With the long awaited crowd developed racing simulator Project CARS now on the shelves, it may be time to consider getting a decent racing set-up. Read on as I put the pedal to the metal and take some top-of-the-range kit from Thrustmaster out for a road test.
Now, I love racing games but, apart from the occasional dalliance with my trusty Xbox 360 racing wheel, my on-track antics are reliant on a gamepad. Of course, when I was asked to test out the PC version of Project CARS with a Thrustmaster wheel, pedal and shifter kit, I really couldn’t say no.
For years Thrustmaster have been providing discerning flight and racing simulation fans with top-end controllers, bringing that extra bit of realism to their games.
Whilst screeching an Aston Martin V8 Vantage through a mountain pass may be exhilarating with a gamepad, the same experience as you ease the car around the bends with a wheel, shifting your way through the manual gearbox, is absolutely sublime.
The Thrustmaster T300RS is robust racing wheel complete with metal sequential gear paddles and a twin pedal set. This, coupled with the T3PA three-pedal add-on, as well as the TH8A eight position H-shifter, provides what I can only describe as a premium racing experience. The T300RS is PS3/4 and PC only. Xbox One owners can get a similar experience with the Thrustmaster’s similarly styled TX Racing Wheel Ferrari 458 Italia Edition, which is also compatible with the T3PA pedals and the TH8A shifter.
Let’s take a look at the T300RS wheel first. From reading the box, the wheel has a contactless motor, which provides a seamless, smooth and realistic force-feedback. Whilst, I’d agree the force feedback is pretty amazing, I’d also add that the motor is very strong; a high-speed crash playing Ubisoft’s The Crew almost broke my wrist- and I’m not kidding. As they say, it’s realistic.
The actual wheel feels rock solid and sits nicely in your hands. Like all these racing wheel kits, it’s a bit small- smaller than a racing wheel in a touring car, but is it very responsive and, with an adjustable 1080 degrees of turn, does its job very well. The centre of the wheel has all the PlayStation buttons, except the L3 and R3, which are located on the unit’s body- about where you’d expect to find the ignition switch, and the gear paddles on the column. That’s thirteen buttons in total, plus a D-pad.
The wheel’s sequential gear change paddles are metal, making them feel very sturdy and in keeping with the wheel’s quality finish. The actual T300RS wheel can be quickly removed and swapped for one of a number of compatible alternative wheels including the ones licenced from Ferrari.
On the left side of the base it a switch that changes the configuration from PS3 to PS4. PC users should have it switched to the “PS3” position. The wheel connects to your PS3/4 or PC via a USB cable that may be a little too short for couch-based racers.
The power supply unit is built into the wheel, which means that you don’t have to have an extra block sitting on the ground, instead the unit plugs straight into the mains. The wheel can be either clamped to a table or mounted to a cockpit.
Whilst the T300RS wheel includes a decent-looking set of accelerator and brake pedals, I left them in the box. Instead, I plugged in Thrustmaster’s T3PA three-pedal add-on kit.
The T3PA pedal kit adds a clutch pedal into the mix. The actual pedals are metal and feel very positive under foot. The accelerator has a weaker spring than both the brake and clutch. There’s an optional rubber bung included which can be used to adjust the braking resistance. With this brake mod installed each petal has its own “feel”. The pedals can be adjusted- moving them apart a little. The accelerator can also be adjusted up and down. The pedals connect to the base of the wheel via a thin cable.
Completing my test kit is Thrustmaster’s TH8A add-on shifter. This thing is a hefty lump of metal (the box says that it’s 90% metal) with eight gates labelled one through seven and “R”. The actual selector is a solid metal shaft with a brushed metal knob.
I’ve used build-in shifters on wheels before and always found them to be limp and more like a kid’s toy. The TH8A is a monster by comparison- with its metal construction it’s like something out of a Mad Max movie. The gear positions are very positive, perhaps a bit too positive, but at least you know you are in gear. The thing is mountable in a few different ways depending on your setup and can, of course, be mounted on a cockpit frame. Whilst the idea of driving a manual car with a clutch again fills me with joy, sequential fans can use the adapter plate to turn the gearstick into a rather pedestrian +/- affair. Why you’d spend all that money to use it like a paddle shift is beyond me, though.
Connecting the gearstick to your system is a bit more involved than the wheel and pedals. How it connects depends on the device you are connecting it to and the game that you want to play.
The shifter kit comes with two interchangeable cables that connect to the stick via a threaded knuckle joint. One of the cables is for connecting to your device via USB and the other is for connecting to the steering wheel base. For every application on both the PC and PS4 I’ve connected the stick via USB. I’m not sure, but I think connecting directly to the wheel is for when you want to use the stick as a separate sequential shifter.
So, the above describes a Thrustmaster racing setup that’ll set you back the best part of AU$1400, but what’s it like to use?
Before I delved into Project CARS I wanted to check the kit out with a few games that I’ve played with a gamepad and/or Xbox 360 racing wheel.
The first game that I tested was GRID Autosport on PC. I love this game; it’s a pure racer with all that Race Driver-style story taken out. GRID Autosport is just about racing fast cars.
I did have some teething problems, and this is something worth watching out for, due to a conflict with my Xbox 360 controller’s PC wireless adapter. I’d recommend making sure all your other controllers are disconnected to save yourself a bit of bother.
