For the most well-known rally event in motorsport, there haven’t been many games based on the Dakar Rally in the last 40 years. There seem to be only five, and one of them is an 8-bit fever dream from 1988 where your car has guns and you go from France to Africa driving under the sea avoiding giant starfish, lobsters and lots of torpedoes. Perhaps adapting the Dakar into a game is as difficult as winning it in real life? This would undoubtedly explain what was offered by Dakar Desert Rallywhere I’ve been zigzagging between enjoying its moments of true immersion and cursing its bugs, uneven performance, weird design decisions, and often unresponsive handling, which have offset just about everything it does well.
You can not deny that Dakar Desert Rally is a very ambitious off-road game, and there are hints of the taste with which the developer studio, Saber Porto, has tried to turn this ordeal into a racing game that is digestible and, in many ways, unique. The most impressive thing is the environment itself. The vast expanses of open desert are a highlight; though they may seem barren and uninteresting, stepping out of winding valleys or clumps of palm trees into these rippling oceans of sand gives the corridor an odd sense of scale. Even in its most powerful racing trucks, Dakar Desert Rally made me feel weak climbing its mountainous dunes (especially with its neat helicopter camera) and it’s times like these that Dakar Desert Rally is at its strongest. The time of day effects are lovely, and the stunning wild weather effects are amazing too; They don’t really seem to add a layer of overt danger to the race, other than a slight drop in visibility, but they are wonderfully atmospheric.
This environment has a whopping 20,000 square kilometers (what Saber Porto has described as the biggest open world of a racing game), but unfortunately there is no way to get an idea of its full scope at launch. Sadly, Free Ride and Custom Events are coming as updates later this year. Updates will be free, but combined with the fact that Saber Porto has also relegated race team customization and even replays to later updates, it all adds up to the feeling that this isn’t quite over yet. Some games are released in early access, and some are just released too soon.
It is a problem, for example, that in Xbox Series X Resolution Mode, Dakar Desert Rally seems more fluid than in Performance Mode. In Resolution Mode, the frame rate is fixed at 30 frames per second, and that consistency makes it look suitably smooth. Performance Mode, which seemingly sacrifices pixels for frames, looks considerably worse to the naked eye. It can hit 60 frames per second when conditions are right, but it’s not locked there, and it fluctuates noticeably when the screen is full of sand-throwing competitors. The resulting unevenness is sometimes terrible. In fact, at first I even thought that the modes might be mislabeled, but no: resolution mode is the right choice.
The growing list of bugs I’ve found doesn’t help either. There are minor things like the scratches and shattered windscreen on my Iveco Powerstar that never quite go away no matter how many times I pay for the repair, or the music keeps playing at 0% volume, but the autosave issue that I am experiencing on Xbox Series X is much worse. The progress piles disappear after exiting, despite the autosave icon flashing the entire time. Quick resume is a useful feature, but losing XP levels, new vehicles, cash, and completed rallies (and going back to a random mid-race checkpoint from hours and hours ago) is hugely frustrating.
Equally frustrating is its handling. Dakar Desert Rally features a formidable assortment of rally machinery representing all classes of vehicles competing, and the damage modeling is very good. Unfortunately, there’s also a big difference between what’s fun to ride and what isn’t fun at all. Quads are horrible to ride, hopelessly sensitive to changes in direction. The bikes are a bit better (don’t feel as slick), but they’re still prone to spinning out of control on a regular basis. The handling of cars and side-by-sides is a bit tamer than motorcycles, but only slightly. The feeling of weight when accelerating in a straight line, jumping and taking smooth corners is fine, but anything that goes beyond the slightest oversteer is completely insurmountable. It’s incredibly frustrating to get into a smooth drift but be totally unable to countersteer out of it; once you’re slightly sideways, you’ll spin. Adding some steering angle in the adjustment menus before a stage can help a bit, but it’s not a complete solution by any means.
Anything beyond the slightest bit of oversteer is completely insurmountable.
The trucks, however, feel great. Despite being the largest and heaviest vehicles, they are the most fun to drive. They’re stable despite their height, feel safe and predictable when landing from jumps, can absorb hits from opponents without spinning, and really respond to counter-swing. They aren’t slow either. Honestly, I’d be happy playing the entire campaign with just the trucks, and I’m currently doing that. If all my opponents could get through all the exit doors. Unfortunately, in one event I got stuck behind an AI opponent who couldn’t do it, which delayed the start of the race for 10 minutes, during which time I couldn’t pause and restart because I hadn’t been given control yet. .
I didn’t want to just quit the game because of the autosave issues I’d already experienced, but when the same thing happened on the final reset, I gave in, quit, and reset… and lost hours of progress.
Notably, these rolling outings against rivals only occur in the arcade-inspired Dakar Rally Sport mode, which includes giant, shiny waypoints and races against packs of opponents from the start. It’s not really representative of the actual Dakar format, but if you can tolerate the surprising aggressiveness of the AI, it’s a better entry point for those who might be intimidated by the orienteering aspects of the higher difficulty levels. Professional mode, for example, requires us to interpret the directions explained in a road book and reach invisible waypoints. It is a satisfying challenge and a different kind of race which I usually play, but is somewhat undermined by the robotic co-pilot, whose advice is not as detailed as the directions in the road book: his vague “keep right” or “keep left” directions can be especially ambiguous.
I do not like it either Saber Porto’s approach when scaling the distances; the Dakar Rally map is supposedly a 1:5 scale riff on Saudi Arabia, but the studio has narrowed down the distances. This means that a 70km run is actually only a fifth of that distance, which is a fairly harmless quirk. Unfortunately, it also means that when your co-driver tells you that you have to turn left in two kilometers, the reality is that it is only 400 meters, and you are only seconds away from doing it, which is shocking and strange.
Also strange is the fact that competing in the Dakar race is locked after a third difficulty level (Simulation mode) that can only be unlocked by reaching level 25. That’s something that requires many hours of fiddling around in the opening salvo of shorter, introductory rallies. I don’t understand why the main event is locked like this; for casual gamers it’s essentially absent, and for hardcore runners, it’s out of reach for far too long.
In general, there is not a great feeling of campaign as a real rally driver in a specific team. Dakar Desert Rally just throws us an assortment of random vehicles and tells us: “Go for them”. The freedom to drive anything is fine, I guess, but it’s also a bit like F1 letting you show up in a Ferrari one weekend and a McLaren the next. I also love the historic cars that Saber Porto has put out, but unlike the real ones, they don’t have their own classic class. This leaves 80’s icons competing against modern metal, which is pretty incongruous. Unlocking them is a punishment, too, because it requires completing the events five times (once with each class; yes, you have to quad).
It must be recognized that Dakar Desert Rally has a fabulous sense of scale and is capable of some unique racing, especially over barren, building-sized sand dunes in a big truck while searching for a mysterious nav marker. Nevertheless, is dramatically affected by the unstable and annoying handling of several of its vehicle classes, its uneven frame rate in performance mode and some significant bugs that can cost hours of progress. This game needed more time in the service area before being cleared to compete.