Last night a force feedback steering wheel saved my life

Best PC steering wheel - Fanatec Clubsport

Normally, this is a claim reserved only for super heroes and disc jockeys, but last night I managed to avoid killing myself and my wonderful wife (on her birthday, no less) thanks to my time gaming with force feedback steering wheels.

Read more: the best PC controllers to buy right now.

Driving home from a lovely day out my car conspired with the roads around rural Bath to try and murder us. It had been raining almost all day, that kind of fine mist that makes you question whether you're hanging out in a cloud, or if the sky's actually dropping liquid. And that made one particular corner I was driving around a nightmare combination of greasy, rain-slicked surface and liberally scattered autumnal leafy residue.

I turned in, the back of the car sought to overtake the front, and the traction on my drive wheels vanished entirely as we pointed on a seemingly inexorable collision course with the 4x4 coming towards us on the other side of the road.

But instead of making a sanguinous jam sandwich from the two cars, with their meaty passengers as filling, I was able to balance the brakes and throttle, find some traction, and narrowly miss the oncoming traffic. I could’ve tried to style it out like it was no thing, making some casual quip that I'm still too traumatised to think up even now, but instead I had to pull over to the side of the road ‘til my heart stopped pounding like offal under a butcher’s mallet. 

I’m sure there are a lot of hardcore driving folk out there who could’ve simply turned it into a powerslide, Vin Diesel’d the car around the corner, and maybe executed a physics-defying barrel roll for good measure, but I’m not one of them. My partner’s the amateur competition off-roader, I mostly drive in straight lines and have never left the road without meaning to, and certainly never had to correct a spin.

Except in computer games.

Project CARS 2

That muscle memory from hours throwing high-performance sports cars around the track in Project Cars and wrestling vehicles around sheep strewn stages in DiRT Rally kicked in without my conscious mind having to do anything.

I’m not claiming to be the world’s best real-world racer because I’ve done a few laps of Monza - playing computer games isn’t going to make that dream come true - but having used accurate force feedback peripherals, along with impressively realistic simulations, meant that I instinctively knew what was happening to the car purely by the tactile information being fed back through the steering wheel.

I knew I was starting to lose traction the second the car started to skid because I knew what that felt like without having to see it happening or ever having experienced it in real life. My rational mind didn't have to spend time trying to reason through what was happening because my other self knew what was going on and knew how to deal with it.

There aren’t a great many experiences in PC gaming where this could happen. You’re not going to become a super-soldier by playing Wolfenstein, a martial arts hero from playing Absolver, or the best footie coach after many a year playing Football Manager, but the physical information delivered by modern force feedback steering wheels is accurate enough to feel real and actually be translatable to a real-life situation.

Logitech G29

This needs to be the case because with driving games there is no other way to tell what’s actually happening to your virtual car. And while the ultra-expensive, beautiful Fanatec setups are able to translate each and every pothole the developer has scanned into their track data, you don’t have to spend thousands of pounds to get a realistic racing experience.

Logitech and Thrustmaster are the two big players in the more reasonably priced racing wheel world, with the $270 (£186) G29 and $384  (£245) T300RS being their best. Both deliver great accuracy in their respective force feedback and can make a very real difference to your in-game racing experience.

If you have any interest in proper racing sims, such as Project Cars 2 or Assetto Corsa, then you really owe it to yourself to get a decent steering wheel setup to play them on.

And who knows, it may just save your life too.

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QDP2 avatarLhun avatarBelimawr avatarDave James avatarNihlusGreen avatar
Lhun Avatar
2
2 Months ago

I can promise you QDP2 as someone who has spent countless hours and thousands on vr setups and a pair of logitech g27 racing wheels, and owning two sports cars and doing real track days with real vehicles, the games since Rfactor when the wheel is configured correctly for 920deg will absolutely translate to real world improved driver skill. Project cars and several other top tier racing games are designed from the ground up to train real racecar drivers on real courses before a race. Often, the underlying game engine is used in a professional setting licensed exclusively to racing car teams and their drivers to simulate possible track conditions and situations that are causing the driver to lose seconds on the track. For this kind of training to work, they have to be as real as possible. Several sim-racing gamers have gone on to become world class drivers for real racing teams, look up Richie Stanaway, and Le Mans Series driver Christina Nielsen, just to name two.

2
QDP2 Avatar
883
2 Months ago

Interesting thought. Back in the days of the PS2 and XBox, it was tested over the comparison between driving in games vs in real life, and how well a person can apply simulation-driving to a real-life environment (shocker, it didn't go well).

