The flexibility of the PC as a gaming platform means there's a world of incredible gear you can add to your experience. From just a few dollars to gear that costs more than a new car, you can bling up your PC gaming no matter what your taste or budget.
Logitech hasn't updated its old G27 wheel for several years, while Thrustmaster is keeping busy with decent mid-range gear. But it's German company Fanatec that has been stealing the racing thunder over the last couple of years. The ClubSport is simply the best consumer-grade wheel you can buy today. It's a system comprising of the sold-separately base, containing the outstanding force-feedback mechanicals to which you attach either the Formula or BMW M2 rims (more will come), using a similar system to the quick-release mechanism used in real motorsport.
Build and engineering quality is off the scale. These are sim art. In hand, the force feedback is a revelation, with belt drive eliminating the notchiness felt in lesser wheels, and its mighty motor can deliver enough force to wrench the wheel from your hand if you have it dialled up to maximum.
Down below, some say, is where the need for racing precision and quality really matters. Once again, Fanatec owns the consumer high end with its rather beautiful pedals.
It uses a "load cell" on the brake pedal, which registers foot pressure, rather than simply pedal movement. This means instinctive and natural braking precision, not the fuzzy muscle memory you need to learn with lesser movement-based pedals. A hydraulic oil damper attached to the shaft provides a nice progressive feel.
The clutch features a tricky "degressive" mechanism, which feels uncannily like a real car's, letting you better feel for the bite point.
You can adjust the position of the plates, or the throw length of any pedal, too, and for maximum personal fit, Fanatec will sell you a mod kit, containing springs and dampers of varying length and strength.
The high ground in sim racing gear is held by ECCI, which has been supplying professional racing teams and drivers for a decade for their off-track training. It's ridiculously well engineered and purposeful gear, with function the absolute priority over form.
The Trackstar 6000, unbelievably, doesn't have force feedback. Instead, the company went for unfettered precision steering. A fluid dampening mechanism provides perfectly smooth and accurate wheel control. The clever mechanism adds increased resistance the quicker you turn, but for bumps and ripples, you'll need to spend upwards of US$3300 for the force feedback-equipped Trackstar 7000.
This is premium gear if money is no object and you have a nice cockpit to mount it in, plus it comes with decent pedals, so it's really not so unreasonable.
For years, TrackIR has been the best kept secret in gaming. Only the hardcore own one, while most others shun with doubt and suspicion, unconvinced at face value of its true worth.
But if you've got one, you know it's probably the single coolest and most useful bit of gaming kit in existence.
It's simply head tracking. Beautiful, game-changing head tracking. A sensor sits atop your monitor, which reads a clip that fastens to your cap or headphones, featuring three motion-capture strips.
A small degree of head movement is translated to head movement in-game, and it takes about one minute to get used to and fall in love with. For racing sims, it's exhilarating; for flight sims, it's indispensable; and you can even use it in Arma II and III in regular FPS mode.
Besides the massively increased tactical awareness, psychologically, it puts you "in the game", and that's the magic.
With a name that can't help but bring a smile to your face, what this device actually delivers is worthy of a far broader grin. The ButtKicker concept is a decade and a half old and has withstood the gimmick test, having matured into a refined and, for some, essential bit of kit.
It's a low-frequency subwoofer speaker in a small housing, which clamps to the base of your seat or — if you have one — cockpit frame. An amplifier and audio processing box connects to your sound card. Thus, low, bassy rumbles are transferred through your seat and into your body.
Sensitivity is adjustable, and not all seats work well with it. Mesh chairs, like the Aeron, won't work at all — it needs as much solid surface as possible wrapping your body. But with the right set-up ... oh boy. You will feel the power and exhilaration of your racing or flying machine, and high-intensity shooters are quite amazing in a heavy fire fight. It's genuinely useful for providing sensory feedback, but the real payoff is the incredible immersion you'll feel.
The high-end joystick scene has been sadly stagnant lately, symptomatic of the decline in combat flight sims as a genre (at least compared to the glory years of the 1990s). That hasn't stopped Thrustmaster from seizing the day with a bit of kit that every combat simmer yearns for — or already owns.
Exquisite engineering and design quality make this the HOTAS (Hands on Throttle and Stick) to have. Resting your hands on the mostly metal Warthog imparts a seriousness that simmers crave. It lights up beautifully, too, and the switches are of the same quality you'd find in audiophile Hi-Fi gear.
It's an exact replica of the stick and throttle used in the American A-10 close support aircraft — and the tiniest details are authentically covered — including the precise level of pressure needed for each button push, meaning they're calibrated for mil-spec hands wearing gloves!
