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| What to know about a MOMO (or any other good wheel for that matter): The Force is in the Feedback (10 comments )|
by: Millroy (24) | Posted in cluster Editors Challenge Sponsored by Intel Round 2
Posted 75 months ago ( edited 75 months ago ) in category DEFAULT
When I was younger, I understood the complex relationship between racing games and input devices in terms of three simple equations:
|» MEDIA (5)|
Live for Speed: As the rear end of my car slides out, the wheel pulls left as physics says it should.
Flatout: As the rear end of my car slides out, the tension in the wheel remains constant.
Xpand Rally: Feeling the chatter of gravel under my wheels.
Nascar 2003: Not the recommended technique, but an example of when there shouldn't be (and for this game, isn't) any tension in the wheel.
Flatout 2: I could do barrel rolls for miles but I'll still feel tension on the wheel.
Racing game + Keyboard = Evil
Racing game + Analog Game Pad = Good
Racing game + Steering Wheel = Awesome
This understanding of the world served me well with my Mad Catz wheel and my copy of Nascar Racings 1 through 3. When my most beneficent caretakers saw fit to give me a Microsoft Sidewinder Wheel for Christmas, I revised my system of understanding with the following addition:
Racing game + Force Feedback Steering Wheel = Transcendental bliss
That was, until I actually plugged it in and tried to play some games, realizing then that
Racing game + Force Feedback Steering Wheel = 10 frames per second with my weaksauce rig.
Years down the road when I finally upgraded, my Sidewinderís Force Feedback mysteriously refused to work with XP, no matter what I tried. I was heartbroken for a while, but I moved on with my life. I went to college. I met new people. I began paying bills, and I forgot about the what a decent force feedback wheel could add to my life.
That was until last winter when a friend generously bought me a Logitech MOMO for my Birthday. (If only he waited a year he could have sprung for the G25, right?) Iíd been playing Flatout at the time and the transition from driving with my thumb on a stubby game pad to white knuckle rubber gripped force feedback did indeed approach transcendence. Even though Flatout is far from a sim, I felt like a redneck Colin McRae, sliding my souped-up beater between trees with the best of Ďem. Whereas credit usually goes to the display, my MOMO opened the door to immersion that would have otherwise been inaccessible.
After playing the game through multiple times with multiple car choices, I grew bored and decided to wait for the sequel. When it finally came, I wasnít disappointed. Mostly. I mean, the game is very fun, and I still play online every now and again, but something was missing from the experience. Of course, the physics for the cars are different, on the whole more arcade-y. The gameplayís different too. And it wasnít the graphics, which were improved but had a cleaner, less gritty feel to them.
It took me a long time to tease it out, but what was missing from my experience, what made the game feel so different, had to do with force feedback. For the first time I realized that how force feedback is handled by each game affects the playing experience much more than I ever would have guessed. My old equations just got thrown out the window.
When I first encountered force feedback via my Sidewinder wheel it was a magical experience. What spiritual forces conspired inside this black plastic box to mimic driving on pavement, ice, gravel, and in some cases, nothing at all? It turns out to be relatively simple: thereís resistance turning left or right, and occasionally, some vibrations.
Most games with force feedback support at least offer some rumbles, bumps, and resistance when turning left or right. The rumbles, bumps, knocks, and vibrations are all placeholders to indicate when your tireís crossed over onto a rumble strip, or when youíve hit a wall. While this information is fun and helpful, these placeholders can only do so much to up the realism of a virtual driving experience. While theyíre obvious and annoying when absent, their presence can never feel real without a wheel packing such a wallop that lawsuits due to wrist injury would pour in. The left-right resistance in the wheel simulates the same resistance felt when turning a real car left or right as it tries to center itself. Every game Iíve played handles this force differently, and itís how this force is handled in particular that makes the difference between really losing yourself in the cockpit and just playing another racing game.
To really explain how these forces can work to create an amazing experience I should start with Live for Speed. Now Live for Speed takes itself seriously as a racing simulator, so I wasnít surprised when the experience surpassed many twitch steering arcade games. Right from the start, youíre dropped in the cockpit view of a car that is powerful enough that, if you mash the gas through a turn, you will get a comprehensive and dizzying view of everything around you. After playing games like Flatout, it takes a moment to reeducate yourself to the proper methods of driving a car. Methods that donít involve putting the hammer down and tearing the wheel left and right in a fury.
The first few laps I took in Live for Speed was like taking a clinic on the possibilities of force feedback. When motionless, the wheel can be turned left or right without much resistance. Once the car begins rolling, the wheel tries to come back to center, as expected. The real surprise comes when the carís turning fast enough to cause the wheels to slide, or when in a rear wheel drive car too much throttle is applied and the rear wheels begin to come around. As the weight in the car shifts, the resistance in the wheel changes in response. What was steady pressure coming from your lazy right hand turn has suddenly started to disappear as the rear end threatens to come around. Push it further, bring the back around into a long slide, and pressure is now applied from the opposite direction. Overcorrect and throw the car into a spin and feel that wheel go crazy as it jerks back and forth.
