Lonely, desperate, and terrifying. At its best, Dakar Desert Rally had a part of my brain taking part in the actual Dakar Rally, and that’s how it felt. The representation of Saudi Arabia is massive, beautiful, and intimidating, with ample opportunity to get lost or smash the actual heck out of your chosen ride.
And at its best, it’s tremendously satisfying: barrelling through a snowstorm a humungous truck, putting the threatening momentum to the back of your mind, rapidly negotiating the route marked by faint tracks, and totally nailing the waypoints thank you very much.
But. But, but, but. There are a lot of buts.
It starts with the game modes. The simplest, Sport, goes too far: visible waypoints are welcome, but racing against other competitors is too far removed from a real rally raid event for my taste. But worse than that, those competitors have no awareness whatsoever. It’s easy to mistake it for aggression, but the pile ups give it away, each new vehicle on the scene blindly smashing into the back and adding to the chaos. It’s only funny the first time.
Professional mode takes away the competitors, but also the visible waypoints. That leaves you to rely on the roadbook and, in vehicles with more than one seat, your co-driver. This is hard. The roadbook is authentic, but the baffling array of symbols and numbers make for a steep learning curve – and the in-game tutorial barely helps. This should be eased by your co-driver, and much of the time it is, but too often his notes fall slightly out of sync with the action, and occasionally they’re plain wrong. So while it’s meant to be hard, it’s harder than it’s meant to be.
Simulation ups the distance and difficulty, and is the only way to play actual Dakar Rally events. It’s locked behind an experience level gate which, like having to finish in the top eight in every stage of a rally to progress, feels like an outdated approach – and out of step with the actual Dakar Rally, where just finishing the thing is a massive achievement.
The buts continue with the handling model. The trucks are weighty beasts and by far the most satisfying. At the other end of the scale, the quads are virtually undrivable, spinning out with alarming frequency when you have the temerity to try to change direction. This might be accurate – I’ve no idea – but it’s no fun. The bikes are slightly better, and the cars and SxS slightly better again. I pretty much stuck to the trucks though – they don’t have the big name drivers, but they’re a lot of fun.
But it’s fun you have to try hard to find. Bug fixes and improvements are coming with each patch, and there’s a hefty roadmap of updates planned, including a free roam mode which could really add something. Right now though, it’s all one compromise too far.
Saber Interactive’s Dakar Desert Rally is out now on PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series, and Xbox One.