With the Xbox adapter disconnected, setting the wheel up was painless. It was easy to set the gearbox and clutch to manual and activate the “H” layout stick shift. I’d forgotten how much I missed accelerating through the rev range and changing gear with a clutch.
Switching from PC to the PS4’s Driveclub was a bit of a disappointment. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Driveclub. I think it looks great and I really enjoy those point-to-point races.
The level of environmental customisation is fantastic and I’ve had a lot of fun driving around as the sun rises. But, considering Driveclub is supposed to be a driving simulation, the lack of support for the H shift is unforgivable. Still, the wheel with sequential gears gave me a definite edge over the online competition who were obviously using cars with automatic gearboxes.
Still with the PS4, Ubisoft’s The Crew was a different matter entirely. This is a game full of ambition that, as a racer, doesn’t quite pull it off. With the wheel, the game really starts to shine.
The Crew fully supports the clutch and manual gearstick. The huge and varied driving environment, that felt a bit generic with a gamepad, is an absolute joy to drive around with the wheel. I found myself just taking off- going for a drive – seeing where the road took me. It was amazingly relaxing.
Back on PC, the Codies’ DiRT 3 didn’t work as planned. I had to go into the game’s guts to get the wheel to work and I never got the shifter working at all. But, in all fairness it is a four year-old game. Still, even just using the paddles to change gear, DiRT 3 felt like a different game altogether. The game really benefits from the force feedback, enabling you to properly judge your traction and maximise your speed around the course.
Formula 1 2014 is another game that opens itself up once you plug in the T300RS. I had to adjust the steering lock to match the F1 cars, but this was easily done with the wheel’s utility software. The wheel uses its force feedback motors to artificially create a smaller lock angle. I found all the Codemasters games I tested benefited from a steering lock adjustment.
This is the thing with force feedback wheels, the amount of feedback, the lock angle and dead zones are a mixture of personal preference and the intentions/aptitude of the game designers implementing the wheel support. You can spend ages tweaking and re-tweaking the feedback and sensitivity settings.
Having tested a few familiar games as a benchmark, I moved on to Project CARS.
Project CARS is rather unique. It’s a crowd funded and developed game, very much in the style of the hardcore niche racing simulations, but with the marketing muscle of Bandai Namco behind it.
Whilst the game caters for the casual console racing set, that is not why it exists. Project CARS has the likes of Assetto Corsa in its sights, rather than Forza 5.
Setting up the T300RS wheel was easy, it’s right there in the controller selection, along with dozens of other wheels. Selecting T300RS with separate pedals gave me my T3PA clutch. To sort out the TH8A shifter I had to manually map the gates- I really thought it would do that for me. But, in any case, it worked fine.
Calibrating the wheel is done in the game by turning the wheel all the way around and then turning it just 90 degrees. Project CARS adjusted the wheel lock on a car by car basis, so there’s no need to tweak the settings in the Thrustmaster utility. Similarly the pedals are calibrated by a quick press of each one.
I did spend some time trying to sort out the clutch biting point with the accelerator. After much trial and error I got the set-up tuned so that I didn’t have to rev the nuts of the car before lifting the clutch.
Project CARS features an incredible selection of cars from 125cc karts to the latest prototype supercars. Not all these car actually have gears on an H-shifter. Many cars will not accommodate a cheeky block change down to 2nd in order to lose speed and swing around a curve. Cars with a real-world paddle shift are best driven using the paddle shift, as otherwise you will need to shift down through each gate. Mess up and you’ll find yourself in the wrong gear for the shift position, which is not the sort of confusion you want at 150mph.
Despite what some would say, Project CARS can be played with a gamepad, and played well. It’s is, however, very unforgiving compared with many of its console-developed peers and much more suited to a steering wheel.
It’s a credit to the developers as to just how natural Project CARS feels when driven with a wheel and shifter. This is the first time that I can honestly say that I used my real-life driving experience in a video game.
As I’ve spent most of my driving life in the UK, I’m very familiar with driving a manual car. My personal opinion of automatic transmissions has been skewed by the knowledge that it is usually only bad drivers in the UK that drive automatics.
Call me precious, but removing the clutch from a car, turns it into a toy. A device that requires little skill or control to manoeuvre, it’s simply one pedal for go and another for stop. Childs play.
With a clutch, a pedal that can one moment be a brake and the other an accelerator, and the direct control over the vehicles gear ratios, a car stops being such a blunt instrument and instead becomes infinitely controllable by the driver.
I’d be as bold to say that the only way to properly experience driving a car is with a manual gearbox.
The Thrustmaster T300RS with the T3PA and the TH8A, reminded me just how much I miss taking a manual car right through the rev-range to maximise acceleration. My automatic Holden Evoke feels like a donkey by comparison.
As with any steering wheel setup, the T300RS takes some getting used to. We get so used to driving with a gamepad that the drop in success rate with a wheel doesn’t seem worth it. You have to stick with it. It IS better driving with a wheel than a gamepad. Would you feel safe driving your car with a controller?
With the learning curve out of the way, experiencing a driving game, especially a simulator like Project CARS, becomes a totally new experience. With the T300RS wheel, the T3PA pedals and the TH8A shifter, I was able to put my real-world driving skill to good use racing cars in virtual championships.
Project CARS is out now on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4. The Thrustmaster T300RS, T3PA petal add-on and the TH8A shifter add-on are available from all good gaming stores.