From gamepads to racing wheels

Last Updated August 3rd, 2018

I find racing games to be deeply meditative due to the high level of verisimilitude – hitting buttons will never feel like swinging the Leviathan Axe, but PS4 triggers provided a surprising amount of nuance for acceleration and braking.

Playing Gran Turismo Sport on PlayStation 4, I recently shifted (pun intended) from automatic to manual transmission, and my racing experience became deeper immediately, and I went from finishing around 12 to finishing in the top five. But I couldn’t help but wonder what I might be missing when playing with a PS4 controller versus a racing wheel.

In automatic transmission, your only choices are to floor it or brake. Adding manual gear shifting reveals how your car performs at different gears. This may not seem like much, but it opens up a whole new dimension of gameplay. Manual transmission allows you to choose whether to gear up and try to gain ground on a straightaway or play it safe and stay where you are until after the next turn.

You can do this in automatic transmission, but it’s more difficult, because it requires finding a sweet spot in a trigger whose travel distance is less than two inches. Manual transmission allows you to only shift gears when you want to, allowing you to rocket out of the turn and immediately change gears.

Once I realized how big of a difference a single option could make, I started fantasizing about a real racing wheel. For those of you who haven’t ventured into it before, sim racing is the deep end of the gaming pool. You might think that you’re hardcore with your 500 hours logged in Destiny 2, but you’ve got nothing on a guy with his $650 racing wheel mounted on a $500 cockpit setup, all of it covered in the same licensed Alcantara used in Ferraris. That guy wears real racing gloves and has a three screen setup that lets him see all the mirrors mounted on his virtual car.

Shopping Around

I’m not made of money, but I still wanted to take my racing experience to the next level. After doing a lot of research and finding a decent sale, I settled on the Thrustmaster 300RS for a whopping $250. Force feedback was a big concern for me, as passionate sim racing redditors indicated that this feature was important. The 300RS also provides an adjustable rotation angle between 270 and 1080 degrees. This unit also allows me to replace the racing wheel and expand into a real gear shift if I want.

I was tempted to go for the 300RT GT for the separate clutch pedal, but I couldn’t coutenance the extra $70 expense, especially since I wouldn’t have an actual gear shifter anyway. Also, some of my buddies who are into real-life racing told me that racers are using push button shifting these days, so I feel less left out than I might otherwise. I could’ve gone for the cheaper $100 HORI wheel, but the reviews were middling and indicated that I might run into durability issues around a year in.

A few weeks later, my wheel came in. The box is surprisingly heavy – before now, the heaviest gaming peripheral I’ve dealt with is a fight stick. The Thrustmaster 300RT is a different beast entirely. It comes in a few separate parts and assembly is required.

Setting Things Up

Putting the wheel together is the easy part. You have to make sure that the wheel’s interface plug is properly aligned with the corresponding port on the base and then extend and screw on a plastic color to connect the two sides. Then you screw in a securing screw. Please note that this is for the 300GT and your mileage may vary (pun intended).

I ended up mounting the wheel to a plastic tray table. Mounting the wheel involves cranking down the included clamp until it’s tight and hoping for the best. There’s still some play and wobble, and that’s probably because the underside of the plastic table top dips in a little bit. This is definitely not the surface that it’s meant to attach to, but it’s not enough to significantly disrupt my experience.

What is enough to mess with the experience is that the table is very light and the force feedback that this wheel provides is tremendously strong. Once I started playing Gran Turismo Sport, I would take hard turns and the table itself would hop off the ground due to the combined force feedback and my stupid ape paws yanking the wheel back and forth. I threw two sandbags full of rocks on top of the table’s feet to keep it steady. Even after solving that problem, my table sits really high and my TV sits really low, and I ended up peering over my wheel and down to the screen. It’s workable but awkward.

Also, don’t be stupid like me. If you try to race while sitting in a rolling desk chair, you will push yourself away from the wheel every time you hit the brakes. It only took three races and a blow to my pride before I understood why I finished every race so far away from my gaming peripheral. Currently, I’m sitting on an old wooden dining room chair, straight up and down like an old dad driving a stupid minivan, rather than reclined in a sleek cockpit, but after spending a pile of money on the best wheel I could afford, it wasn’t like I had another few hundred to throw at a cockpit.

Also, forget what driver’s ed taught you. When you’re transitioning from a straightaway to a 180 degree turn, you don’t have time to swap from one pedal to another with your right foot alone. You want one foot on the gas and another on the brake. Give it a try. Your lap times will thank me. In case you have big feet or just chunky sneakers, the 300RS allows you to adjust the distance between the brake and the accelerator. My big dopey feet needed a little more space, so I moved the brake a bit to the left.

Quick Critiques

Before I start to gush about how much I love about this thing, I have a few critiques.

There are a ton of wires coming out of this thing. There’s a wire from the pedals to the base unit, a wire from the base unit to power, and an annoyingly short USB cable to connect to my Playstation. The wires themselves are not a surprise, but none of these cables are user replaceable so be careful. I don’t know what Thrustmaster’s warranty or repair service is like, and I don’t want to find out. Given that this is a ~$400 unit, it seems weird to me that they wouldn’t spend a few extra bucks to make all the cables user-replaceable.

