I write this review not from the perspective of a gamer, but of a middle-aged automotive enthusiast with real-world motorsports experience who has since 2000 built and maintained a PC expressly for the purpose of driving racing simulation game titles.
HOW I GOT INTO SIM RACING
In 1999, a friend emailed me about reading an article in a major automotive magazine about a computer game which was based upon the 1967 Formula One racing season. The game was Grand Prix Legends, developed by Papyrus Design Group and published by Sierra Entertainment beginning in 1998. We talked about how interesting that was as a game concept - my friend was particularly passionate about F1 cars of the past. Almost a year passed, and the friend mentioned Grand Prix Legends again in another email, this time mentioning that it supported game play over TCP/IP. That got my attention. My old friends, most of which shared an interest in things automotive, were all about 40 years old and scattered about the country. Perhaps we could all virtually race together from our respective homes. I emailed the group of friends to see who was interested.
In the end, two of the friends agreed to participate. One was a Windows user, but the other, like me, was a Macintosh user. The two Mac users built Windows boxes; and all of us bought 3D video cards and steering wheel controllers to complete our Grand Prix Legends rigs.
Because of the complexities of family life, work, and three time zones of separation, we had precious few sessions where all three of us drove together, and often only two of us shared a track, but they were wonderful times. Though we had (two decades earlier) competed together in real-world autocrossing, we had never spent time road-racing together. Driving Grand Prix Legends together over the Internet, we spent time debriefing and critiquing each others laps. Using virtual on-board telemetry software, we could effectively learn who was faster at what parts of a circuit, and improve our own lap times through analysis of the others' fast sectors. Grand Prix Legends still nearly stands alone as an uncompromising racing simulation - not a game at all, but a difficult-to-master experience worthy of the true experience of driving the brutally raw Grand Prix vehicles of the era. I'm still amazed that the original programmers put such loving care into such an esoteric product.
Over the years, growing families and careers left me the only remaining regular sim racer, but I continue to enjoy the discipline. I've gone through a couple of generations of computing hardware, and to my surprise, there have been a number of really great new racing software titles, including rFactor, Richard Burns Rally, GT Legends, GTR and GTR2.
MY FIRST WHEEL CONTROLLER
Grand Prix Legends wasn't originally designed to support force-feedback steering controllers, but by 2000, some Papyrus programmers had written unsupported patches for force-feedback steering wheels. An impressively large online community of GPL users had encouraged me from the start that we'd always have a source of suggestions and answers - in particular, the efforts of Alison Hine and her elaborate Eagle Woman's Grand Prix Legends website. Because I was so impressed by Alison's site, I sought and purchased her preferred steering controller for my own: a Logitech Wingman Formula Force. Not to be confused with the cheap and crude Logitech Wingman Formula Force GP, the LWFF (which debuted at $250 retail) featured a unique cable-driven force-feedback mechanism, producing excellent road feel without the gravely texture of the geared mechanisms common to other force-feedback wheels.
Over the years, I added two pieces to my LWFF wheel. I purchased a set of Act Labs Performance Pedals, providing increased pedal travel (an important characteristic to substitute for real-world accelerations felt between the driver and the seat/harness) and added a clutch pedal which the original LWFF did not have. Using the Performance Pedals meant that the LWFF's original pedals went unused, but the steering wheel was cabled through the pedal assembly, so I had to keep the original pedals somewhere under the desk along with the new pedals. I built a breakout box to eliminate the vestigal pedals, which also served to allow me to use the Performance Pedals with game titles that didn't support multiple controller devices (all modern racing sims provide support for multple game controllers and allow the user to assign their buttons and analog sensors to game features). Years later, I bought an Act Labs GPL Shifter - a gated shifter configurable to accommodate from two to eight shift gates. The shifter was a revelation. Having previously done all shifting with Formula One-style paddle shifters on the steering wheel (and rationalizing that it was a fair compensation for the lack of real-world driving cues even when it wasn't appropriate to the type of vehicle), using the gated shifter suddenly closed the gap to real-world driving in a unexpected way. I found that when I reached for the shifter, I'd habitually heel-and-toe downshift, blipping the throttle to match revs as in a real-world car, something I had never bothered to do with paddle-shifting.
Mechanical engineer and sim-racing hobbyist Jens Schumacher created a modification to replace the LWFF's nylon and brass bushings with precise ball bearings. He made those available to the worldwide sim-racing community at his materials cost. I installed his "LWFF ball bearing kit" to excellent effect - the LWFF's apparently good feel was made great - and the result was far greater sensitivity to road surface textures and - most importantly - sense of the vehicle's understeer/neutral/oversteer state.
