Saber Interactive’s Dakar Desert Rally is the first take on the famous rally race in four years and is available for PlayStation, Xbox and PC right now. Here’s our review.
When one of my colleagues was able to go hands on with Dakar Desert Rally during Gamescom in August, I was a little jealous. After all, I’m the one who actually watches the event every year, and have been doing so since the days they actually went from Paris to Dakar (before protests and attacks on the rally made that impossible, but that’s a story for another day). Having played Coktel Vision’s take on the rally about thirty years ago, I’m always eager to see it brought to life in digital form, so I was eagerly anticipating this one.
I remember not being that impressed with Dakar 18 though, which was developed by the same studio (before it was acquired and renamed by Saber), so I did have my reservations. Luckily, this is a vastly superior game in many ways, both in terms of delivering a wealth of content and in how it makes that content accessible. You can’t quite boot up the game and quickly get behind the wheel, but put in the time and there’s a lot to learn and take in.
Take the career mode, which features five different vehicle classes to enjoy. I mostly played with the classic rally car option (partly because it felt like the most natural fit for my racing wheel) when given the choice, but it’s awesome to have the full Dakar experience with its trucks, UTVs and bikes. Take those vehicle classes and combine them with a plethora of events, and you can keep going until the actual race starts again on December 31st.
That’s not even taking the three distinct racing modes into account, with Sport offering the most accessible experience. It’s not quite an arcade racer like Motorstorm or some of the Codemasters racers, but it’s a good starting point thanks to the driving assists it offers and the simplified navigation. It also feels more like a point to point race with multiple cars this way, whereas switching to Professional mode means you’re doing legs of the race solo – like in real life. Because you suddenly can’t rely on others for where to go, it’s a big jump up – but one towards a more realistic experience for Dakar fans.
If that’s the direction you want, then Simulation is where you’ll eventually want to end up. It’s so challenging that you can’t even access it right away and will have to earn it, but once you do you’ll understand why. It’s daunting, urging you to read and understand roadbooks and do a lot of the navigation yourself. It can certainly feel like doing too many things at once, but the satisfaction is where when you pull it off. I would love some kind of companion app where a fellow player can help me navigate with a tablet as I focus on racing though, but one can dream….
I’m guessing most gamers will gravitate more towards the Sports mode, which is the easiest mode to enjoy – though the lack of features found in more arcade-like racers might frustrate some. You’ll have to pick your own race line, which can make you feel lost, and mistakes can’t be fixed with a helpful rewind function either. I was perfectly okay with both, but I’m a fan of the actual event and can see others being put off by it.
I can see the same thing happening due to technical issues as well. I still saw some of those pile-ups mentioned in our preview, and cars do tends to spin out of control more than they should. When things get busy on-screen the engine also appears to struggle to keep up, and it’s always a shame to have the feeling that this could’ve used a bit more development time. I would have rather seen motorbikes patched in later with a perfectly polished car racing experience at launch, but I also get the team’s ambitious to deliver a full Dakar experience.
From that perspective, this is easily the best Dakar game thus far. It’s gorgeous to look at, captures the unforgiving nature of the race (in good and unintended ways) and has a wealth of content to explore – and with user-generated content there’s more and more coming every day. Not all vehicles felt equally enjoyable to me, and although that may just be my preference of using a steering wheel I do feel like I need to point that out for those interested in Dakar’s motorbike events, which felt like the most daunting class. Car rally fanatics will find plenty to enjoy here though, especially if the developers smooth out the experience a little.