiastic about that offer? Well, let’s just say that no one had to swing by the house and twist my arm to convince me to give it a spin. In fact, the days spent waiting for the new wheel, shifter, and pedals to arrive were reminiscent of those weeks of counting down the days until Xmas back in my younger days. Or course, with no electricity or indoor plumbing back then, and my 15 mile walk to school everyday (up hill BOTH ways!), I was…. oops, drifted off into old-fart speak there for a second. The (heavy!!) box finally arrived, and I enthusiastically ripped into it.
What greeted me when I finally removed enough packaging material to get a look at the new wheel and accessories was a beautifully designed, aesthetically pleasing, and robust set of controls that would most certainly have been right at home attached to a game at the arcade. The stitched leather on the wheel and shifter knob, the brushed stainless steel of the clutch, brake, and throttle pedals and shifter paddles on the wheel, and the overall heft of the components all indicated a high degree of quality design and construction. Given the street price of nearly $300 for the G25, this was most certainly a gratifying feeling!
Having been without a steering wheel for a number of weeks, I was anxious to get the G25 plugged in and working. Fortunately, it was a simple matter to install the drivers from the included CD-ROM and plug in the components. As with the Momo before it, the pedal unit plugs into the back of the wheel, and the USB cord from the wheel plugs into the PC. There is also a power supply to supplement the little bit of power available from the USB port – the two force feedback motors would surely draw a lot more juice than provided through the USB port! New to the G25 from the Momo is, of course, the addition of a clutch pedal, resulting in a three-pedal floor unit which also plugs into the base of the wheel unit. Once electrically configured, I had to attach the units to physically to my desktop, which in the past has been the cause of quite a bit of consternation. This is the area that caused the massive case failure on my Momo, and I was hoping that the attachment clamping mechanism of the G25 was more suited to my desk that the Momo had been. Happily, the answer is “yes.” The clamps on the G25 look very similar to those of the Momo, but they are different enough in some subtle way that they nicely fit my desk and provide a very solid hold. The clamps on the shifter unit worked equally well, so it was off to the races!
I wanted to get as broad of a test as possible, ranging across the entire spectrum of motor racing (well, at least the portion of the spectrum available on my PC), but since I had to start somewhere I chose the amazingly awesome GTR2. The configuration inside of GTR2 was very simple, and not much different from the previous configuration efforts undergone back in the days of my Momo, with the only new wrinkles being the clutch pedal and the gated shifter. The clutch was easy, but the shifter brought to light one little problem: each of the seven gear positions (first through sixth, plus reverse) have a microswitch inside of the shifter, so they are easily assigned. There is no physical switch related to neutral, however, so there is no way to get it out of gear once it’s in. That’s not a big deal since the racing games I have typically handle the clutch for you during gear changes, and in the event of a stop or spin I’m on the clutch pedal right away anyway.
No, where the clutch became a problem was in the first fast turn I hit, and I do mean hit! I came blazing down the track in full-tilt boogie mode, deftly applied pressure to what my kart racing trained left foot thought was the brake pedal, and made a nice impression on the retaining wall. My left foot, you see, was still on the clutch, not the brake. Had I learned to race in a real car rather than a kart, I would probably be a right-foot braker and wouldn’t have had that problem. As it is, I ended up trying to use my left foot for both clutch and brake, with mixed results. Mixed results aren’t really what you’re after in racing, where consistency is rewarded. Assuming, that is, that you’re consistently good; being consistently bad isn’t rewarded quite as much. The biggest problem with left foot braking was how close the brake pedal is to the throttle pedal on the G25.
In any event, it was clear to me that I would have to re-learn how to brake so as to free my left foot from the responsibility it so clearly coveted, and bring the right foot into play. My choice for this was rFactor. One of my favorite factors in rFactor (sorry, couldn’t resist that, although I clearly should have) is the low-end cars that are most comparable to the entry level open wheel cars in SCCA racing. These cars have gated shifters, little or no aerodynamic devices, and somewhat rational levels of horsepower; they’re a perfect training grounds for a guy just learning how to deal with 50% more pedals and a more complicated shifting pattern. After a few laps, things began to improve and it wasn’t long before I was braking with my right foot while clutching with my left, working my way down through the gears as I slowed for the turn. This, then, must be how busy a driver’s feet are in one of those cars: very busy. As I got used to it, though, it started to feel more natural.
