The wheel isn't new, announced well over a year ago and shipping in limited numbers about this time last year. With the release of Forza 3 has come a new marketing push for the thing and, lucky for us, availability of a loaner to test. The wheel itself wasn't so lucky, though. Shipped in a massive box the wheel, pedals, shifter, and $129 optional RennSport Wheel Stand weighed 110lbs combined, and apparently the folks at FedEx weren't exactly gentle with it. We got the package a week ahead of the Forza 3 release, but the contents had been roughed up so much they no longer functioned.
Once we got a replacement we got on with the evaluation and initial impressions were generally good. The obvious competition here is Logitech's current hotness, the G27 we reviewed a few months ago, so we'll be using that as our benchmark. Regarding the wheel itself things are generally comparable, offering a similar sized and similarly leather-wrapped diameter with a much, much broader assortment of buttons that fall quickly to hand. However, these run an even greater the risk of being accidentally hit whilst madly counter-steering when the rear-end of your digital 911 tries to follow the laws of physics. The full complement of Xbox 360 buttons are available, even a four-way D-pad that's so well integrated into the bottom spoke of the wheel it took us a few moments to find it.
When powered on, lights behind the controls appear depending on what mode the wheel is in, illuminating identifiers for each so that you won't have to similarly hunt for the various face and shoulder buttons for either the 360 or the PS3. The wheel connects to the Xbox 360 wirelessly but will of course still need to be plugged into the wall for power. An optional RF receiver enables wireless communication with the PS3 and PC, too, and interestingly the pedals can also be used wirelessly if some batteries are slotted in, resulting in a far neater setup than the Cthulhu-like G27 and its nightmare-inducing tangle of cables.
The Rennsport Stand that everything mounts to is quite sturdy and heavy, making up the majority of that 110lb bulk. It contains a simple sliding bracket to hold the pedals in place and a folding arm that reaches up to firmly grasp the wheel. A crank allows easy adjustment from folded to extended and, once locked in place, the whole get-up was impressively sturdy. That's partly because because the wheel is actually bolted to the frame of the thing; good for those who tend to get a little over-eager with their steering, a little less-so for anyone who doesn't want to use the stand all the time. But, since it all folds up easily enough, removal shouldn't be necessary.
Those pedals and that shifter are probably the weakest parts of the experience here, not comparing to the comparable bits offered by Logitech. The $50 Standard pedals have good enough feel but they're significantly lighter and, without that RennSport stand, would be sliding all over the place. The experience on the six-speed shifter (part of a $60 set that also includes a separate sequential gearbox) is also a bit disappointing, offering solid engagement but with a very cheap feeling click accompanying every shift.
If you haven't picked up on this by now there are a lot of optional things that can turn what is a somewhat pricey wheel into an egregiously expensive one. For $250 you can get the Porsche 911 Turbo S Pure Edition wheel for the Xbox 360, which will be compatible only
with the Xbox 360 -- that optional RF receiver (shaped like a Porsche key) for PC and PS3 compatibility is a further $50. If you want pedals you'll have to spend the $50 for the Standard set, cough up $200 for the lovely force-feedback Clubsport set, or use the included adapter and plug in some G25/G27 pedals. You'll also need the $60 shifter set if you don't want to rely on the tiny paddles on the back. Or, for $350 you can get a package containing the wheel, pedals, shifters, and RF receiver, saving a bit on buying it all separately.
We appreciate that Fanatec is allowing gamers to piece together the system they want, ditching shifters or pedals if they don't need them, but things start expensive and the overall price can quickly spiral out of control if you're not careful with the options. This pricing is especially troubling when you consider Logitech's G27 can be had for $250 including six-speed shifter and higher-quality, adjustable pedals, leaving us to wonder how much of that premium is thanks to the completely unnecessary Porsche licensing here.
Turn the wheel on by pushing the power button on the side (a nice touch, most wheels are always
on) and it spins to life, self-calibrating while doing a little blinkenlight show. As it swings from side to side it barely makes a sound, its motorized internals impressively quiet and, as far as we can tell, offering no dead zone in the middle. The stitching on the wheel is a little rough but it's comfortable to grip and the adjustable shifter that hangs off the side of the wheel falls quickly to hand. Shifting gives off that awfully annoying sound but you'll never have a doubt when you're in-gear -- except for reverse, which can be a little hard to find.
The pedals have a cheap feel to them but they do the job. The force-feedback in the wheel, however, doesn't impress in Forza.
You can barely feel things like rumble strips and contact with competitors, and though things go light when your front tires lose grip and you're about to understeer into the guardrail, the overall experience just isn't immersive. It's an improvement over the standard controller for sure and we quickly started putting in fast lap times, but using it doesn't give the intense experience of using the (relatively) highly-powered G25 or G27 in Gran Turismo 5
However, we're not sure whether to blame the device or the game, because when testing on the PC the power of the wheel felt more than adequate. Here you can quickly ramp the power up or down, as well as the maximum degrees of rotation (from 180 up to 900), and on its maximum setting it felt at least as strong as Logitech's offering. However, by default on the PC it has an atrocious "feature" that makes it vibrate when the accelerator pedal is pressed, attempting to simulate the rumbling of an engine. Thankfully that's easily disabled.
The Rennsport Stand itself performed admirably, offering plenty of adjustment to get it to the right height and angle. It took a little fiddling to get everything oriented properly but, once there, it felt great. The wheel was sturdily attached, the pedals didn't slide away under hard braking, and almost everything was perfect -- and we can't fault the stand for the "almost." The shifter attaches to the side of the wheel itself using two short metallic rods. This makes it easy to swap from the six-speed to the sequential, but neither mounted very securely, moving about quite a bit as we rowed our way down the front straight at the Nurburgring.
We were really optimistic about finally getting a chance to try a serious wheel for the Xbox 360, especially coinciding with the release of Forza 3.
The game is as hardcore a console racer as there is, lacking only a serious wheel to match, and it's hard not to feel disappointed with what we have here. It's a $350 package (plus the $130 stand) that we found overall to deliver a sub-par experience compared to the $250 Logitech option. Mind you, that $250 alternative won't work with the Xbox 360, the entire reason we're testing this in the first place, and sadly that prized Forza 3
compatibility is spoiled by anemic feedback effects. We're hoping a patch from Turn10 Studios will enable gamers to turn the feedback up to 11, but until then we'll be putting this German import back into its comically large box.
: We received a note from the manufacturer (rather belatedly) indicating that both the wheels we received were pre-production units -- despite their having been on sale for some time now and the second one coming in a full retail box. So, there are some effects missing which may impact the force feedback. Additionally, there is a metal plate included to be bolted to the bottom of the pedals, increasing their heft significantly. However, we want to clarify that we found the wheel itself to be quite capable in terms of its ability to deliver strong effects via its belt-driven internals... when the game takes advantage of them. Forza Motorsport 3
simply doesn't seem to be doing that. With the feedback effects turned to the max the game delivers a strong centering spring but minimal rumble strip effects (half the time when you hit them you get none) and hitting the wall results in only a very slight twist. If you are looking for a good quality wheel to use across the PC, PS3, and Xbox 360 and aren't living from paycheck to paycheck you could certainly do much worse than this one. However, if you're buying this exclusively for use with Forza
, we're still not sold.