I’ve been playing the Ford Racing 2 demo the past few days. It’s been very frustrating; I’ve been very frustrated at the steering control on this game, and all the other car driving games I’ve tried recently. It’s been making me long for 1998, when I spent many long and happy hours playing Interstate ’76 on a 133 Mhz Pentium.
It occurred to me just now that maybe the problem wasn’t the games or the platform, but the fact that I’ve been trying to play these games using a PowerBook keyboard, and back then it was an original Microsoft SideWinder Force Feedback Pro joystick—that was a great joystick, but had serious heat and power issues; it had a separate AC adapter, and the joystick had a fan louder than any hardware I’ve owned since. It eventually broke, after the onboard electronics literally melted.
So on the theory that maybe an analog control would help my steering control, I went over to the drawer and pulled out a SideWinder Game Pad Pro and plugged it into the USB port on the PowerBook. Beat both of the demo levels on the first try.
I’m tempted to take the SideWinder Force Feedback 2 or SideWinder Force Feedback Wheel out of the closet and give them a whirl, but full-size game controllers don’t work well when you’re lying on the couch—the racing wheel needs to be clamped to a table—which is why they’re in the closet in the first place. It is a little disappointing to find out that I’m probably not going to find a good racing game without using a decent controller. I like to play games on the bus, and there really isn’t room to whip out a gamepad.
As a postscript, I can’t find any indication on Microsoft‘s Web site that they still make game hardware. If that’s true, I think it’s a real shame; I haven’t shopped for them in a few years, but the SideWinder line have been by far the best Microsoft products I’ve owned.
I have a bit of a hunch that part of the problem is a lack of driving games that are really properly designed for keypad input. Steering is, I think, the only hard part — I’ve seen graphs of how Formula One drivers use the pedals, and they might as well be off-on switches. It should be reasonably possible to put in a little bit of an autopilot so that the steering decisions can be reduced to a couple of on/off switches while still retaining most of the meaningful decision-making, but I think it would take rather a bit of thought and work.
In any case, though, I remember that my brother was absolutely scary in Descent with the keyboard, but wasn’t nearly as good with a joystick. Partly, I think that was because the game wasn’t really designed for a joystick, but I think it also had a bit of care in being keyboard-friendly. (Also, I suppose, it wasn’t a driving game, though it did require navigating a vehicle.)