The stands surrounding the track are a blur. The
joystick is pushed forward, fingers clenched, forearm muscles taut as you
try to coax more speed out of your car. A corner is approaching. You relax
the forward thrust and nudge the joystick to the left, quickly whipping
it back to center forward. The front end of the car bobs, and then settles
on an intercept course for the wall. You nudge again! The same response.
This time you hold it left until the car begins the ponderous turn. Oops!
Too much. Aghast (and probably muttering under your breath) you watch as
your vehicle slides into the infield.
Ever experienced that scenario when competing in your
favorite track racing/driving sim program? Or how about fumbling with keys
for acceleration or brakes while tapping on your keyboard’s arrow keys?
Or maybe you have used a game pad to control your vehicle. You twist and
turn in your chair, trying to will the vehicle to go beyond what your controls
are dictating. Your hands grip the pad so hard, and the constant pressure
and friction of your thumb whipping around the control circle threatens
to give you a blister.
Driving sims are a joy, encompassing the thrill of cyber
speeds most of us will never attain in real life. And yet, without the
proper controls, the games seem lacking.
Welcome to the world of the Force RS Wheel and RS Shifter
from ACT LABS. These products, most notably the Force RS Wheel, seemingly
surpass the experience offered in arcades, put the control and feel
of the courses squarely in the hands of the gamer, and provide an incredible
Force RS Wheel
The Force RS Wheel may seem a bit ungainly, especially
if you have your computer on a desk that is rather small. The main unit,
which sits on the desktop, is approximately 16-inches deep by 15-inches
wide. The steering wheel is 10.5-inches in diameter and 1.5-inches thick,
and is padded with simulated leather. There are two adjustable clamps on
the wheel which easily allow the wheel to be locked down on a desktop.
The foot pedals come on a base that is approximately 13.5-inches
wide and 11-inches deep, with plenty of room for both feet. There are four
non-skid pads on the bottom, which may work well on a bare floor, but the
footpad has a tendency to travel on carpet, especially if the player likes
to tap and stomp. That is not a problem though. The foot pedals, which
should be adjusted before any race for comfort and convenience, do stay
in place during the course of any 10-minute race.
The product comes bundled with EA’s Need For Speed Hot
Pursuit. That program is supposed to show off the force-feedback capabilities
of the wheel, but just doesn’t seem to have the graphics that would entice
players to continue to play. For testing purposes, three programs were
used — Infogrames’ Michelin Rally
Masters, a high-speed, slipping and sliding
game that would test the 280-degree turning radius of the wheel and give
the acceleration pedals a work-out; Gathering of Developers’ 4×4
a program that recognizes the RS Shifter; and Southpeak’s Breakneck, a
game featuring a wide range of vehicles and tracks, and which recognizes
force feedback wheels.
The product was tested by four game players.
In the games that did not feature force feedback in the
wheel, it was still an incredible ride. The wheel was responsive, and turned
both games from an arm-numbing experience, into a finesse driving experience.
Rather than use exaggerated movements, small movement was required to control
vehicles. Even the smallest movement translated into action within the
confines of the game. Correcting for slides was incredibly like the real
As a teen trying for a driving license, I was forced to
endure driver’s training utilizing simulators. They were nothing like this.
The interaction between the accelerator and brake, which worked mostly
like reverse thrust and would kick the vehicle into reverse after bringing
it to a complete stop, coupled with the delicate control of the wheel, made
cyber driving a pure delight.
After playing with Rally Masters and 4×4
was on to the force-feedback experience. And what an experience it was.
Breakneck features a wide range of vehicles, tracks and terrain. Each vehicle
handled differently, each track felt completely different. When the vehicle
went over cobblestones, the vibration was evident in the wheel. Rough road
felt different, as did snow, oil slicks, bumping the rails or other cars.
Each sensation was not a repeat of a previous one, but seemingly distinctive.
After hours in the saddle, there would have been a good chance, that if
driving blindfolded with the sound turned off, each condition could have
been named because of the way it felt.
Jordan, 17, a high school senior, soccer player and driver
was quite enthusiastic about the Force RS Wheel. “This is bad! It’s almost
like you’re driving a real car. With some controllers you don’t get a feel
for the game. With this you do. It feels like you’re in the arcade.”
Jessica, 12, isn’t the type of child who takes to racing
sims. She has played with keyboard controls and almost as quickly as she
tried them, she quit playing. The game pad was better, but not much. She
did linger with a joystick controller, but she lacked reason to return
to the genre.
