Dakar Desert Rally preview (Gamescom)

Dakar Desert Rally launches in a few weeks and promises to be the most expansive Dakar game yet. We got an early look at the game – here’s our preview.

What we know

Dakar Desert Rally is Saber Porto’s second adaptation of the famous Dakar rally, after Dakar 18 was published when the studio was still known as Bigmoon Entertainment. Their ambitious new take on Dakar comes out on October 4th through Saber Interactive, and will be available on PlayStation 4/5, Xbox and PC.

Besides the obvious differences like a new setting (Dakar 18 took place in South America while the most recent editions were in Saudi Arabia) and some visual polish, the biggest game-changer is a vastly expanded number of ways to play and enjoy the game. Where the previous game followed the familiar template of having a series of trials (a model that nearly all rally racing games tend to follow), Dakar Desert Rally embraces the wide open spaces of the actual rally a lot more. It does so to a degree in the game’s Sport mode (for those looking for a more casual, arcade-like experience), but even more so in the game’s other two (more sim-like) modes.

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While Sport modes gives you on-screen indicators of the next waypoint, you still have some freedom to choose a route to get there. Switch to the other modes, and you’ll have to rely on a compass and route book to get where you need to go, which can be daunting as it’s a step further than hearing your navigator say “hard left” so you know how to brake and steer.

Dakar Desert Rally features all three of the most recent Dakar editions and a massive 20,000 square kilometers of terrain to race through. But rather than getting a series of pre-defined routes to race through (parts of) all of that, Dakar will feature options for user generated routes that can be shared and enjoyed online, vastly improving the amount of content to enjoy and the replay value. Add full day and night cycles, and you’ve got a lot of ingredients for what could be the best approximation of the real thing thus far.

What we saw

During Gamescom, we got to hear studio founder Paulo J. Gomes deliver a spirited presentation on the game’s new features, after which we got to sit down for a hands on session with the game. This session was played on a PC with a full racing setup, including a racing seat and steering wheel with force feedback for a more immersive experience. Although the game will feature all vehicle options that appear in the real event (including trucks and motorbikes), our race was a car-based one, driven during a daytime setting under the more accessible Sport setting.

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What we thought

Because of the semi-open environment we were racing in, we were glad we were using the Sport mode. Being more used to arcade-like racers than sim games, this provided us with a nice balance of accessible racing and challenge – the latter of which becoming clear when we spun two or three times and almost lost control after a big jump. Dakar Desert Rally might briefly look like Sony’s excellent Motorstorm series with its off-road racing, but it doesn’t waste much time to let you know it’s much closer to the real thing. There’s a sense of weight and power to the cars, and even in arcade mode you need to be on your toes.

At this time, we can only imagine how that experience will scale up for those picking one of the more sim-oriented modes, but purists will no doubt enjoy having those in the game and it should also allow more casual racers to grow and learn as long as the learning curve isn’t too steep. That’s hard to judge based on our play session, but despite our spins we never had the feeling the game was too hard to handle and we made up a lot of ground during the second half of the race as we got more comfortable with the controls.

We did notice that the AI still needed some tweaking here and there (we saw a big pileup of cars that were stuck in the middle or a narrow path), but as this was a build from August this wasn’t anything too concerning. Dakar Desert Rally is shaping up to be a step forward from Dakar 18, and with all the different vehicles and route options it looks like we might have a massive sandbox of racing fun ahead of us. By October, we’ll be able to explore all that it has to offer.

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