I know many auto enthusiasts who hate racing games because they’re not at all like the real thing. I’m dating myself here, but I remember the original version of Outrun. If you were really lucky, your local arcade had not the stand-up version of the game, but the one you actually sat inside, and the entire game would rock from side to side as you slithered your Ferrari Testarossa convertible (is this why I’ve had three red Miatas?) and hot blonde girlfriend (none of my Miatas came with this feature) through the corners. To this day, sometimes when I attack a fun twisty road I have to dial up Magical Sound Shower on the stereo.
Technology has improved with the times. Modern racing games are more accurately called simulators. iRacing puts you in real cars on real tracks, all accurately modeled from the real thing. They started me in a Mazda MX-5 Cup at Lime Rock Park. I’ve driven a real Miata at the real Lime Rock Park, and I can say they nailed it. Best of all, thanks to the internet you race against real human competitors. I’ve raced with complete strangers, friends, and even one time with former Indy Car driver Bryan Herta. And rally fans are raving about DiRT Rally, which has returned to its roots as a true stage rally simulation. I wish I could kick the kids off the PS4 more often to play it myself.
The control interfaces have significantly improved as well. In real life performance driving they teach us that the throttle is not an on/off switch. Part of the reason so many drivers make this mistake is because racing games have traditionally worked this way. But even the standard Xbox or PlayStation controllers now feature analog control inputs, so you can ease off the brake as you enter a corner and squeeze on the gas as you straighten out. More serious sim-racers use steering wheel and pedal setups with force feedback. I have a Logitech wheel I used to use with iRacing (I’m pissed that the PS4 doesn’t support it). The old Outrun game used to shake you back and forth when you crashed, and that’s about as much force feedback as you got. But I remember one time in iRacing when I went into Big Bend too hot, the steering wheel chattered to simulate understeer, and my real life reactions kicked in – continue braking, straighten the wheel until the chattering stopped, then try turning in again. It worked perfectly. Then I was distracted from the game for a while, astonished that the simulation was realistic enough to have triggered my recovery instincts learned from real life racing, and that they worked just as well as they did on the autocross course. This is a huge step forward in racing simulations, and one reason why real life racers like Bryan Herta play.
But there’s always something missing – the feeling you get through your butt of how the car is actually behaving at any given time. It’s one thing for force feedback to accurately simulate how a real steering wheel would behave, but as you go through the Esses at Lime Rock you never feel like you’re anywhere except your comfy chair at home. This is where Eleetus comes in. They offer a full motion setup that puts the old Outrun setup to shame. Last week they brought a demonstration unit to Space Entertainment Center in Hooksett, NH, and Alex Kocol of Eleetus invited me to take it for a test drive.
The Virtual Track
Since this particular unit was set up in an amusement center, it did not have the manual shifter that most people don’t know how to use, but most enthusiasts would prefer. It also lacked the tablet that controls the system’s functions, relying instead on Alex’s manual control – again, to better fit the amusement center environment. It’s a PC based system, so a wide variety of games were available, and Eleetus is talking with more and more game companies about supporting their system. The seat was an actual Corbeau FX1, and once you sit in it the three 27 inch monitors in front of you fill your view, including peripheral vision. They are attached to the simulator and move with it, which is more a more realistic experience than a screen on an entertainment center or attached to the wall.
The realism, and how much an enthusiast who already has track experience might enjoy this, was my primary interest going into this review. So we loaded up Project Cars, and though no tracks were installed that I’ve driven in real life, we chose the closest one they had to my home – Watkins Glen. And though Project Cars has many awesome rides available, I chose a stock Scion FR-S, the closest car they had to my own Subaru BRZ which I’m quite familiar with on a track.
I made my first three laps with all of the assists on to get used to the system, but I drove fairly well from the get-go for an unfamiliar track. Project Cars replicated the FR-S dashboard and interior perfectly. It even sounded similar to my car, which is great because the stock exhaust sounds kind of boring (I have a Nameless Performance axle-back exhaust). Stability control did save me a few times – and when it did, it was just as invasive and annoying as it is in the real car, making it an accurate simulation.
But all this just reflects how good the Project Cars game is. What about the Eleetus simulator itself? I was already impressed, but I reserved my final judgement for my second run, when we turned all the driving assists off. How well would several track days of experience in my BRZ translate to the simulated FR-S?
Extremely well. Even without shifting my own gears, I felt like I was actually there. Multiply my Logitech wheel’s accurate force feedback exponentially, and that’s what the Eleetus simulator gives you, with all of the benefits of evoking any real life track driving skills you may have – good or bad. In addition to running some good clean laps like I would in my real car, I tried making a few intentional bonehead maneuvers, like hard braking in the middle of a corner, to get myself into trouble and see how the system would react. Of course the tail kicked out, and my instinct to countersteer and add light throttle kicked in immediately, aided by the simulator pitching me even harder to one side. My recovery almost worked – my seat got thrown back to the other side hard just like you’d expect when recovering from an 80mph drift – but I bounced off the wall before returning to the track. I write that off to never actually having performed such a bonehead move in my own car before. My real life reactions kicked in to successfully avoid a spin, just not well enough to keep me out of the wall. That’s probably what would happen to me in an actual car.