The wheel itself sits ever so slightly lower than the base, so you can’t place the unit flat on a shelf for storage. It has to sit with the wheel hanging off the edge, floating in space. My Sony subwoofer has become its designated resting place, usurping my Amazon Dual Shock charging station.

I don’t know if I got a weird version, but the power cable does not lock into the base. If you’re planning on using this on your lap, there’s a reasonable chance that the power cable will come out mid-race – it happened to me twice. Plugging it back in forces it to recalibrate and sometimes the unit doesn’t recognize pedal input. Just say no to racing wheels in your lap. I may end up using gaffer’s tape to secure it to the base and avoid mishaps.

Use The Force, Don’t Let The Force Use You

For my first few races, I was suddenly godawful at racing again. Slamming into walls, understeering, overacclerating, the works. Part of this is due to the fact that muscle memory plays a large role in sim racing games. If you want your car to do X instead of Y, you use your index fingers to hit the brake just so and then accelerate out of a turn. Suddenly, your whole body is involved, your feet replace your fingers, and your hands need to stay at two and ten. That alone is a huge adjustment.

But the bigger issue is the force feedback. On the Thrustmaster 300RS, it is powerful. When the wheel spins to its extreme left and right to calibrate itself on startup, it actually makes my whole plastic table jump. Imagine the kind of feedback you felt while playing full San Francisco Rush cabinets. It feels just as strong as that, if not stronger. This is a hell of a thing to adjust to.

Most of us, nerds especially, have spent a lifetime living by the advice of “Don’t force it!” – when building computers, working with sensitive electronics, assembling plastic models, etc. So when my wheel jerked me hard to the right, I went with it. Because you shouldn’t force things, right? Wrong.

If you just let the feedback control your wheel, you’ll fly all around the road. You must control the feedback and maintain your course and heading (and the wheel’s brushless motors are designed to let you).

The force feedback is the most valuable aspect of a sim racing wheel. It lets you feel the road in a way that simple pad rumble never could. When you turn hard, it pushes back hard, letting you know that you’re at your car’s limits – any further and you risk spinning out. When you’re driving on a dirt road in a rally cross race, you feel every bump. If you make a sick leap, all feedback stops because your wheels are no longer in contact with the road. If someone bumps you from the side, the wheel jerks in that direction. The wheel provides a wealth of information that you’d never receive on a pad.

Degrees of Control

Another wonderful aspect of using a racing wheel is a result of the wide rotation angle. On an analog thumbstick, you have less than an inch of space between all the way to the left and all the way to the right. While you absolutely can race using a pad, the margin of error is extremely small. On a wheel, particularly one with a wide rotation angle, it’s easier to find that sweet spot for the turn.

My pedal experience improved in the same way. PS4 triggers are nice, but you’re still stuck with less than an inch of travel between zero and one hundred percent. While the included pedals don’t give me nearly as much travel distance as an actual car, we’re still looking at a three to four inch travel distance versus less than one. It’s so much easier to trail brake and use your accelerator to control your turning radius with pedals. In particular, s-curves have gone from feeling impossible to easy.

This is a minor thing, but it’s slower, but much more satisfying to use the shifting paddles than it is pad buttons to shift gears. Be careful when you shift gears quickly. The 300RS requires the paddle to return to its resting state before you can press it again. The paddles are spring loaded and the travel distance is very small though, so it’s not a big deal. But I have missed a shift or two during races. Something to keep in mind.

What I find really fascinating about using a racing wheel is how it vanishes after a few hours of play. It brings the racing experience to life, and then fades into the background. You get used to receiving information via force feedback, incorporate it into your gameplay, and just race. But when I used a pad, I never forgot I was using one.

What a Wheel Won’t Do

A racing wheel won’t fix bad racing technique. If your racing strategy is bad, if you always come into corners too fast, if you are inattentive to shifting, a racing wheel won’t save you from that. However, if you already know what you need to be doing to win races, but are simply having trouble executing the techniques, you should really give a racing wheel a try.

Also, be sure to check racing wheel compatibility with your game of choice! Not every wheel is compatible with every game. If you’re into a wonky game like The Crew 2, you probably won’t want a racing wheel because a game like that really requires dual analog sticks flying planes, sailing boats, etc.

Race wheels are not cross-console compatible, but wheels that are compatible with one system or the other are usually compatible with your PC. My 300RS is PS4 compatible as well as PC-ready and I’m hoping to use it with Forza Horizon 4’s PC port this fall.

Is It Worth It?

Four hundred bucks is not a small investment – it’s the same cost as a PS4 Pro itself! Whether it’s worth it or not for you depends on how much you love racing sims. If they’re an everyday play for you, you’ll get an immense amount of enjoyment and value out of owning a high end racing wheel. It’s such an improvement over a pad that I would argue that there’s simply no comparison. If you have a friend who’s as obsessed with racers as me, I would recommend you head over to their house and give it a try. If you fall in love, start saving your pennies.

What’s even more amazing is that what I bought is considered the lower end of the spectrum, in terms of quality and price. Click here if you want to experience some epic sticker shock.

From a philosophical viewpoint, we live in a world where gaming is dominated by dual analog sticks and KBAM. Everyone has them, so every game is shoehorned into one of these two formats. But I think it’s great that purpose-built input devices still exist; if your goal is immersion and verisimilitude, a racing wheel will provide you with both in a way that an analog controller never could.

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