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  • Sorry, I just couldn't resist the cheesey Steppenwolf reference. But 60's music aside, one question you might be asking is "how hard is it to get up and running with this wheel?" The answer: pretty darned easy.

    I don't know about the rest of you, but I was all too happy to replace my midi/gameport controllers with USB ones. For while the myth of a plug-and-play world remains just that, and while USB certainly has its limitations for more bandwidth-hungry peripherals, the standard has proven to be useful for input devices like gaming controllers. And in addition to no longer requiring fiddling with your sound card and dealing with Y-adaptor cables, USB also made the added features of controllers such as this one possible.

    Now if you're thinking you'll just be able to plug it and play your game, I'm afraid you'll be disappointed... particularly if you're still using Windows 98 on your home machine, as I am. But the good news is that it takes all of a few minutes to mount the wheel, plug it into your PC's USB port, and install any needed software. Physically setting up the wheel in place involved lining it up with the edge of a desk and twisting a single screw to tighten it in place, plugging in the cable connecting the pedals, the power connector, and the USB cable to the wheel. From there, it was a matter of plugging it into my system's USB hub and supplying the driver CD when prompted to. In other words, a trained chimpanzee, given enough time, could figure it out.

    Once you're up and running, have the wheel set up and the drivers installed, you'll want to visit your gaming options control panel and make sure that the wheel is calibrated to your liking. Here, in the properties for your new wheel, you will find a series of options and tests that will let you get to know just how its force feedback technology works, with button-bound tests that demonstrate a bunch of effects that the force feedback wheel is capable of in a game that properly supports it.

    One of the simpler, but important, things that Thrustmaster did was to start with an all-rubber wheel that looks, and feels, more like a steering wheel than you sometimes get when buying a gaming wheel. I know it seems like a silly thing to start with; but I think it important that there be some seeming similarity between the experience of driving an actual car and using a gaming wheel. So the fact that the NASCAR Pro Force Feedback feels natural in the hands of someone who has driven is an important part of the gaming experience. Now obviously, this alone does not make for a good wheel. But luckily, Thrusmaster doesn't rely on looks, and feel, alone.

    Once the wheel is on and properly working, you'll notice that the resistence you feel when turning it (notably absent when the wheel was off) emulates the feel of a real steering wheel. And even more importantly, you'll feel even more realism as you start playing a game that supports its force feedback features. The trick, of course, is waiting for game developers to fully take advantage of what the wheel can do. Done badly, all you'll get is constant rumbling as you drive. But used to its full advantage, the wheel can simulate more difficult turns at higher speeds and let you feel bumps on the road, as well as to your vehicle.

    In using Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed to test it out, there was a bit too much of the rumbling-variety force feedback effects. But this game, of course, well predates the NASCAR Pro Force Feedback, so new games should offer more realism.

    So beyond the wheel, what else does this controller offer in terms of control? While this wheel comes with the rear butterfly-style shifting controls that are common, it also comes with an actual stick shift, a feature that was noticeably absent when I recently reviewed Logitech's Wingman Formula GP and GT Force wheels. And while buttons on the wheel are somehwat less realistic, they are nonetheless useful in any driving/racing game, and the NASCAR Pro Force Feedback wheel has no shortage of them. Used in conjunction with Thrustmaster's Thrustmapper 3 software, the wheel's 4-in-one button and 8-way mini gamepad allow you to bind a number of controls to your wheel that would normally require the use of a keyboard.

    And finally, of course, there are the pedals. There really isn't a whole lot to say about them beyond the fact that the feel more or less natural and don't slip around too much, which is always important. If they could just figure out how to make those feel more natural through the use of additional force feedback, the experience would be complete.

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