If you've ever compared a Formula 1 racer steering wheel with the one in your street car, you probably found yourself taken aback by the sheer number of buttons, knobs, and controls crammed onto the relatively small surface of the former.
That's exactly the feeling that I got when unboxing the SteelSeries SRW-S1 steering wheel for the Simraceway online racing game. Compared with, for example, the Microsoft Wireless Speed Wheel, S1 (for short) more than doubles the number of buttons available to the player--an attribute that may be daunting to some novices and enticing to many hard-core gamers. However, despite my initial impressions, I'd learn during testing its control scheme (and lack of pedals) it is probably a better fit for casual players than its complex appearance belies.
The controller: SteelSeries SRW-S1
The wheel itself is quite the impressive bit of video game hardware. Packed onto a device not much larger than a paperback book are no fewer than three mode-selection knobs, four flappy paddles, one directional pad, 15 buttons, and a 15-LED digital tachometer. Wow! The wheel connects to your windows PC via a USB connection.
At it's most basic, players use the S1 by holding it by the handles on its left and right edges and twisting left and right like they would with a real steering wheel. The unit's internal accelerometer then senses the degree of twist and translates it to in-game steering. The default setting reads the wheel over 180 degrees rotation, but that can be quickly adjusted with a twist of the steering sensitivity knob, which gives users up to 360 degrees of sensitivity in 15-degree increments. I was able to test steering sensitivity using a tool in the game's menu and found it to be both very accurate and responsive.
With steering under your belt, you'll need to get your virtual car moving, and since the S1 doesn't come with a set of pedals, you'll need to use the flappy paddles located on the back of the wheel as stand-ins for the pedals. There are actually, as I mentioned, four paddles on the back of the S1: the lower two feature analog sensitivity and operate the accelerator (right) and brake (left) during gameplay and the smaller upper paddles trigger upshifts and downshifts (right and left, respectively).
That--if you then set the Assists knob to All and the Assist Values knob to Low, Med, or High--is about all that you need to know to jump in and start playing with the SRW-S1. But what about the other 16 buttons on the wheel's face?
Working clockwise from the upper-left corner, the S1 features buttons for Request Pit that allows users to bring up a menu of pit stop options during the race; a Speed Limiter that can be used to limit vehicle speed while in the pit lane; and Launch Control, which helps to maximize traction when taking off from a start. The HUD button cycles through auxiliary info in the game's interface, and the Horn button honks your virtual car's virtual horn. There's a Boost button for a quick burst of speed on vehicles equipped to do so, and a Look Right button that corresponds to the Look Left button on the other side of the controller. The large red Select button is used in the game's menus, and the Camera button is used to change views midgame.
The Assists and Assist Values knobs can be used to adjust the difficulty of the game on-the-fly and adjust assist values on an individual or global level. Moving past the Steering Sensitivity knob brings you to the Back button and the D-pad, which are used to navigate the game's menus. The D-pad serves another purpose in-game: allowing the user to adjust virtual seating position up and down and back and forth. Just above the D-pad is a button to trigger the car's lights, a Look Back button, which should be self explanatory, and a pair of buttons to adjust brake balance in favor of back or front.
If that seems like a lot of buttons, it's because it is! Piloting the digital Lancer Evolution X around a virtual Infineon Raceway was a frustrating affair in Simraceway's default settings. The SRW-S1 and the accompanying Simraceway game will let you individually set or preset assist values for 11 different parameters, including traction, vehicle damage, steering, pit stops, shifting, and clutch control. Depending on where you set your assist values and the capabilities of your selected car, you may or may not even need most of the buttons on the upper half of the S1's face. I like that the game gives instantaneous control over how much of a "sim" Simraceway is, allowing beginners to make the learning curve less steep and more enjoyable while not dumbing things down for seasoned vets.
The game: Simraceway
It's nearly impossible to review the SRW-S1 without also reviewing the Simraceway game, because although you can play the game without the controller, you can't really use the controller outside of the game it was designed to work with.
To say that the SRW-S1 is bundled with the Simraceway game is a bit of a misstatement. There is no disc in the box with the controller. The game must be downloaded before you can play. This Windows-only game is a 1.2GB download, so you'll definitely want a broadband connection. Simraceway is a free download and is, for the most part, free to play. However, it's not really free to enjoy. The initial download includes only one car, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X, and about seven tracks. If you want more cars, you'll have to buy them with real-world money. There are about 15 cars to chose from, according to the in-game menu, ranging from as low as 40 cents for a Dodge Charger R/T to as much as $8.63 for Maserati MC12. Fortunately, the SR-1 comes with a $10 in-game credit, so you'll be able to pick up a few more cars right off of the bat. I did not see a function for purchasing more tracks.
