Microsoft SideWinder Force Feedback Wheel
Only Microsoft Could Re-invent the Wheel

Reviewed by: Sinjin
Rated: 4
Posted on:1/25/99

In my never ending quest to make my computer gaming as close to "real life" as I possibly can, I recently added a Force Feedback Steering wheel to my gaming arsenal. Prior to this, I had been using the Thrustmaster series of wheels starting way back with the T1 then the T2 and finally the Nascar Pro wheel that came out last year. When it came time to get the Force Feedback, I decided that Microsoft had the best wheel to offer at the time.

I eagerly opened the box and found:

  • Wheel
  • Power Supply
  • Registration Card
  • Installation Diskette and Drivers
  • Instruction guide (In jewel case insert)
  • Microsoft Monster Truck Madness
  • Microsoft CART: Precision Racing

The first thing to know about this wheel is that is uses your standard Gameport/MIDI interface to transmit the FF signals. Most other FF wheels are using either Serial or USB ports to transmit this information. This shouldn't be a problem for most gamers since just about every sound card released since the SoundBlaster 16 has a compatible Gameport/MIDI adapter on it. It did present a minor problem for me in that I have a CH JoySwitch box that allows me to funnel 4 joysticks and 2 sets of pedals into a single gameport on the computer. Apparently MIDI will not pass through this switchbox which means for me (and others using this or a similar switchbox) that you will have to crawl under your desk and plug the Microsoft SideWinder FF Wheel directly into your computer.

The single-lever clamping mechanism is ingenious. Simply tighten down the threaded plastic post against the bottom of your desk then close the clamp for a perfect fit to almost any size desk thickness. With the wheel and pedals all plugged in, I turned on the computer ready to see what was going to happen. I have to admit I did jump when I turned my system on and watched the wheel auto-center itself - a little weird when you aren't expecting it. Then it's just a matter of putting in the Installation CD and installing the software and you are ready to start gaming.

If you are curious, you can go check out the Game Controllers in your Control Panel. Not only are there a variety of settings you can tweak to adjust your wheel; like force intensity and auto-centering; you can even preview some built-in forces in the testing screen. But this is only a prelude of things to come.

The Wheel

My only complaints with the wheel itself (and these are minor) are the three cables coming off the wheel which have to be draped over my desk. Many other manufacturers are running a single line to the pedals thus keeping the majority of the wires under the desk where they belong. The butterfly shifters are just not quite long enough (or maybe my fingers are too short), so you seem to lose contact when you are really cranking hard in a turn. But I guess you aren't supposed to be shifting in a turn anyway so maybe this is a good thing.

The wheel has a mechanical/grainy feel when turning it - even in non-FF mode. I assume this is due to the fact that it is geared and not using bungie cables like my old Thrustmaster wheel. The turning range was much greater than the Nascar Pro wheel. The Sidewinder has over 220 degrees of lateral motion while the Nascar Pro has between 90-100 although you can force it to 180 if you really crank it. I found that I really had to crank the Microsoft wheel to make some turns that the Nascar wheel could make with just a nudge. I'm not saying this is good or bad - just different and something you may have to get used to if you already own another wheel.

I really like the angle the wheel is tilted at. The Nascar is almost at a 25deg tilt like driving a semi-tractor while the Sidewinder is maybe at 5 or 10 degrees. I can finally use my Thunderseat (bucket seat with a 14" sub in the base) and have the wheel in a comfortable and realistic location in front of me.

The Pedals

The pedals are very nice with smooth motion and just the right amount of travel. They weren't as stiff (less resistance) than the Thrustmaster, but I felt I had greater control and they offered greater comfort for long driving sessions since you didn't have to maintain much pressure with your foot to keep the accelerator pressed.

The pedals and base are rather light so you will almost certainly need something to keep the pedals from sliding around. I personally use my subwoofer as a spacer between the wall and pedal base, which also puts some vibration into the pedals when you are driving - instant force feedback pedals!

Now it was time to literally "test drive" this baby. I already had several games installed that used FF and I will discuss those in a moment, but let's begin with the pack-in titles.

Monster Truck Madness 2 and Cart Precision came with the wheel. Cart Precision sucked (sorry - there isn't a nicer way to say it) as a standalone game and FF didn't do it any favors. I got halfway through the first lap when ALL the other cars got into a pile-up in turn 2 and just kept bumping into each other. Since I had damage off I just slammed my way through and did one lap. The only feedback I got in the wheel was when I was being rammed by other cars. They were still ramming into each other on lap 2 so I uninstalled this lemon and moved on. MTM2 was pretty cool. The road effects (Railroad tracks, potholes, etc) had good FF but again - no real engine vibration as you would expect by something with a couple 1000 horses under the hood.

F1RS from Ubisoft was next on the list after I downloaded the v109 patch. I was a bit disappointed that the FF seemed to be limited to rumble strips and crashes. There was no engine vibration in the wheel and only a few times did the wheel actually jerk in a spinout. I think the FF in this game needs more work.

Powerslide was next. I usually play these arcade-racing games with a keyboard or my Gravis XTerminator and I had never even tried my Nascar Pro wheel in this game. WOW - this game is hard with a wheel! I had gotten pretty good with a keyboard, but using a wheel was like starting from scratch and the FF was pretty cool. Each crash and the rocky terrain and road conditions were perfectly reproduced in the wheel.

Motorhead was next and its FF was also limited to crashes or severe events. There was no ambient vibrations or road feedback unless you went off the road.

Need for Speed 3 was next. This was better than I had hoped but still a minor disappointment when the bumpy roads and the wooden bridges didn't rumble my wheel as much as I had hoped. I only raced a few tracks so I will reserve final judgement until I have raced all the cars and all the courses.

Viper Racing from Sierra was actually the first game I tried and it was stunning (which is why I saved it for last in this review). The realism factor shot through the roof and I was totally impressed by how every nuance in the game world was translated to the wheel. You can feel the wheel when you shift, when you catch some air, when you go off the road, when you spin out, when you hit (or get hit by) another car and of course when you wreck. A couple wrecks had me rolling the car and I would simply have to let go of the wheel, as the movement was so violent.

So really Viper, NFS3, and Powerslide were the only games that stood out of the games I had available to test with the wheel. I have heard good things about Colin McRae and it's use of FF but haven't had the opportunity to try it for myself. I am looking forward to TransAm Racing and Interstate '82 and probably any other racing title coming out this year as they will all almost certainly make use of FF technology.

For now, I think Force Feedback is still pretty new to racing games and titles will get better as the technology matures. Of all the games I played, only the newest titles seem to use FF to any degree of success, which indicates that the software companies are learning as they go. I'm still not sure if the Sidewinder is the best FF wheel on the market but it does have the Microsoft name which means that it will (or at least should) be supported by every future FF title that comes out.

If you have the $$$ and are looking for a steering wheel then a Force Feedback wheel may be a good idea. And if you do decide to get a FF wheel then the Microsoft SideWinder is certainly a good choice. It retails for $199 (although if you look hard enough you should find it for $179) making it one of the most expensive wheels you can currently buy.

On the other hand; if you already have a good wheel, then you would probably be better waiting for the next generation.

Front view of the Wheel and Pedals

System Requirements:

  • Windows 95/98
  • Pentium 90
  • 16 MB Ram
  • 25 MB available hard drive space
  • Quad-speed or faster CD-ROM drive
  • DirectX 5.0 or later
  • Frames compatible web browser