Driving and Racing games enjoyed a renaissance in 2013 that is set to continue in 2014 and beyond. Since September last year major titles have been or soon will be released on the major consoles and PC. The well known console titles: Forza 5 and Gran Turismo 6 have taken the headlines for the Xbox One and PS3 respectively, while Gran Turismo 7 is set to debut on the PS4 in 2014.
The PC has seen an explosion of quality titles in the last 3 months, ranging from multi-platform games to the more serious releases sim racer enthusiasts have been waiting for. Some of the big names includes Codemasters F1 2013, Assetto Corsa’s Early Access (Beta), Game Stock Car 2013, Formula Truck 2013, WRC 4, and DTM Experience. There’s also been updated versions of Project C.A.R.S. (now changed from open to closed beta) and rFactor 2, both in beta, was well as the continuing evolution of iRacing, and World of Trucks for Euro Truck Simulator 2, for the less frenetic drivers amongst us.
Racing games of 2013-2014 offer superb physics, track modelling, and car setup options. A few of these titles: iRacing and rFactor 2 Pro are already being used by professional race drivers and this number will only grow as more and more tracks are laser-scanned into games and an increasing number of blueprinted cars added.
With the popularity in numbers of sim racing games, an increasing number of less dedicated sim racers are realising what a fun and realistic experience sim racing games can offer; even the less simulated games.
As many racing titles as there are, there are even more controller options and most casual gamers, and those new to sim racing games probably don’t even know these options exist.
The entry level option is the trusty controller that comes with the various consoles and can be bought for PC, for example the Xbox 360 Controller for Windows. This device is enough to play the games and even allow you to operate successfully on the less accurate titles such as F1 2013, Forza 5, and GT 6, but to get the immersion and maximum benefit of modern sim titles, you’ll want a wheel, shifter, pedals, and more.
When most gamers think of racing wheels they think Logitech. Logitech are a well-known brand and have been making wheels for a long time. They currently offer two levels of wheels: the base Driving Force GT (AU$249.95) and the higher end G27 (AU$499.95). Both controllers come with pedals and shifters, but in the case of the Driving Force GT the pedals contain only a brake and an accelerator, and the shifter is only sequential. The G27 comes with a H-Shifter with 6 gears plus reverse, sequential paddle shifters behind the wheel, while a clutch is included along with the accelerator and brake. Both wheels are also PS3 compatible.
Fanatec are a German company known for their high-end racing controls. They make a number of wheel and pedal setcombinations as well as a number of shifters to satisfy various price points. If you’re stepping up from a Logitech G27 the typical step is to the top of the line Fanatec Clubsport Wheel Base ($589.95) and at least one rim out of the BMW M3 GT2 Rim ($329.95) or Formula Rim ($239.95). The base requires at least one rim, which is the actual wheel component, making the minimum spend for a wheel rather high. What sets the Fanatec Clubsport Wheelbase and Rim apart from the G27 is the drive mechanism. While the G27 uses a small plastic cog for force feedback, the Clubsport uses a belt system. The belt system makes the force feedback much smoother and more realistic, and also less prone to breaking. The catch is that’s only the wheel, not pedals and not shifter.
The complement to the wheel base is the Clubsport Pedals V2. These pedals are the top end of the Fanatec pedals and have become the must have minimum pedal set for any serious sim racer. The difference between these pedals and the G27 pedals is predominantly the inclusion of a load cell. Unlike the potentiometer based cheaper pedals which measure brake force by pedal position, a load cell measures brake force by the load being applied to it. Simply put it more closely resembles a brake pedal on a real car. The V2 pedal set also comes with a quasi-hydraulic setup giving the brake pedal a spongy feel. The Clubsport Pedals don’t need to be used exclusively with the Clubsport Wheel base. These USB pedals can be used with an existing wheel such as the G27 providing the game supports multiple controller devices, as most do.
We still need a shifter, and for that Fanatec provides three models of shifter, with the top end Clubsport Shifter SQ ($229.95) being the pick of the bunch. This shifter set support sequential mode or provides 7 forward gears + Reverse. A variety of shifter knobs can be used with this shifter. Again, the shifter is connected via USB and can be used with the G27 if desired, as part of a staged upgrade of hardware.
