Where's the rest of the car?
Steering wheel peripherals will always be fighting an uphill battle towards immersive gameplay. Holding an often lightweight, cumbersome plastic circle without the rest of the car around you serves as a constant reminder that you're not really driving. Instead, you're sitting on your Mock Naugahyde Barcalounger, furtively trying to make-believe that your coffee table is a sleek, full-featured dashboard complete with brightly colored do-hickeys, voice-operated something-or-others and shiny metallic red buttons that are subliminally beckoning the sweaty caress of your fumbling digits (or is that just me?).
Well, the people who have made cheating into a veritable science (a la the Game Shark) have joined forces with racing great Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Together, ol' Dale and Interact hope to succeed where so many others have failed. The Blue Thunder Racing Wheel for Playstation/Playstation 2 offers something by way of immersion, but suffers from a fatally flawed pedal setup.
The most notable (and probably the coolest) feature the Blue Thunder brings to the table is the dual mounting option. Some wheels attach to the ends of a table, while others have been known to, sometimes comfortably, slip beneath your thighs (I know there's a joke there somewhere). Big Blue does it all thanks to a new scientific, innovative, revolutionary technology known as...Plastic! Interact has actually designed a little gizmo that easily allows gamers to either attach the wheel to a table or not-so-comfortably slide the thing under your thighs. This fit is kind of like having your groin caught in a new-age chastity belt (see, I knew there was a joke there) or something equally painful.
Weighted, well-designed foot pedals are key for a good driving game experience. What I don't need is a weightless box with a pair of flimsy plastic flaps that have as much weight to them as the big red stand to my old Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle. Too bad the "Separate Analog Foot Pedal Unit" that comes packaged with the Blue Thunder Racing Wheel is exactly that. These things are constantly sliding out from under my size 10 Â½'s. Come on, peripheral-people, weigh these babies down!
One thing that pleases me is the adjustable steering column. Being able to set the height and tilt of the wheel is a much needed addition to any steering wheel peripheral. Also, the programmable steering sensitivity rocks. I can't tell you how many wheels I've sampled that could have used this feature. This option lets you set the wheel so a little movement produces a severe or sharp turn, or vice versa. Trust me, it's cool.
Other settings permit you to toggle between analog and digital control and/or re-map the buttons. The re-mapping buttons are fine but the default setting is the best for me. Both digital and analog provide some pretty solid control over your vehicles. Control in both Smuggler's Run and Midnight Club for the Playstation 2 took a minute to get used to, but soon enough I felt comfortable and proficient.
The "Thunder" in the title is not a result of happenstance. It's meant to represent the awesome power behind Big Blue's Vibration Feedback. While the puny vibration is forgettable, adds nothing and is very grainy feeling (much like what we found in the Wingman Formula Force GP), the name does bring a big ear-to-ear grin across my face. Obviously, Interact couldn't use other trademarked vibrating descriptor names (Force Feedback, Dual Shock etc.), but "Vibration Feedback?" Sounds like a company that reviews ahem…"adult" toys. There had to be a big chuckle around the office when they pitched that one.
At any rate, I must admit that there is just some psychological pleasure that comes from playing a driving game with a steering wheel, even if the pedals are constantly trying to get away from you. Even though racing peripherals have a long trek before they can truly encapsulate the kinetic feeling of actually white knuckling the wheel while bending a sharp corner at 60+ MPH, Interact is doing a better job than most with the Blue Thunder Racing Wheel.