Wearable impact systems have been a holy grail for gaming because it makes sense and sounds pretty cool. But they just haven't taken off. The promising-looking ARAIG raised just a 10th of its Kickstarter goal earlier this year, fuelling the bleak outlook for these devices.
Undeterred, American company TN Games has soldiered on with its 3RD Space gaming vest. It uses an array of inflatable air bladders (four in the front, four in the back), which simulate body impacts — whether a single bullet to your torso or the full-body explosion. It's genuinely useful, providing unmistakeable cues for bad-guy location, but that's not why we'd buy one, of course. Getting smashed around in a game for real is where it's at. We expect reignited development in this space once Oculus Rift is released.
Yes, it's a copy of the Wii controllers for PC. No, it's not a must-have device. Yet. But when Oculus hits, we'll be looking for controllers that work well when we're encapsulated in virtual-reality land. This, and designs like it, will rapidly become indispensable, as owners of the early Oculus dev kits are enthusiastically discovering.
The advantage is its motion and position tracking, which sit well with the Rift's immersion factor. Aiming a weapon becomes a physical movement, mirroring exactly how we'd do it in reality, while on-screen, your hands are just where you'd expect them to be.
But the ace is that it can use the position sensing to allow a degree of full body movement. Because the sensors know where they are in space, ducking, jumping and leaning are all natural (provided you move your hands where your body is going) and achieved with just a simple and affordable pair of hand bananas.
A regular keyboard works perfectly well for most PC games — but it's not sexy. A proper glowing multi-buttoned thing to rest your left hand on is sexy. But you need to choose carefully, or it could be a step backward. Razer's cheaper Tartarus has too few keys. The better Orbweaver adds an extra row, and while both have a three-mode switch, effectively tripling the number of buttons, having more actual physical buttons in the first place is better — especially if you have large hands, as the Tartarus was just too cramped. The Orbweaver also features proper mechanical keys, something that's all the rage in gaming keyboards because of the nicer tactile feel they impart.
Besides FPS gaming, these have valid advantages in RTS games, thanks to the software supporting sophisticated macro functions. On the downside, they're too light and tend to slide around the desk. But, again, once Oculus gaming takes off, a device like this is a must — because good luck finding an out-of-reach key on a regular keyboard by feel.
While the combat flight sim scene has contracted, fliers of commercial and private sim planes have a vast world of software and hardware to indulge in, thanks largely to the healthy third-party and community support for Microsoft Flight Sim and X-Plane. You can buy anything from a simple single-button board, all the way through to a faithfully accurate complete instrument panel array, costing AU$50,000 or more. At the higher end of the sane zone sits the Virtual Fly Solo Flight Panel. Its generic design appeals to those with vast fleets of different aircraft, and it can be mounted in a full cockpit or just sat on the desk in front of you.
Because Flight Sim and X-Plane support outputs to physical devices, every gauge, button, lever and switch is accurate and fully functional, so your screen/s are nothing but view and you're in the cockpit.
Sim cockpits have been around since the dawn of PC gaming, and while many people choose to build their own (it's an excellent project!), off-the-shelf rigs have hit a new height in sophistication.
It's all about combining ergonomics, which are comfortable yet racing authentic, providing stable mounting for your controllers and screen/s, and, at the high end, hydraulics that throw you around convincingly.
Believe it or not, US$22,500 is far from the most you can spend, but that'll get you a top-end rig from American company SimXperience. Because the software in the better sims, like iRacing, output telemetry, a well-engineered system like this can translate that into extremely realistic movement. Cheaper sims only shake you around roughly; better fidelity makes all the difference here in terms of imparting useful feedback.
The Stage 5 senses dynamic changes 250 times per second and can throw you back and forth, with enough force to simulate acceleration and braking, as well as other lateral forces and road effects. Yes, people actually buy these.
In the realms of basic non-moving chassis-only cockpits (of which there are a great many), the Obutto R3volution has been winning praise because its flexible design supports every kind of gaming. It's a snug, comfortable and very cool place to sit, but its appeal lies in its versatility.
For keyboard and mouse gaming, a three-point swivel holds a tray large enough for any keyboard/mouse combo, as well as resting your hands, plus room for a can and a bowl of chips. Swing it to the side and bring forward the main tray, with your steering wheel attached, and it's a racing rig. Insert the centre-mount joystick pillar and take to the skies!
The transformation is quick and easily achieved while seated. Monitor mounts are available, or just put it in front of a big white wall and use a projector for massively immersive gaming. There are no hydraulic actuators to shake you around, but for the price, it's on par with a high-end video card and is a whole lot more rewarding.