Force feedback was something I had always wanted in my computer game environment. I first thought I would get it with a Nintendo 64 Rumble Pak, but basically all that is, is a little vibrator which doesn’t accentuate each force independently. Lately, I was able to get my hands on Microsoft’s new Sidewinder Force Feedback Pro joystick, and let’s just say that from the pack-ins alone, I am hooked.
It’s strange that a company that just got in the gaming business when they released Windows 95 has created a controller of such extraordinary abilities. A 16-bit 386SX microprocessor works in conjunction with the computer’s Pentium (or Pentium II) processor to provide the maximum force available without sacrificing overall speed. Even better, when several forces strike at once, they can all be felt at once. And the effect is unreal.
The Sidewinder is also very responsive to its settings. Unlike other controllers, the Force Feedback Pro has a digital-optical camera that detects the actual position of the stick to provide the most precise movements seen on a computer.
Forces can be adjusted to be as powerful as you want, or you can play without force and just control without any effect at all. However, I have noticed that when force is switched to maximum, you literally have to tear your arm apart in order to gain control. The configuration options helps a player adjust the resistance to his/her own personal tastes.
Running off a Pentium 150 with 32MB of RAM, I tested the software packed with the stick. Of the three games, Interstate 76 provided the best feel of the lot. Let the car idle, and you can feel the gentle hum of the engine. But if you hit a wall, your control will instantly jerk off to the side. Vibrations of gunfire, and being hit by enemy fire also uncanny with this amazing controller. I hadn’t played I-76 for a while, but when I tested it out with force feedback, I just wanted to keep playing.
Star Wars Shadows of the Empire, Battle of Hoth tested differently though. While the effects of the laser fire and the collisions were realistic, sometimes the game lost control, firing on its own and sometimes flying wildly. The third game, MDK: Mission Laguna Beach, failed to even install correctly.
Perhaps the biggest negative for this impressive controller at the moment is lack of software support. Very few games are developed with force feedback in mind. I was able to remedy this somewhat with the auto-centering ability of the Sidewinder. Running Wing Commander Prophecy, the centering force feedback worked well.
Still though, I wanted to actually feel those gorgeous shock wave effects as much as I enjoyed looking at them. Microsoft is planning to add force feedback as part of their DirectX 6 API, but that won’t be for a while.
Still, force feedback is definitely a sign of the future, and Microsoft has a strong controller in the making. Once games are released with full force feedback capability, this control will really show its stuff.