Looking more like a plane's yoke than a car's steering wheel, the new Wireless Speed Wheel from Microsoft is a unique device just to behold. But be surprised, when using the little peripheral transforms your normal virtual driving experience into a thrilling, smile-inducing good time...for some games.
The wheel comes priced at $59.99, and is packaged with a driver update on an included disc. Nice touch for those without internet connections. The driver for the Wireless Speed Wheel tricks most racing games currently available into thinking it's the Wireless Steering Wheel, the larger one with pedals and the whole works, and newer games like Forza 4 come with support for the Speed Wheel specifically. This works for and against it, as you'll note immediately that the Speed Wheel lacks Right and Left bumpers, as well as an analog stick. This make navigating menus a crapshoot sometimes, but it compounds with this unique problem: If the game you're playing lets you use manual transmission, but doesn't let you remap the controls to put shifting on the face buttons or D-pad, you cannot use the Wheel to play that game. Some Need For Speed titles, and Driver San Francisco both suffered that fate.
Once around the hardware's limits, the hardware's virtues shine bright. I sampled about six racing games I had lying around my place, some on the Xbox Live Arcade, some on disc. Outrun Online Arcade, the new Daytona USA and Forza 4 were the best two supporters I found (despite only being able to use Automatic Transmission in Outrun). The wheel lets you cut through drifts in Outrun like a fine razor, instantly transporting you back to the arcade racing machines of your younger days. Forza 4 lets you rewind, change views and even shift using a clutch if you want, all mapped to the wheel, and the racing is just as razor sharp as in Outrun. You can make minute adjustments, carefully feather the brakes or gun it in the straights and all your movements make it to the car with barely any perceptible delay.
The wheel itself has large grips with very substantial Left and Right Triggers, and access to the D-pad and face buttons feels good, with Start and Back hidden on the center of the unit. It's not too heavy, and you can rest it in your lap comfortably. I never felt fatigued using it, and it's "pick up and race" design makes it great for just that. No set up, just go. Forza 4 actually supports the Speed Wheel specifically, with five different buttons configurations available for all tastes. Daytona USA cleverly maps the four gears to the four face buttons, so you can shift with them on the Speed Wheel just as easily. Great support like that will hopefully will make it into future racing titles from all developers.
The Wireless Speed Wheel is pretty damn cool. For sixty bucks it's only a little more than buying another Xbox 360 controller, or less than the cheapest wheels available right now. If you just bought Forza 4 and haven't ever owned a wheel/racing peripheral the Speed Wheel is a must have. Combined with Forza's Kinect head-tracking feature, it's a fast and easy solution that'll get you behind the wheel like never before. With future support from the industry, the Wireless Speed Wheel may just avoid getting swept under the rug as a gimmicky toy, and take its place along side some of the best designed and implemented peripherals we've ever seen.
The reviewer bought the Wireless Speed Wheel, and played it with Driver: San Francisco, Need For Speed Shift, Need For Speed Most Wanted, Outrun Online Arcade, Daytona USA, Sega Rally Online Arcade, Forza Motorport 4 and Skydrift, just to see what would happen.