The Dakar Rally is one of the coolest motorsport events in the world, an epic race across the vast expanses of Saudi Arabia that tests not only pure speed but also navigation skills and endurance. Cars, trucks, quads, bikes and buggies blast along tracks, leap over dunes and slide around bends in a bid to get the best time in stages that span hundreds of kilometres. It’s also a testament to just how crazy and arrogant humans really are – we see an endless desert and think to ourselves, “let’s drive some stuff over it!” Dakar Desert Rally from Sabre Interactive is the latest attempt to capture the magic and epicness of the event and I’m happy to be able to tell you that it’s quite a step up from the 2018 game. This can be a rewarding game for anybody willing to put in the time, but some rough edges keep it from being truly great.
Before I delve into the good and bad of Dakar Desert Rally, I think it’s important to tell you that I’m probably going to be fairly biased in my approach. After a few dozen hours of crashing over dunes and getting lost in the depths of Saudi Arabia’s vast desert, my progress was wiped. Although this issue doesn’t seem to be too common, there have been quite a few other folks who have suffered this same fate, their hard work and dedication erased. This appears to have occurred due to a hotfix which was ironically listed as helping solve the issue of save data disappearing. After much faffing around trying to see if I could get the game to load the backup saves, I gave up. My progress in Dakar is gone and with it my faith in the game. Hopefully, I will go back to Dakar Desert Rally in the future because there’s actually a lot of good stuff to be found, but for now, I’ve been left with a horrid sandy taste in my mouth.
Sport Mode is the easiest way to play Dakar Desert Rally, pitting you against several other vehicles in a traditional race through checkpoints. While you can technically get lost by taking a wrong turn, the big pulsing checkpoints and large directions at the top of the screen let you focus solely on which rock you want to crash into. It’s a mode for those, like me, who don’t know much about the legendary Dakar Rally, a way to learn how the vehicles handle. I think it’s a great addition, and I returned to it often, even once I had gotten fully into Professional Mode.
Professional mode is a glimpse of the Dakar Rally where not only do you need to be fast but you also have to navigate using a complex system of checkpoints, CAP headings and the Road Book. Essentially the goal is to tick off checkpoints and to do that you’ll need to follow CAP headings that act as compass points, like being told to turn to CAP 54, while the Road Book provides a somewhat vague description of the terrain and other details. In the trucks, cars and SXS classes you have a co-pilot who’ll be reading out instructions, but on a bike or a quad, you have to rely purely on reading through the Road Book, keeping an eye on your CAP and watching your total distance. Here’s a basic example of what a set of instructions might look like: at 56.11KM turn left, off-track to CAP 291, dips, danger 2. In 3km prepare to turn left, to traces. It can be a lot of information to listen to or read, and the learning process is fairly steep. There’s an in-game lexicon that explains the various symbols, absolutely vital because like the proper Dakar it’s based in the French language.
There’s not much of a tutorial to guide you in the mystical arts of navigating sand dunes and thus getting lost is inevitable. Learning how to find your way back on track or when you can risk a cheeky shortcut is a key factor to setting the best times possible. While the learning curve may feel more like a learning wall, the sense of achievement that Dakar Desert Rally can spark is immense. Successfully getting through a tough section is rewarding and fun. It’s a feeling few other racing games can evoke since they typically have you following a set path with no chance of getting utterly lost. The Dakar isn’t just about speed, it’s about paying attention to the terrain. And speed. Careful speed, mind you, because mid-race repairs are incredibly time costly and anything major is almost guaranteed to drop you out of the top 8 and thus out of the event.
Unfortunately, there is a fairly big problem in the navigation system that can lead to moments of intense frustration, all stemming from the co-pilot. Most of the time his instructions are on the ball and let you navigate without having to consult the Road Book too much. Sometimes, though, his guidance will go out of sync, leading to you overshooting sharp turns. The voice acting and sound mix have a very nasty habit of obscuring numbers CAP 16 can sound a hell of a lot like CAP 60 and so on. But the worst moments are when the co-pilot is blatantly wrong in his notes, sending you careening off in the wrong direction. You could argue that this adds in some realism because undoubtedly co-pilots in real life make mistakes – I mean, it’s probably pretty damn hard to read out notes while you’re spleen is trying to evacuate through your skull thanks to a hefty landing off a 60ft sand dune. Ultimately it creates a sense of distrust, and I found myself learning to follow the Road Book far more because it’s instructions never failed me.
