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Microsoft Wheels in Excitement

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Vancouver Computes, June 1999

Microsoft Sidewinder Force Feedback Steering Wheel
Requires: Pentium 90 or better, Windows 95/98

The quest for the perfect virtual gaming experience has given us ever-improving computer sound-- floor-shaking sub-woofers, for example. And 3D accelerator cards with more RAM on them than entire computers had a few years ago. But despite what you hear and see, it's hard to get sucked into the experience of driving a car at over 200 km/h when you're controlling the action with a little, hand-held game controller.

Steering wheels as game controllers go back a while to some of the earliest PC and Arcade car racing games-- but most offer a flimsy feel, and may only work with a few titles.

Microsoft's Sidewinder Force Feedback Steering Wheel isn't just any old game controller. The wheel and pedals have a solid, reassuring presence, with black, streamlined styling that wouldn't be out of place if a fighter jet. It's easy to set up, clamping tightly onto the edge of your desk, while the software install adds it as a game controller to Control Panel.

But when you check out its configuration, you find what really sets it apart-- the force feedback options. Like the Rumble Packs used in some game system or Microsoft's Sidewinder Force Feedback joystick, you can really feel this wheel.

Hit the curb, drive over rough roads, rev the engine-- like in a real car, you're going to feel it. Of course, your software has to programmed to make use of this feature? otherwise, it's just a regular steering wheel. Two Microsoft games: Monster Truck Madness 2 and Cart Precision Racing are included, but other recent racing games also support Force Feedback. We tried it with Electronic Art's Need for Speed III, for example, and could really feel it when we side-swiped another car!

There's a bit of a rattle in the unit, especially when the wheel is centered-- but it's not too distracting when you're driving full throttle. Perhaps more serious is that it doesn't cooperate well with other game controllers-- you may not want to use the steering wheel for other sorts of gameplay-- but in order to get the system to recognize a standard gamepad, we had to uninstall the wheel.

At about $300(CDN), it's an expensive gadget-- but it you're a big fan of car, motorcycle, or flying games, the added realism from both using a wheel and the Force Feedback may make it worth buying. Find a store with it on display and try it out.