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From the sublime to the ridiculous – is this the worst official hardware downgrade ever?

I like racing games. In fact, I've personally spent a lot of money on making the experience of playing a racing game as close to the real thing as my budget will allow. I bought a racing seat to complement my Xbox 360 Wireless Racing Wheel and I was pretty satisfied with the set-up. Sure, it's not quite the fabled D-Box, but the MS Wireless Wheel and I were getting along just fine. But why the past tense?

Because it broke.

The damn thing has been plagued with problems ever since I bought my original set in 2007. First the AC Adaptor stopped working so I had to send off for an entire replacement wheel. Then the left paddle stopped working. I fixed that by taking it apart and cleaning the connection. Then the pedals developed a squeak louder than my TV at regular volume, which WD-40 fixed for about a day.

Finally, the face buttons on the wheel are now playing up. Sometimes they'll be fine, sometimes they don't work at all. Sometimes 'A' only works if you hold in both the paddles, and 'downshift' only works if you hold down both the pedals. Sometimes I can't even switch off the console because it won't let me select 'Turn off' with the A button. In layman's terms, it's f***ed. I'm all for 'technical failures' in a sim, but not when every single race is a battle between man and machine like Senna at Sao Paulo '91. Imagine trying to keep all this in mind when you're racing:

Above: My personal Wireless Racing Wheel has a few 'issues'

So I called Microsoft. No, wait, that's not true – to Microsoft's credit, they called me within 1 minute after my request over their website. A nice Irish man named Peter helped me out. My fears over the unit itself being discontinued appear to be allayed. "Yes, Mr Towell, we can get that fixed for you. Just let me put you on hold a minute while I ask our tech team". I love the Irish accent so all is going well. And then the bombshell.

"I'm sorry, Mr Towell, but that steering wheel has been discontinued so we can't repair it any longer. I recommend you either look on eBay for one or buy the Xbox 360 Speed Wheel – I've got one myself and they're amazing. I can't put it down".

Above: See? The answer is simple. It's the new official Xbox 360 wheel

What are you meant to say to that? My Force Feedback wheel cost me £80 and now it can't be repaired? I consider asking whether they could try anyway as I'll be reviewing F1 2012 soon for GamesRadar, but then I think to myself: "No. If I can't get a wireless MS wheel, then there's no point reviewing the game on it because nobody else can either". So I did what any self-respecting journo would do. I took the advice and bought a Speed Wheel. It's a hand-held motion controller that you wave about in the air and costs £45. Here it is:

Above: I know it's not meant to attach to your chin, it's just the camera perspective

I load up Sega Rally Online Arcade and discover it's impossible to play with manual gears because the device literally doesn't have LB/RB. They're just not there. The game won't let you reconfigure the buttons, so that's that. In fairness, the official Xbox site does warn you that the wheel "Does not contain shoulder buttons which may limit functionality in some games", but I have to say, not being able to change gear in a racing game is a pretty big problem. Imagine not being able to reload at will in CoD - it's like that.

Missing functionality aside, I actually quite like the analogue acceleration and braking triggers for your index fingers to squeeze, as they're solid and responsive, with plenty of play for gradual feeding in of power. But why not add in paddle shift levers too? For that matter, why not bung in some wireless pedals? Even digital 'go' and 'stop' buttons to place under your feet like that awful old Mega Drive pedal set would be better than nothing.

Let's get serious

I tentatively load up F1 2011, and it's heart-breaking. Gone is my lovely force feedback and pedals, replaced with flickering green lights on the top of the Speed Wheel. Going from lock to lock requires ludicrous free-hand twisting of the device, unless you change the advanced control settings, which allows for small movements to turn the car. In fairness, the analogue steering sensor is precise and responsive. But even though I'm getting around the track, I feel like a tool. I feel like I did when I played Kinect Joy Ride.

Above: That's not me, it's Matt and Dave. But they're playing Kinect Joy Ride and look suitably perplexed for illustrative purposes

I find it very strange that the Speed Wheel even exists. Surely Kinect should be enough to allow casual gamers to wave their hands around in the air in make-believe steering wheel gestures. The Speed Wheel is essentially a heavier version of the Wii Wheel that comes with Mario Kart Wii. And that's just a Wii Remote in a plastic shell, hardly masquerading as a serious option for racing fans.