I really dislike how Sports and Professional modes both heavily compress the distances. This is done so that events don’t take an hour+ to complete, but they don’t adjust properly for the changes and so your kilometre count goes much, much quicker than reality. Until you get used to this, it can make judging distances tricky because the right turn in 4km you’ve been told about is suddenly upon you.
The most authentic Dakar experience is Simulation mode which removes mid-race save points, bumps up the AI difficulty, adds in the speed restrictions and so on. Stages go from ten minutes to anything up to an hour, and while not as gruelling as the real thing reaching the end of a lengthy stage with a battered car can still extract a deep, weary sigh. This is the mode that die-hard Dakar fans are buying the game for which is why I find it crazy that Simulation Mode is locked until you hit level 25. That means somewhere around 6-10 hours of blasting across the Saudi Arabia desert before you can jump into the full experience. Doubtless, this was done to help guide idiots like me, but it also means true Dakar fans don’t get to play the mode they came for. It would have made more sense to simply have a warning that Simulation isn’t for newcomers but allow anyone to try it.
It’s important to know, though, that no matter which of the three modes you choose to play in, Dakar Desert Rally isn’t a full-blown simulation. It’s better described as a sim-cade game, which I personally enjoy but that won’t be for everyone, especially those who want to feel what it might be like to actually race a Dakar Rally, something which most of us will never get to do. Perhaps the best example of this is the overall speed and lack of risk. Many of the stages, even the lengthy ones in Simulation, are pretty much flat out, even when tackling huge sand dunes that send your ride flying into the air. The real Dakar is an endurance sport where raw speed is second to keeping vehicles alive. Those mammoth stages are hard on vehicles, and chucking a truck over a sand dune is going to destroy its suspension. Dakar Desert Rally, though, is quite happy to let you keep the accelerator jammed into the floor. Purists will hate it, but I had fun with it.
Whichever mode you choose you’ll be driving in one of five different vehicles; cars, trucks, bikes, quads or buggies. That’s a difficult juggling act managing since they’ve all got radically different styles of handling, especially bikes versus cars. Most racing games focus on just one, but as an officially licensed Dakar product Sabre has to deliver two wheels and four. The results are pretty mixed. For the most part, the cars, trucks and buggies handle fairly well, with the trucks being the highlight. They feel nice and hefty, and when you power up some of the biggest dunes there’s a moment of tension at the very top as the engine beings to give out and you wonder if you’re going to have the momentum you need……and then you tumble down the other side, picking up speed like a maniac. Their weight makes them the most reliable of the vehicles, whereas the others are prone to suddenly sliding out of control with no hope of saving it. And I really do mean no hope – I only managed to catch and save perhaps a dozen of the numerous slides I had, and could never consistently tell what was going to cause the slide in the first place.
The quad bikes are easily the worst of the bunch, having all the stability of someone in the middle of a particularly bad mushroom experience. This is partially because they’re rear-wheel drive which is a tricky thing to handle in sand, but mostly it’s caused by the handling model. Slides going from nearly impossible to catch, to absolutely impossible to catch which makes events on a quad feel like complete crap shoots. Somewhat ironically, the untrustworthy nature of the quads makes them race in proper Dakar style – safely. You’ve got to go slower, but since the AI doesn’t have to deal with those issues you just have to floor it and hope for the best. Some changes to the tuning can help, though, like angling the wheels out a little to make the machine more stable.
Bikes handle a little more consistently than the quads and can be quite fun to drive, but are still far too prone to random slides. The counterargument to all of this is that the handling model is accurately depicting the Dakar, which is to say driving anything at full speed on sand is inherently risky and the slightest bump can result in slides or even being sent into a death-tumble like you’ve been shoved into a washing machine and forgotten about. I think there’s real merit to this argument, but I also think it doesn’t work in a videogame. In a game, we don’t have the benefit of being able to feel what the vehicle is doing, how the weight is shifting, how the tyres are gripping or small changes in the terrain. Without those things, the slides in Dakar Desert Rally can feel almost entirely random, as though the game simply decided to screw you over, and the handling model doesn’t like let you catch the problem and correct it without going into a horrid fishtailing scenario. It can be frustrating and the natural response is to slow down but the pace of the game doesn’t allow for that.
Overall, then, I found it hard to get a handle on the handling. I enjoyed the stability of the trucks the most but found that with tweaking to the handling and an acceptance of the occasional random slide the cars and buggies were a lot of fun. The bikes were good fun but it’s clear Saber had trouble dealing with both two-wheeled and four-wheeled vehicles in the same game. And finally, I avoided the quads almost entirely.