High End Custom
If you thought the Fanatec offerings are the crème of the crop, you’re incorrect. The Fanatec products are good mid-level products, but if you’re willing to spend the cash and put up with the build wait times (Fanatec products also suffer from this), there are much higher quality products to be bought. Take the HPP pedal set for instance. Costing US$887 plus delivery (About AU$200) these pedals are not for the faint of heart or pocket. The HPP set comes with the mandatory load cell but also a real master/slave hydraulic setup on the brake, giving a very realistic feel, significantly improved on the Fanatec set.
If you’re after a top of the line wheel, the well regarded Leo Bodnar wheel will set you back a cool $4400. This wheel is targeted at professional use but still works with all major PC racing titles. Any wheel can be bolted to the Bodnar base and they also make their own simulator wheels that range in price from AU$1600 for the GT3 wheel up to AU$3200 for the F1 wheel. That’s nearly $8000 for a wheel!
Stepping away from the higher end wheels and pedals, a typical sim racin rig also contains button boxes and extra dashboards. Button boxes, as the name hints are simply boxes of extra buttons, toggle switches and analogue knobs. Virtual race cars have many settings that need to be adjusted on the fly, while driving. These range from being able to select your tyres and fuel at the next stop, ignition, starters, brake balance, chat macros, and a vast array of other settings; typically too many for the number of buttons on a G27 wheel and shifter .
After market dashes can be added to G27 wheels to provide small LCD screens that display critical information such as RPM, speed, current gear, and more. They’re the cheaper and in many cases more useful variants of small USB powered LCD screens used by many sim racers. The LCD screens are useful for displaying a completely customisable dash or telemetry software. Siminstruments make a great value of money addon to the G27 that adds extra buttons to the G27 wheel as well as a two row LCD panel for configurable display, gear indicator, RPM and more. This is more prefferred option to a standalone dash as it provides the information on your wheel and is always visible. Plus the addition of more buttons is always welcome.
The inclusion of a Buttkicker can help provide a more "seat of the pants" feeling that is missing from a non motion simulator (although it's still a good inclusion on a motion platform). The Buttkicker basically does as its name suggests and thumbs you in the behind when you go over ripple strips and kerbing, or are running your car too low and scrapes along the ground, robbing you of suspension travel and precious downforce.
Derek Speares Designs sell a variety of components for sim racers, from button boxes to sequential shifters and even a very very cool hydraulic handbrake (AU$500) for those wanting to go sideways more than straight.
While many racers will bolt their controls to the desk or coffee table there also a number of cockpits out on the market. Like everything, there are setups to suit budgets.
At the bottom end of the market there are frames to mount your wheel and pedals that can fold away when not in use, such as the Next Level Racing Wheel Stand, and more simple cockpits that have pre-drilled holes for the Logitech products, such as the GTxtreme Simulator. If you’re a console racer or know you want be getting heavily into sim racing, then these products are suitable. However, if you own or have intentions of buying higher end gear then you’ll need to start looking at other products, the Obutto R3voltuion or the GT Ultimate, which is partly comprised of the Next Level Racing Wheel Stand, giving sim racers the ability to upgrade a piece at a time (the route I took when I purchased my Next Level Wheel Stand a few years ago). These products offer the ability to mount triple screens, a must for anyone chasing in immersion.
Finally there’s the ultimate add on to any sim-rig: motion. This is where things can get crazy expensive. Expect to pay at least $24,000 for a cockpit that can produce up to 1g of forces, such as the Stage 5 Full Motion rig from SimXperience. It even comes with a cupholder! Of course that’s the upper end of consumer grade; a simple kit starts at around $2,500. A satisfactory motion platform for the average sim racer can be included to an existing cockpit for around $3,000.
Will outlaying $10,000 on sim gear make you the fastest around a virtual race track? Probably not, but it will increase your enjoyment and it will almost certainly make you faster around a real track.