This year E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, overflowed the Los Angeles Convention Center, spilling onto Chick Hearn Drive and into Los Angeles’s favorite downtown meeting place, LA Live. I had accepted an invitation from Thrustmaster to see their new driving game controllers. Somehow, I found booth 2705.
Drive Me Crazy
Driving games have been around in one form or another since Commodore 64 days, and before that at the arcade. What always annoyed me about them was their lack of reality. I knew how to drive. Yet, every time I picked up a joystick to try out Gran Turismo, Le Mans or Indy whatever, I’d inevitably crash. I told this to the guys from Thrustmaster and they assured me that with their controllers, I could be the next electronic Dale Earnhardt. So, I checked it out.
No joysticks here. Thrustmaster provided a seat, steering wheel, brake, gas and clutch pedals, and a gearshift. Their hardware lineup includes a variety of Ferrari- and GT-inspired steering wheels, an add-on on-the-floor shift stick, and two versions of floor pedals. I felt immediately at home in this setup.
They gave me the option of a classic arcade configuration or going full virtual reality. I went VR. They fitted me with Thrustmaster headphones and Pico VR goggles.
This is a large setup. If you want to do this, do you have to give up your living room? Not necessarily. Other equipment manufactures at E3 had a variety of gaming chairs, some optimized for driving simulations. Some of them would require a corner of your den, but others folded up and could be stored in a closet.
Thrustmaster also makes a series of similar controllers for flying simulations. Their headsets also work with first-person combat games like Doom.
The Test Drive
I dove into Dirt Rally by Codemasters. You can watch a video promo for the game at the end of this article, but it doesn’t really give you the virtual reality experience. As I turned the steering wheel in reality, it turned in front of me in virtual reality. There were also vibrations coming from the chair.
The standard version of Dirt Rally is available for PCs and consoles, but the VR version I tried is still in testing.
I stepped on the gas. The hardware was easy to get used to, even with the VR goggles. The shifting was non-standard, unless rally cars work differently from the cars I drive, but this was a small adjustment. For this game, at least in its current state of development, I didn’t need to use the clutch.
I think I may have been driving like “an old guy,” but the rep from Codemasters was polite and didn’t say anything. I completed the course. Bottom line: I didn’t crash and felt like I was driving, not playing a video game.
Driving games have finally made it safe for me to go on the bitmapped highway. The combination of Thrustmaster hardware and Codemasters software was the best driving simulation experience that I’ve ever had.