That said, a lot has changed nowadays, driving simulators have become more and more realistic. They still often aim for gameplay entertainment before realism, but I wonder how accurate it is nowadays? Is Project Cars 2's Nurburgring an accurate enough portrayal for someone to get an idea on how to lap (where to accelerate, break, etc.), to then head out to the actual track in the same/similar car and compete with their online timing? You'd always anticipate the game-speed to be higher (there's a lot less risk involved with a shaking steering wheel), but it would be an interesting comparison to see.

It's clear from your story there's enough realism for you to keep some confidence during your traction-loss, whether or not finding the equilibrium between the acceleration and break was thanks to the game's balance or if it were the lack of shock from having lost control hundreds of times before in a simulation, it's hard to say. Great story though!

1
Belimawr Avatar
1241
2 Months ago

with the newer Gran Turismo games (think it started with the PS3 games) Sony/Polyphony have ran the GT academy using the games and simulators to run contests leading up to the end race actually being on track. it has shown with the modern tech it is possible to learn courses, the older games lacked a lot of information and that is why it was a waste of time trying to learn from them.

I think it was GT6 on the PS4 they actually put race drivers in the simulators and on track and times were only a couple of seconds difference as the tracks had that much detail and the handeling was that close they could actually use the exact same points in both real and fake.

so things have moved on and it is better now.

as for a force feedback rig saving your life, not really. if you are a competent driver unless you are massively over the speed you should be for the road conditions and with fairly modern cars (hell mine I can chuck it at speed round anything and with little effort the car pulls it self more or less back in line and it's only an Insignia) anyone who can actually drive (not hold a licence there is a massive difference here when you see all those beat up cars and people taking forever to get in a massive parking space) will be able to correct any spin fairly easily just by the feel of the car moving as if you can drive you know how the car should feel.

so while it is a good excuse for a cover on the force feedback stuff, selling it as something that trains you how to drive is very wrong, as in the real car you would likely take less risk and the actual danger in the real car makes your body speed up so you can seem to just act as your body is thinking oh god I'm going to die.

but then it's the same as the other morning going to work, I saw someone had spun their caterham ending up facing the wrong way with the car wrapped round a tree, now this wasn't because he didn't know what to do, it was entirely the fact he was flying and hit a notoriously bad corner and way too much speed so even the best of driver couldn't have got it back as the car lacks basic driving aids. this is why I said if you are driving to the road as most people do, even if you do slip it is never actually dangerous.

1
Dave James Avatar
460
2 Months ago

I genuinely wasn't trying to sell this little anecdote as this teaching you how to drive, just that in that instant if I hadn't known exactly what that feeling through the steering wheel signified I wouldn't have reacted quick enough to stop the car from ploughing into oncoming traffic.

1
QDP2 Avatar
883
2 Months ago

I didn't see this as an attempt to sell vibration-feedback steering wheels in truth. At first with the tags I had presumed it was an unlabeled Logitech ad, but that thought was quickly shot down as I read it.

When it comes to the wheels, force-feedback is for a feeling of immersion when driving. It doesn't improve your steering (surely you'll turn better when the wheel doesn't fight you), but instead adds a new level of depth and interest to the game. That said, I wouldn't shut off the idea of new-fresh drivers getting more comfortable behind a wheel through simulations. Sure, racing at full speed around a circuit may not be the most positive situation for fresh drivers to relate too, but it could stop them from freezing/locking up in the case of emergency. Food for thought, as none of us can really prove this either way :P

It's awesome to hear about GT taking racers into the real world, if the difference is so minor nowadays then I wonder where racing sims can improve into the future (other than graphics of course). There's always new cars/tracks to add, collision and car-degradation to be improved/implemented, but if the traction and 'feel' of a virtual car is already so realistic, what substantial improvements can be expected in the next years/decades?

1
Belimawr Avatar
1241
Belimawr replied to QDP2
2 Months ago

With each GT it's nearly always been about the physics, in GT6 the big addition was actually adding mapping for suspension and tyre roll. There is a lot to improve but firms just concentrate on graphics these days.

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Dave James Avatar
460
Dave James replied to QDP2
2 Months ago

I think AI has got to be the next big breakthrough, and probably not just for racing sims.

In something like a career mode being able to have some sort of rival, an organically evolving analogue of the Nemesis System, would be amazing!

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NihlusGreen Avatar
640
2 Months ago

Nice save Dave!

So your choice for a wheel would be either the G29 or T300RS?

1
Dave James Avatar
460
2 Months ago

It's a tricky one. The T300RS has got the 1080° rotation (Logitech stops at 900°) and the slightly better force feedback, but it's a bit more expensive. The G29 (the Sony PS version over the Xbox G290) has more buttons, a nicer build quality and super stable pedals. Overall though I just give it to the Thrustmaster wheel, but only just.

2
NihlusGreen Avatar
640