We answer the question – is a gamepad quicker than a wheel?
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Although I used to spend every hour of my childhood playing Need For Speed: Underground 2, I'll admit that I've now become a bit of a sim racing nerd. Gone are the days of smoothing over my gaming pad's analogue sticks until they were down to the plastic, now replaced by learning my perfect line through Tetre Rouge and adjusting the steering sensitivity to the smallest of degrees.
Since we had some new kit in the office however, I decided to take bring a gaming pad back into my life to answer a question that has been raging in the gaming community for years. Having received the G29 steering wheel and three-pedal setup from Logitech, I took this as an omen to dust off a gaming pad to see how my beloved lap times would compare.
The G29 is renowned for being cracking value for money when it comes to entering the world of gaming setups. And after clicking on the paddles for my first few downshifts and resisting the force feedback after clipping an early rumble strip, I'd happily go back in time and kick off sim racing as a hobby with this steering wheel.
The pedals also have a weight to them that you can scarcely believe for a setup at this price point, the only let-down being our crappy frame that obviously wasn't built for a pedal box of this size.
Anyway, to battle
I've gone with Project Cars 2, Oulton Park and the Ginetta GT5 – nothing too quick but enough power and handling prowess to chuck it around the engaging little English circuit.
And after a bit of tyre-warming and apex-hitting practice, I went for a flying lap, using the G29 kit. Here's how I got on:
After being fairly chuffed with that 1:53 lap, it was time to pick up the good old gaming pad and get my thumbs used to doing all the work.
Having not raced with a pad for a very long while, adjusting to a bit of finger fun was always going to take a bunch of laps before anything resembling a smooth drive would occur. After an alarming amount of underbraking and lack of turn-in, I managed to put a valid lap together:
Logitech G29 – 1:53
Gamepad – 1:57
So there's quite a big time gap there (four seconds... quite a bit really), and it essentially all comes down to the limitations of the gamepad in this specific game. When playing something like an F1 game or something more arcade-based, the gamepad triggers are more than suitable for braking and throttle inputs. But in a proper sim like Project Cars 2, the lack of feel is really tough for judging a dive into a corner and then a progressive, smooth exit.
The steering, no matter how much you try to calibrate its sensitivity, struggles to be mapped in a way that doesn't result in staccato jerks of the car while setting up for a corner.
The result is fairly clear cut then, in this specific experiment. The amount of fine tuning and feedback that you can now get even from something under £350 blows a gaming pad firmly back to 2002.
On top of the immediate cohesion between your brain and the steering and pedal inputs, everything becomes much smoother and therefore more under control when you have a proper wheel and pedals. I know that the gap in the times is definitely emphasised by the game chosen but there's no doubting that if my life depended on a quick time, I'd take the G29 over a pad any day of the week.
Not everyone is the same; the esports champion for the official WRC game won his title by using a pad and there are plenty gamers out there that will be extremely competitive without a steering wheel. But being a bit of a car nerd, it simply seems wrong to take my favourite motorsport legends out onto my favourite tracks, all hemmed in by the use of a gamepad.
I want my sim racing experience to be as realistic as it gets, and having the equipment looking and feeling as close to the real thing as possible is a big step towards the true sim experience.