PlayStation 2 racers have a lot of driving wheels to choose from these days. Everywhere you look, another wheel from another company is popping up on store shelves. What can any company do to separate itself from the pack, and get enough attention to get its product noticed? Make your wheel work on multiple consoles? Been there.
Give it customizable buttons and sensitivity? Done that.
Add 900 degrees of turning radius? Now that’s something.
Logitech’s latest force feedback wheel, the Driving Force Pro, comes packaged in a box that has Gran Turismo 4 stamped all over it, and with good reason: the wheel and game were developed in conjunction with one another, and it shows. Is it worth the $150 list price associated with the peripheral? That’s a tough question to answer, but one that inevitably arises any time the subject of racing games and driving wheels comes up.
When I first unpacked the Driving Force Pro, I noticed that it was much sturdier than the original Driving Force. Whereas the older model had a somewhat flimsy wheel and paddle shifters on the reverse side of the wheel, the newer controller sports a much heavier, sturdier base and motor housing. The surface of the wheel itself is a textured rubber coating, which feels comfortable enough in your grip, and doesn’t come off as any kind of cheap plastic molding that a lot of wheels employ nowadays. It doesn’t stop there, however. The turning action of the wheel is smooth when you crank it, and it feels very solid. There’s a distinct difference you can tell when turning the old Driving Force and the new one, even without plugging them in. It’s almost like a loose bearing on the older model; the newer one is snug and doesn’t “slop” much. All in all, the Driving Force Pro feels like it’s had a lot of engineering time invested in the overall construction of the unit. It doesn’t feel as flimsy or fragile as many other PlayStation 2 peripherals.
The biggest question I had regarding the new 900 degrees of freedom was how it would actually be employed. Upon loading up Gran Turismo 4, the wheel automatically turns itself lock to lock, which can actually startle you a bit. It looks like a ghost is at your desk, cranking the wheel around. Once it determines whether or not the game can support 900 degrees (of which there are only a couple at the moment), it will either allow the full turning radius or lock itself at roughly 180 degrees. You can hear the wheel physically lock, so there’s some kind of mechanism inside that doesn’t allow you to turn the wheel past a quarter turn in either direction. Since I prefer my wheels to have a smaller turning radius in most games, this was a nice discovery. Which brings me back to my first question…if I like a smaller turning radius, how in the world was I going to enjoy 900 degrees?
The answer is simple, yet not as obvious as you might think. Polyphony Digital made Gran Turismo 4 “feel like driving a real car”. I know, it's a silly explanation, but let me explain. In a real car, you can turn the steering wheel from top dead center to the steering lock, and it will be around a turn and a half. If a racing game used a turn and a half to be “fully steering”, then you’d never be able to turn the car. Who would want to try to play a NASCAR game, only to have to crank the wheel a turn or more to the left just to get the car to turn? I know I wouldn’t. Additionally, I was worried I’d run into a large zone in the center of the wheel that would do relatively nothing when moving it back and forth. That, thankfully, is also not a problem. Polyphony Digital has devised a wonderful engine in the game that makes small adjustments to the wheel affect the vehicle just like they would in real life. To change lanes on the highway, you barely have to move the wheel, and it’s the same when using this controller in Gran Turismo 4. When you come to some of the tighter hairpins, however, I found myself one-handing it more often than not, laying my palm on the outside edge of the wheel and just circling it. The moment I figured out I had that much freedom (while keeping my right hand free to change gears on the sequential shifter), I started really flying around some of the tracks. It’s truly astonishing how realistic it feels in a game like Gran Turismo 4, with its 900 degrees of freedom, as it should…as previously mentioned, they were made for each other.
The next concern would be “how does it work in other, non GT4 games”? My only other Playstation2 game to test it with was EA Sports’ NASCAR Chase for the Cup 2005, and I’ve had mixed results…wonderful results as far as the control goes, and hideous results with regards to rumble support. Chase for the Cup does not support 900 degrees, so the wheel locks itself at the smaller radius. No problem there for me, and the control from dead zone to full lock is precise. I could make small adjustments and correct a line through a corner and have it respond exactly as I thought it should. I created a new profile, set the AI on legend, and found myself competing better than I ever had before when using a wheel, simply because the wheel itself had a much smaller dead zone when compared to the older Driving Force, so I didn’t lose any sensitivity when starting a turn or correcting my line down a straightaway. In addition, I only needed to turn the wheel 90 degrees to be at “full lock”. This means you won’t be sawing on the wheel much just to get the car to steer. That’s always a good thing.