Unfortunately, six years of continuous use of these controllers revealed inherent weaknesses in design. The return springs for the throttle, brake and clutch on the Performance Pedals broke every 6 to 12 months. After replacing a couple of sets of replacement parts ordered from Act Labs (who discontinued the product line some years ago), I performed elaborate modifications to convert the mechanisms from "mousetrap" style springs to long compression springs - not only eliminating the spring breakage problem, but extending the travel of the throttle (for higher resolution in throttle positions).
The plastic shift paddles of the LWFF cracked after a bit more than a year's constant use. Having now invested no small amount of effort to acquire and install the ball-bearing mod, I decided to fix the problem permanently, replacing the original paddles and switches with long-life microswitches and steel paddles I fabricated myself.
Until I modified part of the LWFF's cable tensioning mechanism, it would infrequently "throw" its cable (usually while doing rapid opposite lock maneuvers to catch an oversteering car), requiring a couple of hours of disassembly and complex re-installation of the cable.
Over time, I procured two spare Logitech WingMan Formula Force controllers. But I kept the original modified wheel going.
In 2006, Logitech introduced their G25 Racing Wheel controller. At $299.95 retail, it is considerably more expensive than competing products (there are actually much more expensive controllers made by boutique manufacturers), but less than I had spent on all my existing controllers.
The Logitech G25 Racing Wheel features:
900 degrees of steering lock (2.5 turns)
Most controllers have 250 to 300 degrees of lock - appropriate for formula car realism, but very unlike real street cars, which often exceed 3 full turns, or 1080 degrees lock-to-lock.
Twin force-feedback motors
These motors provide significant forces. In fact, when the G25 is configured to less than 900 degrees of steering lock, the virtual "stops" encountered when turning the wheel to the extreme left and right feel like solid rubber, but are in fact electromagnetic resistance from the motors.
A six-speed gated shifter with reverse, plus 12 programmable buttons
Leather-wrapped steering wheel with steel spokes and two programmable buttons
Steel shift paddles
Three-pedal (clutch, brake, throttle) controller with compression springs
After some months of debating over the purchase, I bought a G25 from Amazon for $250 in January of 2007.
When I first connected the G25, I was struck with a couple of things. The amount of force it could make was significantly higher than the LWFF - and I liked that. The LWFF's maximum force was always lower than real-world steering feedback - the G25 can generate forces approximating real-world steering feedback in some vehicles.
The G25's pedal travel was not as long as my modified Performance Pedals, and the effort was not as great as the springs I used for my compression spring modification. The throttle return spring is particularly light. I like very high spring force and long pedal travel in simulation, because the tactile feedback the user senses through their feet can substitute for acceleration forces felt in a real vehicle. I persevered, hoping for the best from my new investment, but expecting the possibility of using my old modified pedals with the new wheel. The relative positions of the pedals are good, encouraging heel-and-toe downshifting (I was trained to brake with the ball of the foot and blip the throttle with the heel). Like almost all pedal controllers, these pedals are bottom-hinged, unlike most real-world vehicle pedal clusters. This creates a somewhat alien pedal experience to most drivers, and takes a bit of getting used to. I tend to left-foot brake, particularly in formula cars and rally cars, so I'd prefer a slightly wider brake pedal, but that's a minor point.
The G25's shifter needs far less effort than the Act Labs GPL Shifter, which has fairly long travel and requires significant effort to move from gate to gate. Compared to the Act Labs shifter's metal-on-metal ruggedness, the G25's shifter feels plasticky and somewhat toy-like, but not insubstantial.
In addition to a six-speed "H" pattern shifter with reverse, the shifter can be placed into a mode where it behaves as an up/down "slap" shifter - as used in some contemporary GT racing cars. In this mode, return springs hold the shifter in a central position, and the user pushes the lever forward and rearward against these springs to perform sequential up- and down-shifts. This generally works well, but if the user inadvertently compresses the shift lever (designed to do this for the reverse feature) while performing an up- or down-shift, the lever will occasionally slip from the spring return into one of the "H" pattern gates and remain there until the user pulls it up and back into the up/down pattern. When driving rally simulations such as Richard Burns Rally, I configure the shifter in this spring mode to behave as a handbrake (though I have plans to build a proportional handbrake controller rather than this on/off solution).
The G25 has a nifty pop-down bar with a spiky surface for gripping a carpet, and this is probably the only way it should be used. I have a hard floor under my desk, and no pedal assembly can reliably grip the smooth floor while the user is aggressively pressing the various pedals, no matter what kind of rubber feet is on the bottom of the assembly. A carpeted floor mat under my pedals and chair ensure that the pedal assembly never moves while driving.