I look from my new purchase to my malfunctioning but essentially loveable Force Feedback wheel. Maybe I should buy a Madcatz wheel - I used one at Gamescom and it was excellent. But the only one my local GameStation can get in costs £179.99. At this stage in Xbox 360's life, dropping that much money on a peripheral that isn't guaranteed to work with next-gen would be madness. Same goes for any of the other officially-licensed wheels made by third-parties, all of which cost more than the Speed Wheel and most still lack force feedback.

Above: The MadCatz Force Feedback wheel is great but pricey

That's when I start to count up how much my set-up has cost me. My 1080p TV, the racing seat, the Xbox 360 itself, the now mostly-broken Wireless Race Wheel… that's about over £1000 over six years. And I still can't play F1 properly (camera cuts to single tear rolling down my cheek). Now I have to make the choice - either Xbox 360 F1 2011 and second-guess what's going to happen when I press a button, or I switch to the Logitech-controlled but visually sketchy PS3 version - and give up my season 3 game save.

I thought gaming had grown up to the point where it wasn't seen as a child's plaything. So I can't understand why Microsoft's first-party, flagship steering wheel should be outright replaced with something so toy-like. Was it getting returned for repair too often? I sincerely hope the PS3 version of F1 2012 is up to scratch (so I can use my Logitech wheel), or I'm literally going to buy a PC. True fact. Knowing how great GRID 2 looks on a PC, it's a very tempting prospect.

One final 'true fact' - my Speed Wheel is going back to the shop. To be blunt, I'd rather use a joypad. So I'll sit in my racing seat and play F1 with a joypad. 

What a truly sorry state of affairs that is.

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.

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25 comments

  • dane-roberts - October 3, 2012 4:16 p.m.

    Buy a PC and Get This http://www.overclockers.co.uk/showproduct.php?prodid=GC-028-TH&groupid=702&catid=288&subcat=353
  • morbiusdog - October 3, 2012 5:33 a.m.

    There's at least 4 on UK ebay at the moment, just buy one of those! BTW, how does someone with your wealth of gaming knowledge get conned into paying £45 for the wireless horseshoe?? I got one from Gamestation(R.I.P) for £36 brand new (only used it about twice in 12 months though!)
  • sec713 - September 20, 2012 8:27 p.m.

    Dude this whole ordeal is really depressing. My deepest sympathies. Whenever I first saw the speed wheel, I thought it was a stupid idea. I tried playing Mario Kart on the Wii with their motion control and wheel attachment and I hated it. I could forgive them because Mario Kart is far from a real driving game. XBox on the other hand has big boy racing games that require things like shifting gears, and turning precision. I hate the idea of the wheel not being mounted to some kind of fixed surface. When I'm driving my car in real life I can't hold the wheel up, down, out the window or whatever... basically my gripe is having to hold a wheel out in midair causes unexpected turns when your arms droop or you sneeze or something. At least when you sneeze with a stationary wheel, you can let go of it for a second instead of completely wrecking your vehicle. This speed wheel is stupid.
  • Godzillarex - September 14, 2012 10:43 a.m.

    Dude, hope you find a suitable replacement soon. I feel your pain.
  • OldRustyDusty - September 5, 2012 12:34 p.m.

    Hey guys, I ran into similar issues a year ago with the official 360 wheel failing, and all sorts of things going wrong with it. I'd recommend staying away from the MadCatz stuff as it's pretty mediocre quality and overpriced. For a little more you can get a nice Fanatec set that supports PS3, PC and X360. I've had my Fantec wheel for a little over a year with no problems, and the build quality and force feedback is eons ahead of the official MS wheel. It's really the only option now if you want a decent 360 racing wheel.
  • sleepyMexican45 - September 5, 2012 11:10 a.m.

    I think the worst think about the speed wheel is that theres not resistance in the steering (and it must really hurt your arms after about 5 mins).
  • archnite - September 4, 2012 10:11 p.m.