Change cars and the feel is completely different. In the first sloppy turns I took, the level of realism conveyed in the wheel instilled a sense of respect for the car I was driving. Screw around or let my guard down and Iíd be in the grass in a heartbeat. Push the car further than my ability to handle it, and Iíd have some explaining to do in the pits. Live for Speed doesnít have photo-realistic graphics, and with my machineís specs, they looked outright dated. But in under five minutes, with the help of a well executed force feedback, I was transported from my desk to the track, and all for less than the price of a plane ticket!
Xpand Rally says ďRALLY SIMULATIONĒ on the spine of the box in the same serious font Iíd expect to tell me PAST DUE or CANCELLATION NOTICE or CONTAINS 0% REAL JUICE. For the most part the game is done very well. The graphics include excellent touches like cracking windshields and road dirt that, from the cockpit view at least, do a lot to put you in the driverís seat. From the start, the force feedback is pleasing to the touch, simulating with wheel chatter the loose feel of dust and gravel as you slide your way around the canyons of Arizona.
The feedback itself though is much lighter to the touch, even with the force turned up, than Live for Speedís. The car feels light and breezy as it skitters around the course. To an extent, this should be expected, as thereís a great deal of difference between the handling of a rally car on dirt and a sports car on pavement. Still, when sliding through the corners, which happens a great deal of the time, the wheel doesnít translate the same information it does with Live for Speed. Left or right force remains constant without regard to the weight distribution or overall disposition of the vehicle. This lack of detail doesnít take anything away from the Xpand Rally experience, which is a mostly good experience, until I compare it with Live for Speed and think of how much cooler it could be with that bit of detail added.
Nascar 2003 is yet another sim experience altogether: guiding a 3400 pound beast with more horsepower to the rear wheels than is healthy for most people to have access to along an endless repetition of left turns in search of the perfect setup and racing line to turn the fastest laps possible while trying not to smear the competition or yourself into the retaining wall. Of course the cars handle differently. And, being a different game, the force feedback is handled differently as well.
The left-right resistance (or, for this game, mostly left) feels markedly different than either Xpand or Live for Speed. Xpandís resistance feels somewhat constant once the car is in motion, while Live for Speeds feels a bit more linear as you drive faster or turn sharper. Nascar 2003ís resistance feels almost non existent through long shallow turns, but really kicks in when pulling through a tight fast turn. On banked straightaways be prepared for the eerie feeling that is pushing the wheel right just to go straight as you fight both against your carís tendency to turn left (thanks to its setup) and gravity.
Nascar 2003 does appear to have left-right resistance that changes as your car gets squirrelly, but the whole experience is mushier. On one hand, I understand this when I think about a stock carís handling vs. a sports car. On the other hand, Nascar 2003 lacks the intuitive and natural feel that Live for Speed has, and while the force feedback that the game does give you is tailored to equip you with the information you need to turn a hot lap, it does not make you feel ďone with the car.Ē
Back near the arcade side of town we have Flatout and Flatout 2. Flatoutís force feedback does not give you the information Nascar 2003 does, nor the information and the immediate realism of Live for Speed. It does however, give the immediate pleasure of Xpand. The wheel resistance is constant through all kinds of slides, which like Xpand, conveys little information about the carís handling. Here though itís excusable, since the carís handling is pretty much straightforward due to its simplicity as an arcade racer. Most slides can be calmly corrected, most envelopes pushed past the point of absurdity with little to no consequence. So where does the pleasure come in? Air.
In the world of Flatout, rife with obstacles and jumps, itís common to find oneís car in the air. And, like the previous three games, when in the air tension on the wheel disappears. There is calm and weightless bliss that lasts but a beautiful and perfect moment before car inevitably rejoins earth and the wheel jerks at the exact moment it should to remind you where you are, where youíre going, and what you need to do next. The games numerous jumps combined with the slacking of the wheel in air gives just enough credibility to the idea that you were racing a real car in a potentially real world to suspend disbelief and put myself there. No realistic physics necessary, no cutting edge graphics, just enough nods to the real thing to make me believe.
Itís these nods that were missing in Flatout 2. For the sequel, wheel tension is constant. Your car could be in orbit docking with the International Space Station, but it would still feel like it was leaning hard into a turn. The exclusion of this small detail, present in every other racing game I have, never allowed me to participate as a member of that world. That doesnít mean itís not a fun game. It just means that it can only be a game, nothing more.
Itís that small difference between Flatout and its sequel that taught me about immersion. Of course graphics are important, but theyíre only part of the equation. For racing games, a convincing user interface connecting the player to the car theyíre driving is just as crucial, if not more so. The MOMO is a great wheel and can be the key to unlocking that amazing racing experience, but in the end, it can only be as good as the game itís playing.
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