LONG TERM IMPRESSIONS
After sixteen months of ownership of the G25, I've never returned to my old controller pieces. Whatever reservations I might have had when comparing the G25 to years spent with my old controllers has vanished with time. Pedal travel is nice, and the clutch and brake springs are good on tension. The throttle is so lightly sprung that I don't like to wear shoes to drive, because it's very difficult to feel the pedal pressure to know when you have just begun to crack open the throttle. No sign of spring fatigue so far after thousands of laps. The shifter has proved durable as well, if still somewhat low on shift effort for my taste. But I no longer think about it. Your brain tends to adjust.
The clamping mechanism for the wheel and shifter are good, rarely requiring re-tightening. Both are thoughtfully equipped with threaded metal receivers in the chassis in the event the user wishes to permanently mount them through a surface with bolts.
The G25 does a fine job of communicating what the virtual vehicle chassis is doing - even telegraphing different friction characteristics of changing surfaces. It's worth spending some time with wheel settings in both the Logitech control software and within each game title. Notably, I find that Logitech "damping" rates should be kept on the low side - typical values are between 8 and 25 for me. Too much damping creates a kind of syrupy resistance that makes it impossible to snap the wheel rapidly enough to catch an impending spin on low-mass, low polar-moment vehicles like formula cars. Also, some games behave badly when Logitech "force" values exceed 99, juddering violently when simply rolling down the road.
Though I still miss the butter-smooth mechanism of my old LWFF's cable-drive and worry about stripping a gear every time I whip the wheel to catch an impending spin and hear the G25's mechanism zing, I forgive this for perhaps the most significant aspect of switching to the G25: up to 900 degrees of steering lock. Though driving racing sims has benefited my real-world driving skills significantly over the years, driving the G25 has helped in new ways. When driving production based vehicle models, I configure the Logitech software with 540 to 720 degrees of steering lock. In a real-world vehicle, catching an impending slide or spin means rotating the steering wheel sometimes more than 360 degrees in under a second, and then back in the other direction even faster. Hours of virtual practice in the G25 has improved my real-world skills noticeably. As a friend often commented, it's much more difficult to drive a simulated car at the limit than a real car, because the user is deprived of many real-world sensory cues. I haven't spent time on a race track since owning the G25, but I'm sure I'd be a better driver than before the past 16 months.
I've been very pleased with owning the Logitech G25, but there have been a few negatives:
Too many connections at wheel body
A total of four cables are connected to the wheel assembly: from the pedals, the shifter, the power supply and to the USB plug. My old Logitech wheel connected to its cable harness by single 25-pin connector. This means taking quite a bit more time to hook up the wheel. As a result, I tend to leave it connected long periods of time and type on a desktop "bridge" I built to support a keyboard over the wheel housing. I've threatened to modify the cables, bringing all the connections to a single multi-pin connector. This wouldn't be a problem for someone with a dedicated driving setup, but for those like me who share this with a working desk, it's a bit of a pain.
Pedal assembly cable too short
The pedal cable is barely long enough to reach from the pedals around the front edge of a table or desk and to the floor. The cable tends to hit your left leg when clutching, so have to rig something to hold the cable away from my leg. If the cable were three feet longer, I could run the cable over the back edge of the desk.
Too few steering wheel buttons
Two buttons is just too few. Though there are a dozen buttons on the shifter housing, there are just a too many things which would be useful on the wheel, especially in F1 simulations, where there's not much opportunity to remove one hand from the wheel.
Reverse gear switch failure
Judging by the online community, this is a common problem. An apparent design defect causes the reversing switch (activated by putting the shift lever in the rightmost gate, pressing down the shift lever, and moving aft - like some real-world cars) to cease working. This happened somewhat gradually, and it no longer works. At some point, I'll probably open up the shifter case and modify it, but for now I'm just trying not to have a reason to reverse. :-) Meanwhile, I have assigned reverse to one of the shifter's 12 buttons.
Sharp edges on pedal faces
I drive in my socks or bare feet to get the best pedal feel. In bare feet, the edges of the aluminum pedal covers are almost sharp enough to do some damage, and are definitely uncomfortable to scrape against.
Would be nice to be able to change degrees of lock within game
Some sessions I'll change between a formula car, a racing prototype and a street sedan, which requires switching from the sim application to the Logitech Profiler application to change the amount of steering lock. I wish there were an easier way to do this from in-game (perhaps there is and I've never found it). This isn't a deal-breaker, but somewhat annoying, especially when some sims don't behave well when you switch away to another app and back.
I can easily recommend the G25 to any sim-racing enthusiast who has considered it. High-resolution force-feedback, 2.5 turns of steering lock and a nice three-pedal cluster provide the serious hobbyist with a rewarding experience. As of May 2008, it's available for a little over $200 online.