HomeReviews3.5/5 ReviewDakar Desert Rally Review

Dakar Desert Rally Review

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You’d think, given the source material and the excitement implicit in it, that creating a game that focuses on a bunch of people driving as fast as possible across the desert would be fairly straightforward, wouldn’t you? Obviously, I am pontificating on the subject with absolutely no knowledge of the game development process, but still, as the name implies, Dakar Desert Rally is a rally game set in a desert!

It comes about via the developers of Saber Porto, published by Saber Interactive, as Dakar Desert Rally plays as the official video game of the titular race. From there it promises to feature the official teams, drivers and stages from the 2020, 2021 and 2022 rallies. What could possibly go wrong?

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Well, we’ll start by taking a look at the way that the game is presented and all in this area is pretty golden, to be honest. The desert looks suitably desert-y, the sand gets everywhere and the scenery is all very nice looking indeed. The draw distances are very good too, with a nice view out across the dunes; something which is most noticeable when you catch air and you go gazing off into the distance.

There is a nice day/night cycle that is built into the game as well, along with different weather patterns to deal with. Who knew that the desert sees quite so much rain!? Night rallies are stressful no matter the game, but they are actually worse here as it is all too easy to crash into a sand coloured rock in the middle of all the sand. Ask me how I know…

The sound seems to be all there as well, with the engine noises of the different classes all sounding as they should. From the “bee caught in a tin can” hum of the motorbikes right up to the diesel thrum of the trucks, along with the inevitable breaking glass and crumpling metal as you hit a rock (and again, you will, for reasons I shall discuss later), the presentation is all very nice indeed. There is a slight glitch when a car is loading into the bivouac screen, where the wheels seem to flicker in and out of existence, but that barely counts as an issue these days, does it?

But what about the racing action. This is a racer after all. It should come as no surprise to anyone in this day and age that there are two sides to this; a Career mode, and the Free Play mode where you do everything else.

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I’ll start with the online portion of the game, and for a game that is fairly new, the online world seems to be an accurate recreation of the desert itself – a lifeless wasteland. I could not find a single Quick Play game to join, and whenever I’ve attempted to create a lobby, even allowing bots to fill the missing spaces, I’ve been met with nothing but errors, told to try again later. Sadly, the online portion of Dakar Desert Rally appears to be a no-go zone; which is a shame.

With the online world deserted, I guess we need to spend the majority of time in the Career mode, and here the news is better, in that it does actually work. When you first start the Career mode, you are thrown into a race almost straight away, and in the course of this race you are introduced to various different modes of transport, I guess to give you a taster. Starting out with some kind of buggy thing, we are then shoved onto a motorbike – given that I am to two-wheeled transport what Jeremy Clarkson is to quiet introspection, that went about as well as you’d expect. Finally we are put into a truck, and it just seems wrong somehow that something this size should go so fast over sand. It’s not natural, I tell you!

Anyway, after finishing this event, we are invited to buy our first vehicle, and then to move onto the game proper. I went for what is called a car, but looks more like a Hummer that has eaten a fistful of steroids, being roughly SUV shaped; with massive wheels complete with off road tyres pretty much on the four corners, it looks the part. Of course, you are free to choose any of the classes, of which the bikes, quads (although as I understand it, getting on one of these machines is pretty much a death sentence), trucks and things called SSVs; some kind of buggy type affair that sound like they have a motorbike engine in them.

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A word about these vehicles – as you go through races, you not only earn XP and level up, opening up more and more races, but you also earn Dakar Points. These DP can then be used in between stages of a rally to mend the car, getting it ready to be wrapped around a rock again, or at the end of a rally, utilised in purchasing new vehicles from the showroom. You have a certain number of slots in your garage, and when they are full, the remainder of the vehicles are sent to a warehouse for storage. Should you manage to finish a rally on the podium, you can spin a sponsor’s wheel of fortune, gathering up other vehicles for free. You have to complete an event in a vehicle awarded this way to take full ownership of them. All clear?

So, let’s get on to the actual driving. Now, I am under no illusions that driving fast through a desert is probably quite hard, but the difficulty here, even on the simplest of the three difficulty settings, does seem a little extreme. My biggest quibble is with the brakes, as they just don’t do as they should: brake. It doesn’t matter how much you fiddle with brake balance or force in the – admittedly quite impressive – car setup menu, if you can see that you are heading for a tree or a rock, it is too late to do anything about it. In fact, as soon as you hit the brakes, the sand seems to have the same coefficient of friction as ice, and you slide straight into what you were trying to avoid.

The same goes if you try to power around a corner – you will go into a slide, and unlike every other game in the world, counter steering does nothing, and neither does pulling the handbrake. You are left to perform a gentle pirouette and then end up facing the wrong way. The only reliable way to get around a bend is to remove your fingers from brakes or accelerators, steer round while coasting, and then accelerate (gently!) when everything is in a line again. It’s not the most thrilling way to take a bend, I have to say, but it works.

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I do have other grumbles with Dakar Desert Rally as well, so buckle up. Why, when it comes to starting a race, does my vehicle sometimes drive normally, sometimes start off then stop, and then other times refuse to move at all until something hits it from the rear? There is nothing more annoying than losing places in a rally because your car won’t move. That’s not helped by the fact that the AI drivers are all incredibly dumb, and if you are on the racing line (I may have ended up there accidentally at one time or another) they will just crash into you. And I mean full-on crash and spin you out; not a little tap to let you know they are there. I’ve actually been spun out by a quad whilst in a car, which seems like it wouldn’t happen in real life, and so the whole AI needs an overhaul.

What this means is that Dakar Desert Rally can feel great – until you start trying to drive anywhere, and then it is quite a let down. There is the opportunity to learn to drive around these issues (and just accept that AI drivers will hit you, avoiding them as best you can), but Dakar Desert Rally fails to ever really flow. I’d go as far to say that the off-road action in Forza Horizon 5 actually feels more realistic, and if that isn’t a damning indictment of a simulation game, I don’t know what is. 

Dakar Desert Rally is on the Xbox Store

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