She was coerced to get behind the wheel. After several
hours of non-stop playing, it almost took a tire iron to pry her off the
machine. During her time in-game, there were a lot of exclamations of ‘ow!’
coming from her. Why?
“Because it hurts,” she said. “It’s force feedback and
there’s a lot of jerking.”
But what did she think of the product overall? “It’s a
lot of fun. To me, it feels like I’m really driving. What I like most is
the force feedback. When you go fast, you can really feel it. I didn’t
like driving games before, but now I really like them.”
Nick, 14, liked the fact that the force feedback gave
resistance to the driving experience, and in his estimation, made the control
of the vehicle easier.
“It seemed like it helped the driving because it was so
easy to turn. When I hit the rails, I could feel that too.
The RS Shifter
The RS Shifter is an-eight slot shift stick that foregoes
the clutch, and allows for greater control of gears in games such as 4×4
Evolution. Climbing hills was much easier simply by downshifting, and running
the engine a little hotter. Programs that have fully embraced the device,
like EASports NASCAR, temper the over-revving by allowing you to blow the
engine. You can’t go 60 mph in first without consequences.
The shifter itself is set up on a bar that slides between
the bottom of the wheel housing and the desk. It is locked in place by
the clamp on the wheel housing. It comes with two extra gear plates that
will turn the eight-slot position into a six-slot and reverse, or a high-low
Anyone who has had experience with a manual transmission,
especially in a smaller vehicle, will immediately recognize the feel of
this shifter. It feels so authentic that you will be trying to depress
the clutch before shifting.
Each slot on the shifter works like a button on a game
pad, or the buttons on the wheel. Setting up the shifter is as easy as
accessing the control setups in a game, highlighting the gear shift options
and sliding the shifter into the gear you want to designate for each gear
the vehicle utilizes. This is not a force feedback device, but does provide
that extra degree of realism in driving sims.
As far as Jordan and Nick were concerned, the shifter
was something that they could do without – there was too much needed to
control the wheel during a game without worrying about shifting gears.
“For people who don’t like automatics, it’s like another
option,” Jordan said.
Nick made it very clear that he can live without a manual
transmission, not only in the world of PC gaming, but in life as well.
“It’s just too much for me to handle,” he stated.
It takes about 25-40 minutes to install the product, from
opening the box to playing your favorite racing machine. Of course, the
install time depends on whether you rip open the box, ignore the instructions
and try to fire it up as quickly as possible, or whether you take your
time, read through the simple instruction guide, make sure you’ve powered
down your computer properly, then set it all back up.
You will need a power source, a 9-pin port on your computer
and a USB port or hub.
Simply hooking the wheel up doesn’t mean it will work
in your racing sims. You still have to go to the game controllers menu
in Control Panels and add the wheel. If you are adding both the wheel and
the shifter, make sure the shifter is in neutral when you add the controller
profile. Some of the gears will activate buttons in the properties menu
of the controller and won’t allow for proper recognition of the wheel.
Overall, the process is quite easy, and doesn’t need a
degree in computer science to install.
Jordan’s comments would probably have given his parents
a heart attack. “Forget college,” he smirked, “I want one of these.”
The product is not quite that spendy. The Force RS Wheel
costs $139.99 and the RS Shifter goes for $59.99, or you can purchase the
two as a package deal for $189.99. ACT LABS does have a cheaper wheel,
but it does not feature the force-feedback technology that will have you
hanging on to the wheel for dear life.
This product does have a wide range of flexibility when
it comes to systems it can integrate with. ACT LABS also sells an engine
cartridge for Nintendo 64, Playstation and Dreamcast console systems.
The cartridge replaces the PC cartridge (a simple little pop-out – once
your depress the latch – and pop-in transaction) and then you can hook
it onto your console system. The cartridge sells for under $20, but it
should be noted that console systems will not activate the force-feedback
capabilities of the wheel.
Though I have friends who are driving fanatics, I was
never a fan of racing sims, until now. This wheel makes all the difference
in the world. Not only is the experience more real, but you can get away
with enjoying the pleasures and feel of the speed without having to worry
about the cost of repairing the damage you are bound to do to your vehicle.
When 3D cards first appeared, not many games in the ensuing
months took advantage of that technology, simply because they were in development
long before the technology was in place. In the future, more and more games
will take advantage of both the force-feedback wheel and the shifter. Those
that lack those tools or capabilities will be left sucking the exhaust
and dust of those who have the right tools for the right job. The motto
of ACT LABS is ‘everything else is just a toy.’ In this case, the line
between tool and toy is definitely blurred as it flies under your racing
machine. But whether you want to call these products tools or toys, the
end result is the same – serious fun.