With your car chosen, it's time to hit the track, but even that proved to be more difficult than it should have been. For an entire day, attempts to start a Quick Race at the Beginner level were met with an error message, "Our tracks are all in use right now. Check back soon and we'll get you into a race." I'm assuming that's Simraceway's cheeky way of letting me know the servers are all full. Of course, getting into the Intermediate and Advanced Quick Races is a bit easier, but can also be a bit intimidating to new players.
The bulk of my testing was done in the Practice mode, where I was able to get a feel for the game without pissing off other players, but I was able to get my online racing fix by participating in one of the ongoing events: a hot lap challenge in the aforementioned Evo X at Infineon Raceway. Unfortunately, in this case, I couldn't find another track with more than one other racer, so my thirst for wheel-to-wheel racing action was still left slightly unsated. However, like all online games, your experience may vary. I'm told that there is a substantial community of Simraceway enthusiasts and devotees; my experience may have been purely anecdotal.
What may not have been anecdotal is the gameplay itself. Perhaps I've been spoiled by the crisp HD graphics of console racing sims like Forza Motorsport 4 or Gran Turismo 5 and the theatricality of games like Need for Speed: Shift 2, but the relatively simple graphics of Simraceway were a bit of an eyesore. I liked that the interiors of each car driven was meticulously rendered, but in the external views, these cars looked like lifeless hunks of metal floating just above the surface of the track.
Perhaps it was my gaming rig of choice (a 13-inch i5 MacBook Pro running Windows 7), but the smooth, accurate motion controls also felt jerky and twitchy when behind the wheel. Maybe the game's commitment to realism doesn't exactly jive well with a controller that lacks pedal and force feedback. In particular, I was missing the return to center sensation that you get in a real car or with a motorized racing wheel. Or perhaps I'm just not as good a driver as I think I am. There are more than a few variables that could have factored into my driving experience. Whatever the case, I was unable to get that Evo through one accident free lap with the assist values set to their default settings (despite having spent quite a few hours lapping Infineon Raceway in real life).
At the end of the day, I know it's not fair to compare a (mostly) free PC game to a big-budget console title like Forza 4, but that's exactly what I found myself doing during my testing. There are pros and cons to both platforms. For starters, Simraceway is much more flexible thanks to its on-the-fly difficulty adjustments, much cheaper (even if you buy every car available), and loads much faster. On the other hand, Forza is a much more beautiful game with more racing modes, better vehicle customization, and much more plug-and-play. Factor in the cost for the SRW-S1 hardware and Simraceway's pricing advantage shrinks considerably relative to Forza and, for example, the MS Wireless Speed Wheel. Still, for hard-core racers who haven't already invested in the Xbox 360 hardware, Simraceway can still provide realistic racing thrills and can scale with the driver as his or her skill increases.
All go, not much show
By itself, the SteelSeries SRW-S1 wheel is a pretty impressive bit of PC gaming hardware, but my thoughts on where it fits in with its Simraceway software counterpart are mixed. For beginning to intermediate players, the wheel is a great way to get their feet wet in the world of PC racing sims by putting control of the various assists and safety nets right there on the controller's face. As I stated earlier, the game and the controller can scale with the user, ramping up the difficultly as the player's skill increases with a simple twist of a knob. And while it may look like a complex mess, the SRW-S1 is actually remarkably easy to use after just a few practice laps.
However, for advanced players, the SRW-S1 comes with quite a few handicaps. Its lack of force feedback makes rounding a digital bend in a virtual sports car harder than rounding a real bend in the numbest steering minivan I can think of. Likewise, the lack of foot pedals combined with the plethora of buttons and paddles poses a steep learning curve to drivers whose muscle memory may be tuned for heel-and-toe downshifts.
Then there's the game itself, which didn't really impress me. The game's almost slavish dedication to function over form racing realism may be a boon for some, but for me half of the fun of a good racing sim is looking at and customizing a wide variety of cars. So, when I sit down to get my racing fix tonight, it will probably be in front of a console game like Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport, where I can choose from hundreds of cars that look as good in the replay as they feel during the lapping session. However, my taste in games is purely subjective and I have no doubt that Simraceway's substance over style approach is exactly what many users are looking for--particularly the contingency of amateur to professional racers who the Simraceway team has been actively targeting. Plus, it's very hard to argue with the free-to-play pricing.
But although it's designed to work with the Simraceway game, the SRW-S1 recognizes as a generic USB game controller in Windows, so its buttons can be remapped to work with any PC racing sim. The LED tachometer and Assists knobs will not work outside of the Simraceway software, but the user is still given on-the-fly control of steering sensitivity from 180 to 360 degrees. This universality and the controller's top-notch build quality make its $119.99 MSRP much easier to swallow. (Catch the SRW-S1 on sale at an online retailer for as low as $80 and its an even better buy!)