It’s the world’s toughest rally raid and (despite being named after a town in Senegal) is currently held in South America. Hundreds of contestants enter each year to see if the can manage the unique challenges it poses as they traverse thousands of kilometres of rugged terrain and barren deserts in true off-road vehicles. It’s a test of skill, endurance, teamwork and perseverance in some of the most challenging climates in the world, and it’s being brought to us in game form for the first time in fifteen years. Dakar 18 comes from the team that’s been responsible for some of the recent MotoGP and WRC titles, so they know how to handle a license, but can they bring the scale, complexity and danger involved in the real life event to the average gamer at home?
Taking in the main drivers, vehicles and sponsors of this year’s event, Dakar 18 aims to present as true to life experience as it’s possible to get. With 14 stages set across Peru, Bolivia and Argentina, there’s a simple objective to achieve – get to the end in the fastest time. The difference here though against a normal rally title is that each stage can be hundreds of kilometres long, not follow any kind of man made track, and is across terrain that a mountain goat might think twice about tackling. Conveying that to someone sat in the comfort of their living room is no mean feat, and this is Bigmoon Entertainment’s first obstacle to overcome, how do they make it realistic? It could go without saying, but let’s make it clear that this is a hardcore game so without making it sound obvious, adding in the roadbook that contains the pace notes in the standard Dakar jargon, and then making people navigate using GPS waypoints, distance and a compass pretty much does the job. Crack that piece and the rest should mostly fall into place… assuming there’s a map big enough to accommodate the mileage.
With a heavy emphasis on tutorial and training sections, the hardcore side of things come in when Dakar 18 lays it on thick with educating about the different on screen information and how to navigate the country. It never once, as far as I remember at least, bothered to give the basic controls a once over or instruct how to drive. There’s an underlying assumption that the player knows what they’re getting into and that’s why they’ve bought it. It’s actually a bit refreshing to be treated with a modicum of respect by a racing game. That respect disappears quickly though as it throws terms and instructions out with what feels like every turn of the wheel, and the game flexes its chops to show that it’s the master in this relationship. Survive the instructional elements and it’s time to put all the theory into practice and start the career mode. Pick a vehicle discipline and advance to the first stage in Peru and spend about 5 or 6 minutes ploughing over sand dunes and hurtling down steep descents, and hopefully finish with a reasonable time on the board. So far so manageable, this can’t get much more difficult, right?
Yes. Yes it can. The opening stage feels like a taster of what’s to come – an amuse-bouche before the 13 course meal it’s about to serve up. Stage 2 is a 270 km jaunt out in the wilds; stage 3 adds another 100 km’s to that just to keep things interesting. Keep moving through the locations and reach Argentina to find epic 900 km stages to conquer. There’s no way to get around the fact that these are long, long stages that need skill, concentration and time to navigate, not just because of the tricky environments, but because there are few visual markers to get a bearing on. The compass at the top of the display with its cap heading and distance marker becomes the focus when driving because as much as the co-pilot will read things out, it doesn’t keep the car or truck or bike going in the right direction. On the easiest mode there’s a little waypoint marker circled in yellow that helps beginners stay on course, and even then it’s easy to get lost. Remember, this is all against the clock so dawdling and checking constantly adds time and costs finishing positions. Going down the route of using a bike or quad with no co-pilot basically means Dakar 18 needs you to be a professionally trained navigator to get through each stage.
With an immense amount of distance to cover it’s obvious that the maps are large and designed to replicate the real world locations, as well as have an element of creative license over the realism to maintain an enjoyable game. Mainly this manifests with the in-game measures being quite a lot shorter than the real world info… 1 km in game is only really a couple of hundred real life metres. This will be a disappointment to some, and whilst it makes sense to not have to build entire countries in the game engine, it’s a shame that this is the approach that’s been taken when you’re expecting the vast distances promised. It has an impact on navigation too in that each time a phrase like “turn in 2 kilometres” comes up, you’d expect to travel that distance before hanging a left or a right. That does happen, but after 10 seconds rather than the actual time it would take, and it sort of throws things out of kilter with the navigation. You’re moving further than intended (and braking can have the car travel quite a bit further than the waypoint), and subsequently end up slightly off the next bearing. It isn’t much of an issue on the easiest modes, but it will have some gamers cursing as they hunt for the right checkpoint marker on the harder difficulties as steadily incremented navigation errors get them lost in the dunes.
At least there’s no worry about getting stuck. If things get bogged down, just jump out and put some boards under the wheels to get some traction and move on again. It’s the same with seeing other competitors struggling, get out and help. Dakar 18 tries to instil that camaraderie that the event maintains, and towing someone out of the mud or sand is nicely rewarding. Sadly the AI isn’t as magnanimous and will punish your generosity by pushing you down the rankings, or in the worst example I saw, run you over making you too injured to finish the stage. There’s also the ability to perform rudimentary repairs so if things have got a bit lairy cresting a dune and the internals have taken a clattering, options exist to patch the worst of the damage, though some things will always be terminal. However, after 30 – 35 mins of gruelling concentration this is the last thing you’d want to happen, and at least there’s autosaving at the last valid waypoint so progress isn’t completely lost… unless it logs an invalid one in which case you’re stuck in a perpetual reloading cycle and it’s best starting again. Repairs between stages are free though, so if it’s possible to drag it to the finish line you’re still in the competition.
From a graphical point of view it’s not bad at all given the map size it’s having to render, and it does very well to keep the presentation clean and clear despite the large amount of information on hand. Late shadow loading and texture resolving are the biggest issues, though are minimised in the cockpit view. The cars, trucks, bikes, quads and buggies all look good and handle as expected – though the single pilot options can be deadly if not handled with kid gloves. Having a go in each type means starting individual careers for them, there’s no option to free race with the chosen vehicle type, and there’s no tutorial outside the SUVs so it’s a bit of a lottery on how different the others are to drive. No one forgets the first time they’re thrown from a quad. From a sound perspective it’s a bit ropey with a couple of stages I’d managed to race without any engine sounds whatsoever (and I checked there were no electric cars). When it’s all there the audio is decent if not stunning, but it’s very weird and off putting when it drops out. Input wise there’s a number of options for customising the controller, which is a must to reduce some of the twitchy response, but the best way to handle the vehicles is with a wheel and pedals if you’re fortunate enough to have them, and romping around with a decent feedback setting gives a feel for what it’s really like to keep things going at speed when there are no roads.
Like the race itself, Dakar 18 is a bit of an unknown until you get into the guts of it. It’s daunting, uncompromising and will test not only your skills, but your patience as well. This isn’t a pick up and play rally game, it needs dedicated time and effort to get the most out of it, and because of that there’s a lot of longevity and reward here, even putting the multiplayer aside. On the surface this feels like it’s one for the hardcore only with a view of providing a challenge until next year’s iteration arrives (if Bigmoon’s plans come to fruition), and it only needs a couple of tweaks to really make it one to recommend wholeheartedly to any time trial racing fan. However, if you’re finding the DiRT series a bit tame, V-Rally too arcade like, and have a hankering for practising your orientation skills, then it’s worth a punt now.
A PS4 review copy was provided by Deep Silver’s PR team, and the game is available now on PC, Xbox One and PS4 for around £45.