Motion control gaming really has grown into its own shoes over the last couple of years. Nintendo's Wii jump-started the trend and Sony and Microsoft arguably improved on the formula with their own solutions: the more accurate PlayStation Move, and controller-less Kinect.
Released quietly with little marketing blitz, Microsoft's Wireless Speed Wheel (WSW) is a motion controller that most people have never even heard of. If Move is an advanced version of the Wii Remote, then the WSW is a turbo-charged Wii Wheel.
Does the WSW one-up the Wii Wheel, or is it just another piece of plastic that nobody asked for, but Microsoft's selling anyway? Find out in our test-drive.
Kinda Like Steering A Jet
Whoever is working at Microsoft's Xbox design team has been doing a bang-up job with the console and its peripherals. Just like the slimmed-down Xbox 360, the WSW has half glossy and half matte black handles accented with a mirrored finish that give the controller a premium feel.
The WSW doesn't look like a car steering wheel. Instead, it takes after a yoke, or the control wheel on an airplane. There's a D-pad on the left handle, standard A/B/X/Y buttons (smaller than usual, but solid) on the right handle, two very lovely triggers on the back of those and of course the Xbox guide button and the Start/Back buttons next to it.
When using a regular Xbox 360 controller, most racing games have you accelerating with the right trigger, and braking is handled with the left. The WSW sticks to that scheme, and controls exactly how it looks like it would: the triggers handle both of those respective functions and have more than enough travel depth to not feel flimsy. To steer, you simply turn the WSW left and right. Anybody who's ever used a Wii Wheel will know that the whole "fake steering wheel in mid-air" experience can be pretty underwhelming because of sensitivity issues — unless you calibrate it (which can be time consuming to tweak it just right per game).
Impressively, the WSW works (mostly) as advertised on the box. Driving through Turn 10's latest and greatest racing simulation, Forza 4, steering was very tight. I didn't notice any situations where a car spun out of control because of the motion controls. Being super sensitive, the WSW reacts to very little movement — even the subtlest tilt can be recognized by the motion sensor. You really don't need to make wild jerks or exaggerated tilts just to get the WSW to respond — it's nearly like holding a real driving wheel — which is fantastic.
The WSW has rumble, but feedback is relatively weak — a letdown considering that "feeling the track" through vibration is key to making racing games feel immersive.
It's a little strange at first to play a hardcore racing sim such as Forza with a motion controller, and you might feel it's a peripheral Microsoft is targeting at the casual gamer, but because the WSW is so responsive, you quickly forget that strangeness.
Bumps in The Road: Missing Buttons
In the breakdown above, you probably realized that the WSW is actually missing a few buttons found on the standard Xbox 360 controller. And you're right. The WSW doesn't have LB and RB buttons and is missing analog sticks entirely. What this means is that games programmed to use those buttons effectively become gimped.
Microsoft says that the WSW works with every racing game. That's only partly true. The WSW works with every racing game (even games as old as 2005's Ridge Racer 6) for steering — but not for everything else.
For example, WSW won't give you control over certain things such as the camera view (usually mapped to the right analog stick). Default functions in some titles such as the nitro boost in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit sometimes don't work even when it's already programmed to the A button.
Racing games that use the LB/RB buttons for switching between interior and exterior views or special item pick-ups (like those found in Midnight Club: Lost Angeles) also get screwed up. To be fair, Microsoft does provide a snoozy video warning here about the missing bumper buttons, but we don't can't see why those buttons didn't make the cut.
Either you figure out a way to re-map the functions to the D-pad or just lose them altogether. It's not exactly something you want after paying $60 for a "racing controller" that's supposed to replace a regular 360 gamepad or a huge racing wheel and pedal setup.
Who Is This For?
As I said, the WSW's configuration is going to be largely affected by the specific game you're playing it with. Luckily, most of the buttons can be re-mapped, so if you don't mind tinkering with the settings, the WSW is a winner — for racing fans.
It's understandable that Microsoft is trying to fill a niche space between the Xbox 360 controller and the dedicated wheel/pedal setup, but most casual gamers won't fork over another $60 just to race digital cars on a track. The type of people who buy the wheel/pedal rigs are real car sim fans — and they'll get one of those because of the pedals lend to the realism of the game. A casual gamer might see the WSW and think it's cool, but it's still less versatile than a standard 360 gamepad.
Too bad, because the WSW delivers when it comes to performance (it's lightyears ahead of the Wii Wheel). My advice is to try it before you buy it. I kind of like a middleman controller for racing games (I don't have space for a proper racing rig), but it really compromises too much to be worth it when you're playing old racing games (Forza 4 was designed to work with the WSW, so naturally, it's less compromising).
It more or less goes without saying, but the WSW can't be used for regular games. You can use all the buttons to navigate around the Dashboard and even start up Xbox 360 games, but it quickly becomes useless when you need access to the analogs.
All photos for DVICE by Raymond Wong.