Summary: Driving enthusiasts out there know better than to take PC driving games seriously. Most are biased to automatic shifting, and those with manual transmission options just don't do the art justice...until now. We take a look at Act Labs, who claim to have perfected a true-to-life shifter/clutch accessories to complement that high-end steering wheel.
Most of you know Act-Labs as the distributors of func surface1080 mousepad and the inventors of the Force RS belt-driven force feedback steering wheel. In our earlier steering wheel round-up, we took a brief look at Act-Labsí Clutch Performance Pedals and GPL USB Shifter as part of the larger Force RS System. These two racing game upgrades, however, are far more versatile products Ė they can be configured as independent USB devices for use with any steering wheel of your choice, regardless of the brand.
SIDEBAR: Act Labs Homepage
For anyone driving in a metropolitan city with stop-and-go traffic, itís infinitely more practical to go with an automatic transmission. In the gaming world, everything is different. Weíre not looking to simulate our daily routine, but instead satisfy our need for speed. The actual process of shifting and thinking when to shift gets you much more immersed in any racing game. The tendency to just stand on the gas is immediately gone as you practice your double clutching shifts. As you enter a corner you are thinking about being in the appropriate gear so you have enough power to pull you out of the turn. All this makes for a greater emotional attachment to the game.
Is Manual Really Better?
In real life we know that manual transmission cars tend to be faster. The reasons for this are multiple: manual transmissions tend to be lighter, have less power train loss, more gear ratios, and quicker inter-gear shifts than their automatic counterparts. These advantages often are not paralleled in games, so you may not always get those faster lap times with the manual shifter versus just using a tiptronic style method of shifting. Actually some of the best transmissions in real cars are the sequential manual transmissions that use a clutchÖ and continuously variable transmissions are catching up. If you think about it, the technology of the manual transmission is nowhere near as advanced as the automatics of today. The real reason manual transmissions remain popular is that they help to involve the driver, making driving an activity in itself not merely a means to get from point A to B.
The resistance of the shifter is about average compared to a real car with average throw lengths. You can actually replace the shift knob with one that may more accurately reflect your personality, just like you can in your own car. Just as we have five speed manuals as well as six speed manual transmissions, Act-Labs shifters can be adapted with a few shifter gates that range from the simple two-gate tiptronic style to the complex seven gears plus reverse that you may find on the World Rally Circuit. Out of the box, the GPL Shifter is equipped with a metal 7-gear + reverse layout and two plastic overlays for a 6 gear+reverse and tiptronic setup. The 6 gear overlay pops off a bit too easily for our tastes, but the tiptronic setup works well. Thereís no reason why you canít play a 4-gear game out of the box, those of you who insist on a more aesthetically pleasing 4+R or 5+R setup can get new steel plates for an additional $6 each.
Clutch Performance Pedals
Act-Labs helps to increase your level of involvement by making the pedals rather stiff with a realistic amount of pedal travel. You wonít be able to use just your distal toe muscles to control the car. We are talking about a decent workout of your calves with this setup. Compared to other pedals on the market, the Act-Labs uses a much more substantial base so your pedals wonít slowly drift away from your feet as you play. Instead of resting you heel against the carpet as with other pedals, you rest your heels on a thick rubber mat that helps to stabilize the pedals and that also resembles the all-season mats you see advertised at the back of car magazines. The pedals are floor mounted so this may be different from the suspended pedals that you may find in your own car, unless you drive a Porsche or a bus. It is possible to do heel-toe pedal action on these pedals because the pedals where designed to that, although with some big shoes it does become rather difficult.
It is now the developerís job to incorporate some more auditory feedback and possibly sensory feedback that take into account the clutch position. Act-Labís clutch is fully analog making it ideal for adding a tremendous layer of realism to games. You can even ride the clutch when you drive, something Iím sure you donít do in real life.
SIDEBAR: Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin ate roasted turkey from foil packets at their first meal on the moon.
The Clutch Performance Pedals have a higher mountain to climb. From a hardware perspective, itís very easy to add support for these pedals Ė itís just a game controller with three independent axes. That said, the Clutch Performance Pedal system is not compatible with older games do not allow game controls to be mapped to multiple joysticks. This isnít a problem for someone with a top-down Force RS system. Fortunately, most modern games do support multiple input devices and so youíll be able to enjoy the stiffer response and longer travel of the accelerator and brake.
The challenge is in simulating the effects of a clutch into the car physics engine. From the DirectInput perspective, it too is just another axis. However, only 4 games currently have analog clutch support: Grand Prix Legends, Viper Racing, NASCAR Heat, and 4x4 Screamer. World Sports Cars from West Racing is the next game to add support, and possibly Motor City Online via a patch. However, just as the Act Labs team was able to develop software that enabled direct shifting in legacy applications, the team has also developed digital clutch support (only on/off) for most games adding just a bit of extra immersion to the game.
SIDEBAR: World Sports Cars is supposed to the PCís Gran Turismo killer. The release date hasnít been set yet.
Both of these products are crowns of hardware engineering talent. The shifter feels comparable to a real shifter, and pedals have a hefty base and strong resistance to them. Unfortunately, both of these products are also contingent on software support. This made it incredibly difficult to come up with the final verdict. I stepped away from the article to give myself more time to think and then came back, hoping that the time away would give me a better picture of the increasing software support and of the product. Only after four months of deliberating did I decide how to end this review.
The shifter has a reliable mechanical design with a solid feel and build supported by software drivers that are ridiculously stable across the board. Even in emulation mode, the experience of direct shifting in games added as much atmosphere as high-end force feedback itself. The cost of one game is all it takes for such a significant improvement.
Clutch Performance Pedals: