I had great hopes when I first heard of the Thrustmaster T500 RS
. The naming convention, itself, indicated to me that good things were to be expected; the "T" at the beginning reinforced the fact that Thrustmaster was involved in the development of the wheel, but the "RS" at the end hinted that some of the folks at Act Labs, another company purchased by Guillemot, may have had some input as well, as it is reminiscent of their Act Labs Force RS
, which I reviewed for the PC several years ago. While I review products based on their performance
and not their lineage
, the fact that Guillemot has collected the creative power of several talented hardware companies, such as Thrustmaster and Act Labs, under one umbrella led me to hold high hopes for the T500 RS
. My hopes were not unfounded.
The Thrustmaster T500 RS racing system is impressive, even before you remove it from the box. Weighing in at over 47 pounds, the T500 RS is obviously more substantial than a lot of the plastic, toy-like steering controllers on the market. It turns out that the reason for some of this heft is that the T500 RS's pedals are constructed of 100% metal, at a little over 15 pounds, alone. The steering wheel unit is also quite sturdy, at over 32 pounds, with a very strong force-feedback and centering motor contributing to its weight.
If you wanted to make the perfect racing system, you'd want to make it sturdy and durable, as Thrustmaster has here. You'd also need to make it customizable, however; it's not good enough to make a steering wheel that fits the needs of one person perfectly - you have to accommodate for the preferences of multiple types of gamers out there, from the arcade racers to the simulation racers, from NASCAR fans to F1 fans and your Gran Turismo gamers.
The T500 RS does a good job of providing various configurations for different gamers styles. The wheel's self-centering functionality is very strong by default, but can be adjusted easily to tailor it to a gamer's preferred strength. The pedal cluster, however, is extremely customizable, allowing for two different orientations, with the pedals mounted on the floor plane (by default) or mounted on the back plane. These give subtly different feels, based on how the pedal moves when pressed down - either away and down or away and up. You can also use an included optional modifier part that adds resistance when depressing the brake pedal to provide a more realistic brake feeling. Even this brake mod offers two orientations and three different positions, allowing you to dial in the brake pedal resistance to where you want it. Further, the pedal pads can be mounted in different positions, allowing you to adjust them slightly left or right (and in the case of the accelerator pad, up and down) to customize their placement and the pads have a spacer which can be mounted in two different directions to adjust the tilt angle of the pedal pads. All told, there are theoretically 6048 different configurations for just the pedal cluster alone. The reason I say "theoretically" is because that number includes a brake resistance that is quite over-the-top and a couple of settings where the accelerator pedal is quite close to the foot-plate, creating a pinch-point that I didn't feel comfortable with; however, these settings may be valid options for some.
The steering wheel, itself, is the largest I've ever tried, at 12 inches in diameter. For comparison, a lot of actual cars use steering wheels that are just a bit above 14 inches. The T500 RS doesn't feel like a toy, it feels like a simulator. Then again, priced at just over $500 USD, it's not priced like a toy, either. We're talking about a peripheral that costs more than a PS3... and around the price of an economy gaming rig.
Shifting gears for a moment, let's look at... well, shifting gears. The T500 RS features large, metal paddle shifters on either side of the steering column. These are not attached to the wheel, itself, so they stay stationary when you're taking turns, which may or may not bother you. I have seen forum posts back and forth over how this is or is not how an actual Ferrari is designed, but I say it's a matter of personal choice. The paddle shifters are there, they're large, have nice response and are large enough to make them easy to reach even in reasonable turns. The T500 RS does not have a stick shift built onto it, but Thrustmaster does make a stick shift unit that is sold separately, if you want to simulate an on-the-floor shifter. Two advantages of the shifter being a separate unit are that you don't have to get it if you are fine with the paddle shifters and that, if you do want it, you can set your simulator up with your shifter in a realistic location rather than it being built onto the steering wheel, itself.
There is, of course, the outside chance that someone might pick up a T500 RS without the intent of building a custom simulator and without having a racing chassis setup, already. Or, for that matter, someone may pick up a T500 RS for use with their PC and simply replace their keyboard when they play games. I tried a variety of setups and my detailed results are in the Backstage at Game Vortex blog, T500 RS Setups... In Detail (see link below). In general, it is possible to use this racing system, sitting on a couch with the wheel set up on a chair and a PC desk setup works great, especially if you have a strong pull-out keyboard tray and you make sure there's nothing that could shake loose and fall from your desk during force-feedback-laden gameplay.
I pulled out my VRC-1 virtual racing chassis, which I reviewed some time ago, and found that, in general, it worked quite well with the T500 RS. The steering wheel is probably near the top of the weight range I would suggest using with the VRC-1, but I had no issue with the wheel staying in place. I had some issues with the pedals and ended up using them in the floor-mounted orientation, as the back-mounted orientation would require that I mount the pedals in a more permanent fashion to the VRC-1. In fact, Bob Earl Racing indicates that both the wheel and the pedals should be mounted for use with their racing chassis. Their website indicates that instructions on how to mount the T500 RS are forthcoming. My VRC-1 setup is also described in more detail in the above-mentioned T500 RS Setups... In Detail post.
So, what do you get for the money? Control. Precision. Accuracy. ...and the realistic feel that changes your "game" into a simulation. This isn't a "magic bullet" that takes a casual gamer and instantly changes them into Frank Martin from the Transporter. However, with a little bit of time using the T500 RS, you'll find it much easier to get a "feel" for the virtual car you're racing, whether it be the jolt to the side when you impact the ground after catching some air over a steep hill at speed, or the sudden lack of resistance when your tires lose traction. I find that my body reacts to lost traction what feels like eons before I would have visually noticed that there was anything requiring a reaction. You want specifics? I gained quite a bit of control over cars in Gran Turismo 5, going from crawling across the finish line dead last after frequently sliding off the track to consistently staying on track for three laps and managing to edge out and around everyone else on the road to take first place. Did it make it easy? No; I had to concentrate on my performance and pay close attention to the upcoming curves in the track, as well as other cars attempting to overtake me. However, the realistic force-feedback gave me the ability to actually keep my cars in control by greatly reducing my reaction times.
Fine, the T500 RS is supported - specifically - in Gran Turismo 5. This is not all that surprising, given that the T500 RS center hub is actually adorned with the Gran Turismo logo. So, what about other games, right? Anyone familiar with Ridge Racer 7 knows it's a lot of fun... but the turns can be extremely difficult to manage while drifting, even though drifting is an integral part of the game. Before using the T500 RS, my drifting skills left a lot to be desired, with 90 degree corners often ending in my smacking into a wall, either with the side of the car, in a head-on collision or sometimes even with the rear of the vehicle. There are many words that could be used to describe these atrocities, but "control" would not be one of them. However, after some practice with the T500 RS, I would often manage a near-perfect drift around a corner, where the action on-screen looked more like I was watching an action film and less like my gamepad's batteries had just died mid-turn.
As for general game compatibility, the T500 RS will work with almost any racing game on the PS3. There are a few recent (primarily simulation-heavy) games, such as Gran Turismo 5 (but not the Prologue version), Dirt 3, NASCAR 2011: The Game, Need for Speed: The Run, WRC 2 and F1 2011 that fully support the T500 RS's force feedback features, but when you load a PS3 racing game that doesn't support the force-feedback features, the wheel sets itself into gamepad emulation mode, allowing you to still play the game with the T500 RS. This mode uses the force feedback motor for auto-centering the wheel, giving you an experience whose realism is less than with force-feedback, but much better than without the motor at all.