I’ve often been frustrated with racing games on the Xbox 360. The console itself is not the problem; it has the processing and graphics power to provide a platform for the same simulation grade racing titles found on the much more expensive PC platform, without all of the commensurate hassles of keeping a PC clean and virus-free. The problem for me has always been the dearth of good steering wheels for the Xbox. Without a good steering wheel, I believed, even the best implemented racing game was going to be at a severe disadvantage when compared to a PC equivalent due to the need to use the standard Xbox controller and its thumb sticks. Without a basis of comparison, though, it was a tough theory to prove, although repeated racing incidents with ham-handed drivers using Xbox controllers on the PC for use in iRacing did nothing to dissuade my belief that the Xbox controller and meaningful simulated racing were a match made in hell.
I was recently offered the opportunity to test my theory when I was asked to take a look at the MacCatz Wireless Force Feedback Steering Wheel for the Xbox 360. With a few hundred virtual laps using this wheel now under my belt, I am able to provide a definitive answer to the question of whether or not a better controller will have a salutary effect on lap times: it depends. Hmm, not quite as definitive as one might have hoped, right? Well, the problem is that it all comes down to how any given title was developed. As a stark comparison, consider that a test session with Need For Speed: Shift 2 Unleashed was every bit the exercise in abject frustration that it had been with the standard Xbox controller. On the other hand, F1 2011 as driven with the MadCatz wheel was orders of magnitude better than it had been with the standard controller, albeit after some fine tuning in the relatively robust controller configuration screen.
Assembly and configuration of the wheel and pedals was quite simple, although opting to use the included lap pads rather than the desk clamp does require the use of a screwdriver. Once that is done, it is simply a matter of plugging in the AC adapter, plugging the pedal unit into the back of the steering wheel base, and pressing a couple of buttons to make the wireless connection with the Xbox. A third wire can be plugged into the base to provide a connector for a headset. Close inspection of the connection panel shows a little screwed in door, behind which is hidden a mini-USB connection, presumably for future console development or for firmware updates.
Once a connection is established with the Xbox, the buttons located in the hub of the steering wheel provide all of the controls needed to navigate through the Xbox menus and launch an appropriate game.The ABXY buttons and the D-pad buttons all fall naturally under your thumbs, and the metal shifter paddles mounted behind the wheel are right where your fingers expect to find them. The control buttons have a nice solid feel to them, but the shifter paddles lack the ‘click’ that one would prefer for a satisfying tactile feel. The toggle shifter mounted on the right side (it can easily be moved to the left side for those international types accustomed to driving on the wrong side of the road) of the wheel base shares that trait. While it works fine in operation, it just doesn’t feel imbued with a sense of high end quality. Micro switches aren’t free, of course, but when talking about a $250 unit it seems fair to expect a more solid feeling.
Aside from the lack of clicks on the shifting controls, the rest of the wheel has a solid feel to it. There are rubber grip areas at the standard 3:00 and 9:00 positions that offer a non-slip, positive grip area for those white knuckle moments and the lap pads, combined with the weight of the unit, give as solid a feel as possible without resorting to the desk clamp. Unfortunately shifting between the lap pads and the desk clamp is somewhat burdensome due to the need to first unscrew the lap pads, but it’s also not something the typical user will be required to do all that often.
In operation, the steering forces are about what one would expect from a small-ish force feedback wheel. The MadCatz wheel will never be mistaken for a Logitech G27 or a Thrustmaster wheel, but nor is it simply a ‘rumble’ feedback kind of thing. For games that are developed to provide true physics-based force feedback, the MadCatz wheel faithfully reproduces the feelings of rolling over a curb or hitting bumps in the track. It is easy to overpower the force feedback, given the small size of the motor, but the subtle driver will still benefit from the enhanced feeling of the racing surface and the reactions of the car. The motor can be somewhat loud when making the rapid wheel movements required to recover from an incipient spin, but it is not overly distracting, particularly if the wife isn’t home and the game volume is cranked up to manly levels.
Just as important to good racing performance as the wheel itself are the brake and accelerator pedals. In the case of this MadCatz outfit, the pedal unit seems to be something of an afterthought. The entire pedal unit is plastic, it is difficult to position the pedals at a comfortable angle, and the resistance to foot pressure on the pedals is almost non-existent. A light pressure on the accelerator pedal isn’t all that bad, but the brake pedal is a completely different prospect. Consider the effort that goes into aftermarket brake pedal springs for higher end units like the Logitech G-xx wheels, for example. The default brake feel on those units is pretty good, but there are still those that want to improve it. With too light of a resistance, it takes conscious effort to avoid locking up the wheels under braking, and with an uncomfortable pedal angle to begin with, this situation simply begs for either leg cramps or unfortunate racing incidents.
Considering the price point of this controller, which is arguably at the high end of what console users are willing to pay, the improvements over using the standard controller or a non-force feedback wheel are significant, but perhaps not significant enough to justify the expense. On the other hand, MadCatz has provided a product that occupies a heretofore wide open niche in the Xbox controller market. It does many things well enough, but there are certainly areas that could be improved. In its current state, it is unlikely that the availability of this wheel will convince many PC users that it is time to shift to the console titles, but for those that are already on the Xbox platform and are looking for a means to achieve a better racing experience without incurring the costs and hassles of moving to a PC, this wheel is a good start.