Dakar: Desert Rally

Dakar: Desert Rally

Tackle the rolling dunes of Saudi Arabia.

dakar desert rally

There have been many rally games released over the years, and most are focused on short, point-to-point blasts of speed that demand focus and control of powerful cars across slippery surfaces.  Not many have attempted to take on the most gruelling rally of them all though – the Dakar rally.  There was one a couple of year’s back that tried to convey the extremes and technicalities of the event, and whilst a decent enough effort, it ended up being more hardcore sim than fun racer.  In the intervening time Bigmoon Entertainment have decided that a follow up was needed, but maybe it could be a bit more accessible, and it definitely had to be bigger and bolder.  Have they managed this time with Dakar: Desert Rally to do the event justice alongside making it better for players?

Dakar: Desert Rally brings the teams and vehicles from the competition as it did last time, as well as the roadbook driven direction system; but this time there are also multiple disciplines to tackle, various different modes to choose, and a massive open world to trundle around in.  The point of the race is to run from checkpoint to checkpoint as fast as possible with only a compass bearing and pace notes available to help navigate.  Not helping things is the terrain that needs crossing which ranges from tarmac roads to deep sand dunes, and can be inhospitable and unforgiving with every turn.  Whether you choose car, buggy, quad, bike or truck, you’ll be following the same courses and trying to master each whilst trying to keep your foot to the floor and heading in the right direction.

Making Dakar: Desert Rally accessible is the Sport mode which is effectively an arcade-ified version of the events.  Each section of the rally is split into stages, and you race with multiple other competitors at the same time to be the fastest through the checkpoints.  Hitting the waypoints isn’t strictly necessary, but missing them incurs a time penalty and has you run the risk of not making turns in the right direction to keep up with, or keep ahead of, the pack.  Directions are called quickly, so much so that you’ll wonder if the co-driver is on amphetamines, and it’s a good job that there are vague direction markers at each waypoint which point you at where to head next.  Whilst there’s the chance in Sport mode to absorb the intricacies of the Dakar experience with a more forgiving navigation system, there are the other AI drivers to contend with and they’ve no qualms about running you off the track, or being brutally quick.  At least they seem to pick up more penalties than you do, so winning a stage or an event isn’t the hardest thing in the world, and then you get the sponsor wheel which is like a one armed bandit with money, team or XP bonuses.

Cutting your teeth in Sport mode means there’s a good chance you’ll want to move on to Professional which strips away the other competitors on the stage as well as the direction indicators on the ground.  Here it’s all about speed, accuracy and being able to interpret the roadbook whilst bouncing across the dunes.  Professional mode is also where Dakar: Desert Rally separates the players and the casual racers will be left behind…  It’s a challenge to read the roadbook, listen to the instructions and nail the right points on the circuit whilst keeping up a decent pace.  I couldn’t quite work out if this is because there’s not a great amount of instruction to be had on how the notes work – it’s a voiceover before you start that fails to display any images to support; or if it’s because the distances in the game are bobbins.  I’m not a seasoned desert racer, but I’m guessing it’s not possible to cover 60 km in around 3 minutes, and that shortening of distances plays havoc with your perception when trying to follow the notes.  In most cases it ends up that you’re driving around in circles trying to find the waypoint to trigger the next one, losing valuable time.  Of course, if you’ve mastered the Sport mode you’ll have an idea of the courses because they’re the same ones used, and that certainly makes things easier.

If Professional isn’t hard enough for you then there’s the full on Simulation mode where it gets even tougher.  Be warned with this though, as it’s likely the main draw for hardcore fans, it’s locked behind a progress barrier… and quite a high level too.  As you race and gain positions on the leaderboard you earn XP that levels you up and brings access to events and activities, as well as unlocking the Simulation.  You also net Dakar Points that can be spent on buying new teams and vehicles, as well as repairing whatever damage you’ve incurred.  A physical reduction in performance will persist between modes and races if you don’t do anything with it, and it’s a nice touch that it’s just one currency for spending so if you’re a careless driver you’ll take longer to buy up bigger and better rides.  Take on damage during an event and time penalties are incurred for fixing the issue, and it’s nicely considered that it’s an instant repair so there’s little messing around or distracting you from the actual racing.  It’s not the deepest system in the world, though it works and feels like it’s fleshing the experience out somewhat.

Having the option to ride out in trucks, bikes, quads, buggies, etc., switches the races up quite a bit, and you’ll have to pick one to specialise in if you’re determined to head into the harder difficulties, yet there’s something not quite right with the handling.  I couldn’t really put my finger on it, it’s like it’s a bit disconnected and too loose, and once you realise that you should never brake you’ll start to perform better, but it’s not really what you expect from desert and dirt racing.  Then there’s the slightly ropey graphics and performance issues, particularly in Sport mode with other cars all around.  It feels very rough around the edges across the presentation, which you can accept from a lower budget title, but in races you want it rock solid and dependable, and it drops frames and stutters quite regularly as it deals with the open world style tracks.  Audio isn’t anything to write home about, yet I’ll admit that I quite enjoyed the genero-rock used as the backing track in the races, it brought a sense of urgency to the proceedings.  There are no real benefits I could see with the latest generation versions either, though I’d guess that loading is much longer on other machines.

It’s a strange one then is Dakar: Desert Rally because the introduction through Sport mode really does whet your appetite for the full fat race, but stepping up is just too jarring in the initial stages to be fun.  Whether it’s the handling, working out the roadbook, or having to cope with the disparity in unit distance (or a combination of all three), it makes for a hard game to just drop in and out of… and I know that isn’t what a title like this should be.  However, that initial accessibility is enough to keep you interested and could be the place where you’ll spend most of your time grinding to unlocking the Simulation mode – at least then you can fail in spectacular style with all the bells and whistles blowing.  Credit to Bigmoon Entertainment for stepping things on since the last game, but there’s still an awfully long way to go.

A PS5 review copy of Dakar: Desert Rally was provided by Sabre Interactive’s PR team, and is available now on PC, PlayStation and Xbox for around £40.

The Verdict


The Good: More action focused approach | Open areas in the world

The Bad: Not great with the tutorials | Locked off sim mode | Figuring out distances

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Co-founder & Editor at Codec Moments

Gamer, F1 fanatic, one half of the Muddyfunkrs DJ duo (find us over on Hive Radio UK), MGS obsessed, tech geek.

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