What was I expecting when I set out on this driving-sim adventure? I’m not sure, but it wasn’t this. If the logistical complexities of doing driving sims properly caught me out a little, the initial experience is completely off the map. But I’m finally up and running thanks to the arrival of a Playseat seatpod thingie and I’ve had something akin to my own Matrix moment…
First, a quick refresher. When I introduced my intention to give driving games a proper go, the context was someone with a serious penchant for real-world pedalling of the petrol-powered variety. And yet I also sensed my assumption that driving literally anything in the real world is more engaging than getting behind the virtual wheel of even the most exotic competition car was slightly missing the point. And so it began.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should also point out that I have had significant help from numerous hardware manufacturers in getting this going in the form of the loan of various bits of kit, regarding which I have done my best to remain objective. As you'll see, I wasn't fully aware of the scale of the investment required. With all that in mind...
The remit was doing it properly and for me that meant a proper driving seat, which is the main reason why it’s taken so long to pull this all together. A few of you mentioned using a VR headset. But logistics aside my early impressions are that if I have issues with immersion, it’s not display related. More on that in a moment.
Happily one of the bigger brands in driving seats came good and what you see before you is the Playseat Alcantara, one of the more affordable seatpods in their range. It clocks in at €319 or about £250 in old money.
That’s not as bad as I'd feared, price-wise. But then I clocked the price of wheels and pedal boxes. Initially, I’m rolling with the Thrustmaster TX Leather Edition wheel and pedal box which add a pretty debilitating £400 to the overall setup fee. Clearly, doing it ‘properly’ is not cheap and as it turns out I have major issues with the Thrustmaster kit, which I'll come to.
Anyway, assembly of the Playseat is simple enough and about 25 minutes in the result is a very adjustable platform for driving, which matters if you’re as anal as I am about this stuff. The bucket seat and seating position make for a very familiar overall seating position, which I think was critical for what was to come.
If I do have an issue with this particular Seatpod model, it involves the lower forward part of the steering wheel stand and how it relates with the pedal-box platform. The Thrustmaster pedal box I’m using is far from ideal for a lot of reasons. But the design of the wheel stand makes it more likely you’re going to run into problems getting an ideal pedal position.
Anywho, the projector also proved problematical. I needed a short-throw model in order to situate it ahead of the Playseat and Optoma kindly came up with a GT1080. However, the GT1080’s simple optics make it very hard to achieve an ideal setup with good geometry and consistent focus, a problem exacerbated by my odd projection screen setup.
I won’t bore you with the details, but it’s both an issue of my own making and not actually of much consequence, as you’ll see. Pricing on the GT1080, incidentally, is around £580. Optoma has offered to send an alternative model that should help with my setup issues, but the short-throw requirement generates certain limitations. I'll report back in due course. Of course, if you wanted a dedicated PC to go with all that, you’d be looking at another £600-plus. It adds up scarily fast, it really does.
Whatever, with the Playseat configured, the Thrustmaster wired up and the Optoma short-throw projector in hand, I had something workable.
It was hard to know where to begin regards all the suggestions for game titles the RPS crew kindly came up with. But for better or worse, I went with Asseto Corsa. I suspect the next choices I made were potentially crucial. I decided to start with a car I’d driven in the real world, the Lotus Elise S/C, and a track that, again, I’ve driven in the real world on multiple occasions - Brands Hatch Indy.
A quick fiddle in the settings to turn off the stability and traction control systems and I was off. The result from the very first moment I pulled out of the pits was, frankly, shocking. Braking into the ‘Graham Hill’ corner on that initial outlap and my stomach went through the floor.
What with the large-screen view, the oh-so-familiar seating position, the steering wheel tugging at my hands, the noise filling the Laird Gaming Dungeon™, my brain got completely befuddled and started generating some really intense and totally unexpected physical feedback sensations. The best way I can describe it is a bit like being in one of those hydraulically-actuated simulators seats, except of course I was in nothing of the sort. The sensations were entirely psychosomatic.
I suspect this is the kind of thing that will likely only happen to someone who has done a fair amount of a particular kind of driving and has thus programmed his or her brain with certain expectations. Whatever, it made the first few laps a distinctly giddy experience.
Once I got past that, the next 30 minutes or so were a revelation. It was all about banging in laps, enjoying the stuff that felt really familiar and getting to grips with the weirdnesses that come with driving sims.
The best bit is the steering. I assume much of that is down to the game coding rather than the specifics of the Thrustmaster TX wheel. But either way, I was really impressed with how the essential character of the Elise’s rack has been captured. It’s not a complete rendering, but it’s so much better than I was expecting.
Less impressive is the pedal feel, which is nothing less than awful. The brake pedal travel in particular is far too long and springy. Nobody who has even the most cursory understanding of driver’s cars or driving signed those Thrustmaster pedals off.
Despite that, I quickly found myself in very much the same rhythm you do on a real track day. Pounding around, working on lines and braking points and near constant disappointment with your driving punctuated by momentary exhilaration as you get a corner just right or realise where there’s a little time to be found.
If all that is fun, the really impressive bit is that it turned out I was quick in the same places and struggled in the same corners as I do driving that very Brands Hatch Indy track in the real world. Now that is something, isn’t it?
That said, there are issues. The awful pedals make judging braking much harder than it needs to be and generally I found it really hard to gauge my corner entry speeds and braking points. Placing the car accurately on track is also much harder in-game than IRL, funnily enough, though a lot of that is, again, down to the difficulty judging entry speeds.
Generally, I was carrying too much entry speed and missing apexes like my life depended on it. But, slowly, it got better and after 30 minutes I was lapping with something vaguely resembling composure. So I recorded a lap for posterity in the video below.
As it happens, I also recorded a track day I did at Brands Hatch several years ago in my dearly departed and rather stately (204hp and 1,300kg) Boxster, so I’ve included a lap in that, too. Fun comparison, eh?
I had a very brief blatt with the new Forza demo for PC, too, but the arcadeyness of it had me gagging almost immediately. I will return to the arcade approach, but I’m 99 per cent sure it’s not even close to being my bag.
All in all, it was a pretty thrilling beginning to this adventure. But there is a catch. After that initial euphoria, the excitement levels have rather normalised. Those somatised sensations fade fairly rapidly and I expect won’t return without a long break from the world of virtual driving.
Generally, my expectations have been confounded both for better and for worse. I have an alternative Logitech wheel and pedal box in stock which intitially seems to have superior pedal feel, so that could be a big help. But I'm not convinced VR will make much difference regards the issues I currently have which revolve around physical feedback. Visual immersion definitely hasn't been a problem.
Overall, then, the jury is out for now whether this driving sim stuff will be a quick fling or something more substantial. The key to long term enjoyment may well be online racing, but that makes me nervous. I know from my Counter-Strike days that being even reasonably competitive online is a major commitment in terms of time.
Watch this space.