Fortunately I didn’t have to take the FR-S to the body shop afterward. And that’s the beauty of it. The Eleetus simulator adds the extra dimensions of motion to the experience that accurately replicate what you feel on the track. When you brake hard, the whole machine tips down and throws you forward. As you slither around a corner right on the edge of traction, the back and forth sensations actually replicate lateral Gs like you’d feel in the real car, quite unlike the old Outrun game. The only sensation I found missing was the feeling of actual forward motion. Alex asked me if I had any recommendations to help with that, but unfortunately I don’t. But Eleetus is open to suggestions to further improve the simulation experience. If you’re a doctor who understands how balance and the inner ear work, maybe you can help. They’ve even considered adding fans to simulate the wind rushing past you as you drive.
The Virtual Rally Stage
I wish I had a clue how to drift properly. I would’ve tried a few sideways laps of the Glen for fun, and to see how well it simulated a car being driven consistently beyond its limits of traction. But there was another solution for that – DiRT 3. Unfortunately Alex hadn’t had time to load DiRT Rally for me, but a single player rally stage in Michigan gave me a familiar rally experience. Of course, I had to choose Colin McRae’s gold Subaru from the X-Games, which he famously rolled yet completed his run, handing the win to Travis Pastrana by just one second.
After starting my run down the stage, I soon learned that the car required a massive amount of steering input, making it quite difficult to drive. The result of this was a couple of massive crashes rivaling McRae’s when I didn’t dial in enough steering correction.
Fortunately, this was easily adjusted in DiRT 3 by eliminating the dead spot in the center of the steering. Not being familiar with rally himself, Alex was unaware that this setting was wrong, and my input helped him correct the problem for the future. I should emphasize that this was not a problem with the Eleetus simulator, but a setting in DiRT 3 that only affected the steering, which itself was an off-the-shelf Fanatec ClubSport Wheelbase V2 bolted to the simulator. Eleetus is currently developing their own proprietary controls.
My second attempt on the statge was far more successful. Everything I learned at Team O’Neil kicked in, and after the initial turn-in left foot braking worked perfectly to control my line through the turns while I kept my right foot down. I’ve never been able to drive DiRT Rally this well at home, mainly because rally school taught me how the car should feel while making these maneuvers as well as what control inputs to make – tactile feedback that the comfy chair in our game room doesn’t give me. DiRT 3’s co-driver, while not the voice of Nicky Grist (Colin McRae’s co-driver), gave me good enough pace notes to set the car up for approaching turns, whether I could see them or not. I felt confident enough in the simulated car to drive faster than I could see, since the feedback through the Eleetus simulator was precise and accurate enough for me to pitch the car into a turn and make small corrections along the way to stay on line, just like in a real rally car.
How Real Is It?
Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever driven so well in a rally environment, real or simulated, as I did in DiRT 3 on the Eleetus simulator. In the real world, I don’t reach speeds as fast as stage rally, so I can only throw the car around so much. Plus, as a volunteer, I don’t drive at full rally pace, especially in sweep. On the simulation side, I’ve never had so much tactile feedback for my rally instincts to completely kick in the way they did here. I can still left foot brake (or left finger brake in my case, since I haven’t invested in a proper racing wheel for the PS4 – thanks, planned obsolescence) in DiRT Rally and it works, but without the feeling through my butt of what the car is doing, I don’t have the feedback I need to actually drive well. But I think the Eleetus simulator gave me the closest experience I’m going to get to a real rally in a real rally car without investing thousands of dollars into firesuits, helmets, HANS devices, entry fees, and either buying a rally car or renting a car for one event.
The only downside is the price – $34,999. You can buy an actual Subaru WRX STi for that kind of money. But then you have all the costs involved with an actual STi – gas, maintenance, taxes, repairs… And that’s assuming you don’t modify it at all, or ball it up at the track or on a rally stage – all of which the games that support the Eleetus simulator will let you do without getting your hands dirty. Their residential customers include doctors who race for real on the weekends.
Commercial facilities, particularly go-kart tracks, often buy these to give their customers something to do when they’re not on the actual kart track. This is where the average joe, like you or me, has the best chance to try one out. I’m not convinced it’s quite robust enough for the average video arcade, but that’s because it’s a complex machine made to provide precision motion feedback, not to get beat up by kids like a Donkey Kong machine. (I’m dating myself again, I know.)
The Eleetus simulator also supports many popular flight simulators. All it takes to switch from ground to air travel is a change of controls and software. Flight simulators are outside the scope of RFD, nor did I get the chance to try flying one myself. But I can say that the U.S. Marines think highly enough of the Eleetus flight simulator to contract them for an “F-35B Joint Strike Fighter flight simulator in support of the 4th Marine Corps District, Marine Corps Flight Orientation Program.” These won’t replace the multimillion dollar simulators that train actual Marine pilots, but they will give a potential Marine aviator recruit the chance to experience the F-35B in as realistic an environment as you can get outside of one.
It may be expensive, but you get what you pay for. The Marines believe in it, and so do I. As the great philosopher Ferris Bueller said, “It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.”