After exposure to GTR2 and rFactor, I was wholly impressed with the feel of the G25. I had two more tests to get through, though, so it was too early to call this thing a winner. I had to try Nascar SimRacing and F1 Challenge ’99-’02. With my recent experience in stirring the gears around through their gates, Nascar SimRacing was the obvious next choice. I’ve always struggled with Nascar – I can turn in solo laps easily enough, but when I have to drive side-by-side for any length of time, it’s not really a matter of ‘if’ I will cause a wreck, it’s really just a matter of “when.” The problem always seemed to be the result of over-controlling with the steering wheel. With the G25’s 900 degrees of rotational freedom, though, I thought it just possible that I’d be able to slow down the wheel enough to allow me that gigantic sawing motion you see on the in-car shots. It looks like they’re making massive steering inputs, but they have the steering geared such that the input that eventually makes it to the wheels is minute, despite the energetic and dramatic inputs from the driver. I will take this opportunity to point out that simply because something can be done, it’s not necessarily the case that something should be done. In other, less-lofty words, 900 degrees was way too much. After a few adjustments I did manage to find a sweet spot, though, and before you know it I was flying through the turns at Daytona swinging that wheel back and forth like a chain-ganger cutting weeds with a scythe. The car was rock solid, each impending sway towards the wall or an equally hard opponent easily caught without lapsing into a driver-induced oscillation from the hyper-sensitivity of the wheel. Shifting was much less of a factor, of course, since I was on oval tracks. The clutch was used almost primarily for starting and stopping in the pits. And since stock cars are at least reminiscent of street cars, right foot braking felt much more normal.
Having had such a positive experience with the three games I had tested with, it was a bit of a surprise to be disappointed with the G25 in F1 Championship. It took me awhile to figure out what was bothering me. The paddle shifters were great, and even though I was back to left foot braking, it seemed to be working out ok. I finally realized that the problem was with the center zone on the force feedback: there was a ‘gap’ in the middle where the wheel was responsive, but there was no centering force. This caused a lot of over-controlling and the type of swerving on the straights that is normally associated with Floridian Blue-Hairs driving home from the 3:30 seating at the Early Bird Buffet. Please note, however, that this is more than likely the fault of the aging game than it is the fault of the G25. I had no similar problems in any of the other games.
So, at long last, here are my impressions. First, anyone that has previously used a Logitech FF wheel will remember the notchy, gritty feeling of the steering. This is presumably a side effect of the type of motor used to provide the FF effects. People typically attribute this trait to “gears” in the drive mechanism, but to me it feels more like the gaps in the armature of a DC motor. Either way, it existed in the Momo wheel, and it is still present, albeit at a slightly reduced amount, in the G25. At first it feels like someone put aquarium gravel in the steering rack & pinion setup (or whatever the equivalent is in the motor racing world), but eventually you stop noticing it.
Second, the force feedback effects are very strong. A bounce against a retaining wall at Talladega caused, as one would expect, a commensurate torque on the wheel, the strength of which was quite surprising. Probably due more to liability concerns (heh!) than the unavailability of stronger motors, you don’t have to respond to an imminent impromptu meeting with concrete or brick by releasing the wheel to avoid breaking your wrists in the manner of an Indycar driver, but you will for sure know that you hit something! That said, the feeling through the wheel is still subtle enough to impart critical information concerning the current adhesion of your tires as you scream through turns at the very outside limits of your car’s capabilities.
Third, the resistance of the pedals varies by function, with the throttle being the lightest and the brakes being the heaviest. While I still race barefoot to get a better feel for the pedals, I’m not convinced it is a requirement anymore. The braking resistance is substantial, so it takes a pretty heft shove to get the tires locked up. Given the undesirable state and loss of control due to locked up, skidding tires, this is a good thing.
Finally, the shifter is solid and reliable, causing very few missed shifts, but it’s a tad noisy. If you’re like me and only get time on the PC when the progeny are finally safely tucked away in bed, you will find yourself reluctant to use the gated shifter. The paddles are much, much quieter, and while we love our children as only parents can, we also tend to resent their continued over-the-shoulder-what-are-you-doing-Daddy presence post-9:30 as, well, only parents can. Anything that could potentially wake them from their parent-friendly slumber is strictly verboten.
In summary, I expected a lot from the G25 given its price point of nearly three times that of my trusty, loyal Momo, and I feel that the G25 delivered on that expectation. The improvements over the already more-than-adequate Momo are felt clearly through the entire G25 driving experience, and the high-quality materials and construction of the G25 demonstrate the pride Logitech rightfully takes in their line of Force Feedback Wheels. I’m giving the G25 the same score that I would give my Momo, not as a reflection of identical quality, but as a reflection of quality commensurate with price. Thanks, Logitech, for another reason to spend those quiet hours after the child is in bed glued to the PC!
If you are serious about PC racing games, you owe it to yourself to take a long, hard look at the G25. It may or may not improve your lap times, but it will definitely make your races feel far more realistic.