    I liked that silly U shaped thing, but Im not a big racing fan. Sucks that Microsoft is dicking you gearheads over. Hope you can find sollus come where Justin.
  • RadgarLaser2 - September 4, 2012 9:56 p.m.

    Wow, wtf, they are not supporting the old wheel anymore. I knew when they wanted me to air drive like an idiot with the Kinect it was going downhill from there. I guess if you want a real driving experience I will have to go to the PS3 and PC.
  • lazer59882 - September 4, 2012 3:17 p.m.

    please, stop the fucking "joypad" shit. it's a fucking controller, not some kind of weird sex toy/tampon device.
  • Scoob - September 4, 2012 8:35 p.m.

    Joystick and Joypad are what they were called for as long as I can remember (which would have been as far back as Atari/Celeco /TRS-80 days). I don't recall when they started getting called controllers in manuals and such anymore though.
  • lazer59882 - September 4, 2012 9:23 p.m.

    joystick makes sense, as a joystick is a joystick. everyone knows what that is. i'm about 90% sure i remember the original NES manual referring to the controller as a controller, and not that joypad bullshit. for real, it just sounds stupid as fuck and is descriptive of nothing.
  • Dredger25 - September 21, 2012 9:15 p.m.

    So, i thought about being rude since you roid raged over termonology, but i will just explain it instead. Think of a modem, a combination of the terms modulator and demodulator. Now think back to atari's joystick. Now look again, sorry meant think... Onwards to nintendo's controller pad, as it was originally termed. Now take a joystick, slap it onto a controller pad, shorten the name for relevance of the device and viola - joypad.
  • Kingsandy - September 4, 2012 2:39 p.m.

    I don't play racing games, I never have. I do however feel your pain. It is an important point to highlight that, as gamers, we do not want everything to be wireless, motion controlled and minimalist. Gaming may be escapist pursuit in some respects (very much a sweeping statement, I know) but 'haptic feedback', especially at its most basic level is important to us. It doesn't make us feel part of reality, but part of the game space the designers have created, It allows us to access the diegesis of the game-world. In interresting article, and I'm glad it got me thinking. Was this an article about the downgrading of tech or someones personal experiences? I don't know, but it felt important. Thanks
  • Whit - September 4, 2012 2:28 p.m.

    PC racing is the only way to go. Not sure how iracing has fared over the years, but when I was into racing, it was tough to beat the multiplayer.
  • Grif - September 4, 2012 1:43 p.m.

    I'd sell mine to you if you were in the US. That really sucks man.
  • talleyXIV - September 4, 2012 1:18 p.m.

    That looks like a piece of exercise equipment. "I love mine, I can't put it down!" Hopefully the guy on the phone wasn't lying and he accidentally glued it to his hand.
  • Groocifer - September 4, 2012 1:10 p.m.

    Easy solution. Just do what I used to in the arcades when I'd run out of ten pees... Run the demo mode whilst concentrating really hard on steering in time with the on screen (computer controlled) action. That way, the fact that your wheel is broken doesn't matter. You could even use a dinner plate instead.
  • radiodeaf - September 4, 2012 10:27 a.m.

    force feed back is a must...and is that thing ugly or what? speed wheel?!!? burn it, don't send back for someone else to purchase. suck it up, take the hit in the pocket, and tell everyone never purchase.
  • Y2Ken - September 4, 2012 10:16 a.m.

    I just don't understand how they can think this is a solution to anyone but the most casual player. And a casual player is probably perfectly happy to play their Xbox racers with a standard controller. People who are investing in a racing wheel want A RACING WHEEL. Not a Wiimote-with-wheel-shaped-plastic-attachment replica thing.
  • suicidali - September 4, 2012 10:14 a.m.

    I've got one of those wireless racing wheels as well... Count yourself lucky, I can't steer a car at all with mine, though I gotta say, only being able to downshift whilst accelerating is a pretty amusing quirk... I totally get what you're saying with the new wheel, I've tried it out myself and definitely got a Mario Kart vibe from it... I didn't notice the lack of shoulder buttons though, that's just plain outrageous... That's like having a Street Fighter fightstick with only 5 buttons... In all honesty though, I'm fine with using a pad... It's obviously not the best way to play but it gets the job done

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