As I’ve written countless times, getting the very best out of many racing games, and especially the currently dominant genre of sim racers, really requires that you invest in a racing wheel. Whether you clamp it to a desk, have a bespoke racing wheel stand, or go even further with a racing seat and rig, a wheel can add an extra layer of authenticity, with more nuanced and accurate control over what you’re playing. While using a controller can be a great way to play, with games allowing to toggle assists on and of to help smooth out the kinks of the more limited range of an analog stick and short throw of a trigger, the most die hard racing fans will want to invest in a wheel.
Invest is the key word when discussing Fanatec’s range of wheels and the sprawl of associated accessories. These are the most expensive racing wheels out there, and their latest effort sees them bring the CSL Elite Racing Wheel to PlayStation 4, having released last year in an Xbox One and PC compatible form. While each part can be bought individually, from wheel base and wheel to the pedals, handbrake, gear shift and so on, the CSL Elite Racing Wheel brings together a particular set with the PS4 in mind. This might sound like an entry level collection, but it will set you back an eye watering €520, and that’s only because you save €80 from bundling them together!
What you get is of fantastically high quality, with the CSL Elite wheelbase that’s compatible with PS4 and PC, a wheel with PS4 oriented buttons (which can be swapped out if you wish), and the CSL Elite pedals. Fanatec also provided us with the more realistic pressure measuring Loadcell Brake Kit – a further €140 – letting us add a third pedal and repurpose the brake as a clutch. Emphasising the modularity of Fanatec’s products, all of these came in separate boxes, and in such a fashion that you want a modicum of DIY confidence to set it all up.
The wheel itself is relatively straightforward, slotting onto the base and ensuring its on firmly enough that you can screw the metal collar tight, while a provided desk clamp can ignored in favour of screwing it to a wheel stand. The pedals, however, are something else, with the solid metal base letting you attach the pedals where you see fit, with the relevant wrench and tools included. The default package only includes two pedals, but adding in the Loadcell brake means you need to swap out the control box underneath, which then lets you use a handbrake and plug the entire pedal set directly into a PC for even greater fidelity, and lets you mix and match with other non-Fanatec wheels in certain games. All told, it took roughly an hour to figure out what’s what and put it all together.
The DIY set up process is followed by a recommended step to plug the wheel into a PC to update its firmware to the latest process. It’s not a vital step, and one that I actually came back to after briefly testing it out with a game or two on PS4. Updating the firmware did have the unwelcome side effect of making the wheel forget where its centre point was, and with slightly unclear documentation online (or my misunderstanding of the manual), I had to dredge up a YouTube video for the equivalent Xbox One wheel to see how to reset it via the wheel’s built in settings.
Simply put, getting all of this together is not for the faint hearted and technologically inept. It was relatively straight forward, but if you struggle with putting an IKEA bookshelf together, you might want to get someone else to give you a hand. The pedals in particular made the set up more awkward than the top tier Thrustmaster wheel.
However, once you’re up and running, this wheel is quite sublime – you’d expect as much for the staggering outlay. The wheel itself is clad in real leather and suede and at 12″ is noticeably bigger than the 11″ Logitech G29. The paddle shifters have a satisfying travel and resistance before they click, while the face of the wheel is covered in buttons. They’re PlayStation symbols and functions by default, but can be swapped for custom buttons that are provided. The only real complaint I have is of the wobbly nubbin that is in place of a simple D-pad, which is indistinct and unsatisfying to use.
The CSL Elite wheel base features a belt drive, meaning that the turning feels perfectly smooth in comparison to my trusty Logitech G29, where you can feel the gears biting as you turn it. I’d love to put this side by side in comparison with a similarly belt-driven Thrustmaster T300, but the better part of three years come between my time with that wheel and this.
The belt doesn’t just mean that your inputs are smoother, but so too is the force feedback that the wheel gives back as it translates the various forces acting upon your in game car. It’s a consistent, strong and perfectly smooth pull that resists your turning when it needs to, but can raise an almighty rattling ruckus from the powerful motor within when it relays that you’re skipping over kerbs or tumbling and rolling down the road in Dirt. Letting go of the wheel, it can spin from full lock and back to the default position at a truly alarming speed. The consequence is that with the energy being put through the system, it needs a fan to cool it that can become noticeable.
The pedals are similarly excellent. While far from Fantaec’s top end pedals which actually feature their own force feedback, they’re predominantly metal with plenty of resistance that differs between accelerator and brakes. The standard brake simply pushes down onto a wedge of stiff foam, but the Loadcell pedal offers more nuance that can be customised to your taste. It actually measures the force you’re putting on the pedal which can be customised from 18kg to 90kg of pressure. Its construction makes slamming the brakes on full strength much harder than on the stock pedal and those supplied with Logitech and Thrustmaster wheels, so I’ve actually come to loop a luggage belt around my wheel stand and the main support of my chair to stop me from simply pushing myself away from the pedal!
Built into the wheelbase are a series of coloured lights to show when you’re approaching your maximum engine revs, while the wheel itself also includes a little three digit display that can show your speed or gear and a multi-colour LED that can flash to emphasise when you’re hitting the rev limiter. They’re nice visual indicators that can sit just at the edge of your vision and let you turn off some more of the HUD or in cockpit options in games for a more purist experience. However, their support is also far from universal.
One of the biggest problems with this wheelbase is that, being a new product that’s arriving in the middle of the console generation, it’s not directly supported by many of the main racing games of the last few years. While Thrustmaster and Logitech have had native PlayStation 4 support via the necessary chips to control the main system software, this is Fanatec’s first wheel that brings this functionality. This means it only has full, native support in a handful of games. Dirt 4 and Assetto Corsa are the only two current examples, and of those two, Dirt 4 doesn’t support the wheelbase lights or display on the wheel. Native support is coming in future with F1 2017, Project Cars 2 and GT Sport.
Thankfully, the wheel can be put into a compatibility mode that lets it mimic the older CSW2 wheel base. Doing so cuts control of the system, so you need to switch at the game’s title screen, but this then let’s you play Project Cars, Dirt Rally, F1 2015, The Crew and so on – Project Cars, incidentally, does support the lights and wheel display. It’s not ideal, but a good compromise that ensures a broad reach. In PC mode connected to Windows 10, it presents as a ‘CSL Elite Racing Wheel for PS4’, meaning that you may need to create a custom control set up before you can get underway, depending on the game.
Finally, if you’re not quite happy with the in game tools to tweak various control and feedback settings, or if you want quick presets to switch between, you can delve into the wheel’s firmware via the tool button on the wheel and tweak everything from the wheel sensitivity to the force feedback strength, the brake force, and plenty more besides. Honestly, it’s not something I felt the need to tweak, but could be useful for the most discerning racers.
The theme running throughout all of my time with the CSL Elite Racing Wheel for PS4 is that while it can be awkward to set up, it then provides enough settings, possibilities and customisability to cater to the most discerning of sim racing fans. It’s those fans who would even consider purchasing a wheel in excess of £200, let alone £500. While you need to put effort in initially to set it all up, learn to work around some of the quirks that come with its PS4 and game support, once you’re racing, it’s simply fantastic.