Career mode is naturally the place you’ll be heading to and it’s about as barebones as it could really be but given the Dakar license that kind of makes sense. You move from event to event with more unlocking as you gain experience points, while Dakar Points act as the currency which you can use to repair your vehicles or buy new ones. There’s also a rather strange sponsor wheel that appears whenever you win an event and it will randomly award you with more Dakar Points or free vehicles. It’s a strange addition that doesn’t fit with the rest of the game and adds nothing of value to the experience. Ultimately, there isn’t much to say about the career mode except that it has a good amount of events to tackle, and unlockable classic vehicles give you a decent reason to replay events.
There are also a heap of features missing that were initially promised to be part of the game. This includes the Road Book editor which would allow people to create and share their own stages, a huge feature that would allow the Dakar experience to live on long after the developer’s own content has run out. Even smaller things are missing. A photo mode? Nah. Replays? Nope. Livery editor? Absent without leave. The good news is that these things are going to come in a future update, along with the ability to freely roam the 20,000km of Saudi Arabia landscape that the developers claim is in the game. That doesn’t stop Dakar Desert Rally from feeling a little underdeveloped at launch, though, especially given its quite lengthy development time.
While the lack of a photo mode means I can’t show off Dakar Desert Rally to its fullest, it’s undoubtedly a lovely-looking game. When you imagine a rally in Saudi Arabia you probably picture a seemingly endlessly sea of sand, and yet there’s more variety than you might expect which is vital to Dakar Desert Rally’s visuals. Although it is true you’ll be spending a lot of time looking at a landscape that makes your underpants feel all itchy, there are also greener areas, lush beaches and even some snow to experience. It all looks excellent and there’s honestly something kind of calming about seeing the desert spread out before you, the sun smashing down and knowing all you have to worry about is seeing whether jumping off that huge dune is going to ruin your suspension. The level of detail on the vehicles is terrific, and the damage modelling is great, too – you can really smash these beasts up until you’re limping across the finish line with a wheel missing.
Getting it running smoothly, though can be a little trickier. Now, in all fairness I’m using the 1080ti, a card that is now a full three generations behind Nvidia’s latest graphics card which appears to resemble a fucking tank. Although the 1080ti is still exceptional, it does struggle more, so I don’t expect to run everything at the highest settings. Getting high framerates wasn’t much of an issue, but getting stability proved to be far more challenging. The biggest cause is when you share a stage with other racers, which is why Sport mode is the worst performing of the bunch. In Professional and above you’ll be sharing the space far less, usually only when you start in a low position and catch up with your competitors, and thus the framerate stays more stable.
And I use the phrase “share” quite loosely because the AI is aggressive! These guys are terrifying in their willingness to slam into you at full speed, often visibly swerving into your side in a bid to commit vehicular murder. With that said, they can be fairly dumb, too. It’s common to reach a tight turn only to find 1 car upside down, 1 stuck on a rock and another gamely trying to accelerate through a cliff instead of reversing. Simulation mode compensates for all this by making them more dangerous to every other dune user and increasing the rubber-banding effect that lets them get up to speed far quicker or suddenly catch up on straights. A lot of patching work is needed here, although you could always head into the basic online suite and challenge real-life maniacs.
An obvious question in a game like this is how it handles using a wheel, so I hooked up my Thrustmaster 248 and gave it a whirl. Although the T248 is listed as an officially supported wheel I had trouble getting the settings dialled in. Turning the wheel even a little would result in a far deeper turn in the game, and I never quite managed to get a proper 1:1 feel. Aside from that, the experience was…fine. Nothing mind-blowing, and the lack of VR support in a game like this is a real bummer. Keep in mind, too, that a lot of other people are having issues with wheels not being registered at all or acting strange. Do your research before purchasing Dakar Desert Rally if you intend on using a wheel and pedals.
I think I actually kind of love Dakar Desert Rally. Or, at least, I love it when everything is working right. In the middle of a stage deciphering the book and my co-driver’s mildly garbed instructions, sliding around bends and somehow managing to gauge a clever shortcut that doesn’t send me 5km the wrong way, Dakar Desert Rally feels stupendous. It’s rewarding to push through those initial navigation challenges and when it all clicks, Desert Rally is awesome and is quite unlike anything else. Its problems, however, are substantial. The handling in particular needs a lot of work yet, the AI isn’t quite there and, oh yes, it deleted all my progress. So that was nice. And the decision to lock away the best way to play the game until nearly a dozen hours of driving is utterly baffling.
And so I’d recommend holding off on Dakar Desert Rally for a little while until Sabre Interactive has had time to tinker under the hood. If they can get into the engine of this beast and give it a good once-over then Dakar Desert Rally could be great.