Nothing enhances the immersive qualities of racing games like a good wheel. Unfortunately, good racing wheels can take up a lot of space, are often a pain to set up, and rarely come cheap. Sidestepping all those issues is the Gioteck FR-1 Freedom Racing Wheel for PlayStation 3, a compact, 2.4 Ghz wireless controller that promises to work with every PS3 racing game.

Using a built-in accelerometer, the FR-1 employs motion control to replicate the experience of driving with a traditional, mounted racing wheel. The controller itself, which bears a passing resemblance to the Cylon Raiders from Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, features attractive “Carbon Fibre styling,” and is solidly constructed. The fit and finish of its black plastic components is excellent all around. The FR-1 feels strong and substantial in the hand, but remains mercifully light – an important consideration for players who will be holding the unit in front of themselves for extended gaming sessions.

The controller is very comfortable to hold, thanks both to the quality of materials used and to smart ergonomic design. Though there are no analog sticks on the FR-1, the balance of Dual Shock 3’s  inputs are present and accounted for: a digital pad on the FR-1’s left prong, small “face buttons” on the right, L2 and R2 triggers (with slightly short travel distances) on the backs of the prongs and bumpers on their sides. Start and Select buttons, along with L1 and R1 keys and a sensitivity dial, adorn the controller’s central nub. Set-up is a snap: the FR-1 uses a USB dongle to connect to PlayStation 3, and the controller requires only two AA batteries to operate. Pop in the batteries and plug in the dongle, and you’re all set to race.

The Freedom Racing Wheel’s in-game performance is very good, though not quite perfect. The biggest issue is that there is a small, but perceptible, amount of lag between pressing a button, or tilting the controller to steer, and the corresponding reaction on screen. It’s easy to compensate for – and players will need to spend a little time overcoming the FR-1’s brief learning curve, anyway – but it remains as an issue that PlayStation 3’s default controller does not share.

Compatibility is one of the wheel’s major selling points, and on that point, it completely delivers. PlayStation One classics like Crash Team Racing, WipEout XL and R4: Ridge Racer Type 4 all work with the FR-1, just the same as PS3 games like Gran Turismo 5, LittleBigPlanet Karting, WipEout HD and Need for Speed Most Wanted. That said, the controller simply works better for some games than for others. Extremely fast games, like WipEout HD, suffer from the FR-1’s minimal lag. Again, it doesn’t render any games unplayable, but it does make it more difficult to be competitive. Meanwhile, kart racers with relatively complicated control schemes, like LBP Karting and Crash, can be tricky to manage on the Freedom Wheel, largely due to the layout of the controller’s trigger buttons. Buttons can be remapped, but at the end of the day, the FR-1 is at its best with racing games that stick to the basics: gas, break, and steering.

Fortunately, that description covers a lot of racing games, and the more time players spend with the FR-1, the better they’re apt to get at using it. Gran Turismo is an excellent example. At first, it can be tough merely holding the racing line. Eventually, steering with the Freedom Wheel becomes second nature, and those lap times get better and better. The importance of optimally adjusting the controller’s sensitivity on a per-game basis is hard to overstate, with “higher” generally a better choice than “lower,” but once players have truly dialed-in a given game, the immersiveness of the experience skyrockets, easily eclipsing what standard controllers can provide.

Simply put, the Freedom Racing Wheel offers a fun way to play racing games, and just might give new life to some of the older titles in a gamer’s collection. Initially, it “feels” less precise than traditional, dual-analog controls, but a small amount of effort with the controller yields significant rewards. The best thing a controller can do is virtually disappear, leaving only the player and the game. Gioteck’s Freedom Racing Wheel is capable of that nifty bit of alchemy, and earns a solid recommendation.

The Giotech FR-1 Freedom Racing Wheel for PlayStation 3 is available now.

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tags: PS3