In an ideal world, we’d all play racing games with a steering wheel. At first it might make the game more difficult, but it also makes it more realistic, immersive and believable, and when you’re playing driving sims, rally games and F1 games in particular, that’s always good.
Sadly, having a wheel clamped to a solid surface isn’t always convenient in the average living room, and not all of us can get away with all those cables trailing across the floor, let alone the pedals and clutter of a full-scale wheels and pedal setup. As a result, there’s a market for a halfway house: a wheel that gives you some of the experience of racing with a proper steering wheel combined with the convenience of a conventional wireless controller. It’s a halfway house that Microsoft’s new Xbox 360 Wireless Speed Wheel now occupies.
Designed for release with the recent – and exceptional – Forza Motorsports 4, it’s a solid little U-shaped controller that looks more like something from an airplane's cockpit than a steering wheel. The right-hand side of the U has the four Xbox 360 face buttons while there's an analogue trigger mounted on the rear. On the left-hand side you'll find the D-pad and a matching left analogue trigger.
You’ll find the usual central Xbox button in a circular module in the middle of the steering wheel, with the Start and Back buttons in a circular rocker switch surrounding it. The unit runs on two AA batteries, which fit into a spring clipped compartment at the base of the U. You need to be careful with the release switch or they’ll be out and under the sofa in record time.
The Wireless Speed Wheel uses an accelerometer to sense the rotation of the wheel; only horizontal movements seem to be detected, so there’s no hope of pressing it into service for combat flight sims or other action games. Obviously you can’t expect to get the 900 degrees of rotation that you’d get from the Logitech G27 or even the 270 degrees you get from the Thrustmaster and Mad Catz wired wheels. Instead, the Wireless Speed Wheel seems to have around 80 to 90 degrees of tilt on either side.
The other thing you’ll have to do without is any real force feedback: the use of motors in the wheel to provide resistance and judder as you corner or drive across rough ground. Of course, while Microsoft’s original Xbox 360 Wireless Wheel supported force feedback, it’s hard to find another 360 wheel that does, so the Wireless Speed Wheel is hardly alone in this, and it does incorporate haptic feedback for a little rumble when appropriate.
There’s also a little visual feedback from two green glowing circles at the top of each end of the U. These seem to light up in relation to the position of the steering wheel and flash when there’s rumble, but – to be perfectly honest – you’re usually too busy staring at the screen to pay much attention to what they’re up to.
In use, there’s plenty of good news. The wheel is well-built and very comfortable, and the sensitivity is just about perfect for playing Forza 4 at casual and medium difficulty levels. There seems to be a little more sensitivity near the centre so that you can make smooth, light turns, but enough play as you turn the wheel hard to make sharper corners or drift at higher speeds. The triggers also have more travel than those on a standard controller, allowing for a greater level of control over acceleration and braking.