Steering Wheels. One of the biggest joys for yours truly. I have, since I was a tiny thing playing Sega Turbo and Monaco GP down the arcades, been a racing game fan. Of course back then you had joysticks or keyboards at best. However when home steering wheels became available I was utterly hooked and have never looked back. Indeed some of my exploits in Grand Prix Legends (winning online World Titles, owning a few World Hotlap Records etc) are some of my proudest achievements.
So with a background of having played nearly every racing game ever created, and sometimes with a modicum of success, it was with some relish that I took a look at the SteelSeries SRW-S1. The SRW standing for SimRaceWay, an online game that is designed specifically to take advantage of the functions of this button-strewn wheel.
One of the first things that you'll notice about the SRW-S1 is that it doesn't come with any pedals, and isn't mountable to your desk. So it's aimed more at the people who want to step up from a pad, but might not have the room for a permanent wheel and pedal arrangement.
Popping across to the SteelSeries website we can find an explanation of all the available controls and how they are mapped in the SimRaceWay game. All of these buttons, barring a couple, are totally mappable in your game of choice.
Let's take a look at the wheel shall we.
As always with SteelSeries we have packaging designed to allow you to look at the majority of the product before purchase. Given that this is something far more likely to be brought by someone with an average interest in racing, rather than the pro-only Hyperstim and Fanatec type affairs, then showing off its flash and flair is a wise move.
As you can see it's positively bristling with buttons and dials and switches. If you ever wanted to know what it would feel like to be Jenson Button for the day, then this is certainly the wheel for you. On the reverse we have four paddles with the top two being for gear changes, and the bottom two are fully-analogue accelerator and brake.
Every button has a nice reassuring click to it when depressed, and yes the lights at the top do replicate your F1 gear change indicator.
Thanks to a sensible bit of design the SRW-S1 doesn't require any drivers, and is purely plug and play, similar to using a wired 360 pad on your PC. Before you ask, no it isn't compatible with any consoles. PC only here.
The dials at the bottom adjust the amount of angle needed to go from lock to lock, then the other two control driver aids in SimRaceWay only, and can't be configured in any other title.
Speaking of SimRaceWay..
The SRW-S1 is so wholly intended for use with SimRaceWay that, as well as the branding, it has default bindings in game, meaning you really do just plug in and go. The wheel also comes with $10 of currency to purchase extra cars in game.
There are some offline modes, but the majority of the game is designed to be played online, and there are even challenges that have real-life prizes of hardware and the like.
Without spending actual money your choice of cars is limited to an EvoX and a fair selection of tracks. However the $10 you get free with the wheel are plenty to get you a handful of more inspiring vehicles, such as a GT2 BMW M3, Maserati MC12, a Formula 3 car, and even a McLaren M6A.
The game engine appears to be based upon rFactor, or at least one of the ISI based simulators. So it definitely isn't the prettiest girl in the room, but its serviceable and playable on even a low-end rig. Of course there are some physics limitations but given that we're using non-mounted motion controls a little dumbing down of hardcore physics is actually beneficial.
The lights work best in SRW itself, although a patch available from the SteelSeries website allows the shift lights to work in any game which supports an external RPM indicator. So if you're playing F1-2011 you can really get immersed. Even if the shift-lights don't match the actual RPM anywhere near accurately enough to be useful.
Testing and Conclusion
In testing I ran a huge amount of racing games to see what the SRW-S1 was good at. From the aged, but still brilliant, GPL through GT Legends, Race Injection, F1-2011, NFS:Shift 2 and of course SimRaceWay itself.
The first thing that strikes you is how easy it is to configure. Because the placement of the buttons are labelled you can usually use the same button in a multitude of titles which allows you to learn where it is very quickly. Of course so many buttons can seem overwhelming, but the reality is you wont need all of them by any means.
Although initially holding the wheel in the air feels unnatural, especially if you're used to fixed wheels, the steering response is absolutely flawless. There is no lag, and even delicate inputs are read and replicated with precision. Because your input mirrors your visual reference so accurately you don't need to think at all about using it and the whole thing feels very natural. The accelerator and brake 'triggers' have an equally linear response and are no more complicated than the triggers on a standard pad.
Actually as a by-product of this all-in-one philosophy the hand-controls for the accelerator and brake are perfect for opening the world of racing to those who might not have full use of their legs. Every other wheel on the market falls into either the pretty useless MarioKart style, or the 'needs pedals' ones, so as far as we're aware, this is the first modern wheel that supports genuinely useful hand controls.
There are a few niggles of course. Firstly because it's not mounted and you have to hold it up, this definitely isn't the kind of thing you can use for a full-length F1 race, or a Le Mans 24 hour. With the need to hold it gently because most of your fingers are on the hand controls and your thumbs are trying desperately to not press one of the many buttons, you can quickly find your shoulders fatiguing. Secondly those huge dials work for the SimRaceWay game itself and, rotation angle aside, nothing else. Indeed the d-pad and select buttons aren't a replication for "cursor keys and Enter", which would be nice to see. Finally, and this is just a personal nitpick, the gear-shift paddles have far too much play. There is a full centimetre before the microswitch engages which is pointless. There is no vibration to simulate the force-feedback, but that's something that I can live without although I know it bothers some people. Finally because you're holding it up it's not easy to reach all of the buttons because you need "hands-on" at all times to work the throttle and brakes, whereas with a wheel and pedals you are pretty much hands free on straights.
However those are small things. Sure this isn't aimed at the ultra-hardcore racer with an Actlabs shifter and Frex wheel but if you want to have way more control than is possible with a pad, but haven't got the room, money or maybe even use of your legs needed for a vastly more expensive G27 style setup, then this is a surprisingly good first rung on the ladder. You'll be astounded at how much faster you are, and how much more immersive it is to use a the SRW-S1 than a pad. At around £100 it's very good value for money and we're happy to award it our OC3D Gamers Choice award.
Thanks to SteelSeries for supplying the SRW-S1 for review. Discuss in our forums.