Overall, I was very impressed with the performance I got out of the Driving Force Pro in both of my test games. I had used the older Driving Force in both of them, and the performance difference is staggering. The control is much tighter, smoother, and responsive with the Driving Force Pro than with the older Driving Force.
Force feedback is something that’s rather controversial to me. When it first burst onto the scene, I thought it was the coolest thing going. After a while, the novelty wore off, and like many other racers, I found out that it actually hurt you more than helped you. If you have to deal with fighting the wheel at every bump and corner, but the other driver doesn’t, who’s at more of a disadvantage? Sure, it feels closer to real life, but when it comes down to it, it’s not real life. I eventually discarded my force feedback wheels for a non-force feedback Thomas Superwheel about two years ago. No force feedback wheel had ever made me even consider going back to struggling with a wheel in the sake of “realism”.
That is, until I got the Driving Force Pro.
In Gran Turismo 4, the force feedback is truly force feedback (unlike many other titles that just rumble the wheel, instead of providing true force feedback). The motors in the Driving Force Pro are very strong…so strong, they’re set at 60% strength out of the box. You can depress a set of buttons at any time to flip between 60% and 100% on the fly, and let me tell you…100% is a lot of power. Every bump, corner, rumble strip, and collision is modeled with alarming clarity in Gran Turismo 4. A long, sweeping corner at the Nurburgring really creates some tension in the wheel, while some technically imposing courses where you need to make quick direction changes showcase the finesse that the controller is capable of. The great thing about it is that they didn’t just set the force to an equal level as you turn. It starts out very minimal; near the center of the wheel’s travel, it’s very easy to turn it. As you crank it further to the left or right, it gets progressively stronger (it eventually taps out in strength at about 100 degrees, staying constant the rest of the way) as you turn. Bumping into a wall will create a subtle movement in the wheel, but slamming into a barrier harder will actually jerk the wheel so much that you might struggle to maintain a grip. Comparing the sensations to the older Driving Force is like comparing a Formula 1 car to a Yugo. The cars do the same thing (go from point A to point B), but do it in completely different ways. The Driving Force Pro gives believable, tactile responses to almost everything on screen, whereas the Driving Force seems to perform in a much jerkier manner. If you took both wheels for a spin down the long straight on Circuit de la Sarthe II, for instance, you’d have completely different experiences. The Driving Force feels very jerky and out of control. The Driving Force Pro feels like thecaris almost out of control. The wheel is whipping about a bit, but it’s because you’re doing 230mph on a bumpy road. Every chirp of the tires or change in elevation causes a subtle, yet exhilarating, change in the wheel’s posture. Gran Turismo 4 is the pinnacle of force feedback technology in a racing game, and it takes using the Driving Force Pro to truly experience it.
Chase for the Cup 2005, however, was a completely different story. There was no centering spring tension, so I found myself sloppily weaving all over the track until I hit something and received some kind of feedback on the wheel. This is more a result of EA’s programming than the wheel itself, though. EA Sports uses “rumble” in their games, not true force feedback. So with no centering spring, I was all over the place. I thought I might have a real problem there, but once I turned off the rumble, the experience got much better. The centering spring tension returned, and since it’s only a half turn from lock to lock, I instantly gained more control (which was followed by the aforementioned Legend tests). I’m guessing that the force feedback effects will vary from game to game, but I have no problem turning them off if the game in question only supports “rumble” and not true force feedback. I can’t fault the wheel for having technology that might be too advanced for some current games, that’s for sure.
This is a hardcore wheel for a hardcore racer. There’s no two ways to say it. I even plugged it into my PC and raced Nascar Racing 2003 Season and found it incredibly enjoyable. Logitech’s Wingman software recognized it as the older Driving Force and allowed me to map various commands (cameras, statistic screens, pause and replay, etc) to the multitude of buttons the PS2 platform allows. The force feedback was actually better than the Logitech MOMO Force, which was a $200 wheel when I originally bought it, and actually the best of any force feedback PC wheel I’ve ever used.
Is it worth the $150? If you’re a gamer who only occasionally races on your PS2, I’m not too sure. If you’re a racer first and foremost on your PS2 and you spend a lot of time with Gran Turismo 4, then it will more than likely be worth your while. If you’re like me…racing anything on PS2 and PC, then you owe it to yourself to give it a look. It’s a solid wheel, the force technology is superb, and it almost made my $1000 Thomas Superwheel obsolete overnight.