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Posted: Oct 4, 2022 @ 03:19 am GMT-0600
Updated: Feb 17, 2023 @ 01:25 pm GMT-0600
Sorting Tags: Article Review, Article Software, Articles, Dakar Desert Rally,

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You can watch the video read through (with video footage) of this review on YouTube.

My parents thought I was crazy for buying a second-hand satellite dish and receiver when I still lived at home, but especially when I sat it ontop of my desk and pointed it out of the window until my dad could be persuaded to mount it on the side of the house. I watched Eurosport all day, every day, and it truly opened up a new world of motorsport for me. The Dakar Rally (Paris-Dakar as it was then-known) was one of those events I got to watch real coverage of for the first time, and I was blown away by the variation of terrain and vehicles taking part. I’ve been waiting for a good rally raid or specifically Dakar game for a long time, and after the cancellation of the open-world Asobo-developed ‘Grand Raid Offroad‘ title in 2008 I thought this day would never come.

Now known as Saber Porto after being acquired by Saber Interactive in 2019, Bigmoon Entertainment released Dakar 18 to a largely confused user base who could recognize the title as more simulation than arcade, with hardcore elements such as route mapping, but struggled with the lack of controller support and unconvincing though usable physics. The new title, Dakar Desert Rally, has generated a lot of buzz and excitement and I’ve found it very hard to contain my expectations. In this review I’ll detail whether I expected too much, or if Saber Porto have delivered something truly special.

First run

Dakar Desert Rally will release on PS5, Xbox Series X, PS4, Xbox One and PC (Steam) today, with PC (Epic) coming later this year. The PC (Steam) version I am reviewing was a 33GB download, immediately ran without issues and launched me straight into a tutorial race (in sport mode with waypoints on) where I got to drive a car, bike, then truck to earn an amount of ‘Dakar points’ I could use to unlock vehicles in the Garage. This ‘tutorial’ was useful, but I was concerned my first gameplay experience included intermittent microstutters which ultimately went away. I later figured that this was the software creating shaders for each type of terrain the first time I loaded them.

Right away Dakar Desert Rally reminded me of Forza Horizons in terms of Sport mode gameplay as during that first tutorial race I found I could drive whatever route I wanted between the checkpoints in a similar way. I know this was openly stated in the marketing hype, but it’s something different to experience it and the freedom it gives you.

Note: you can reset your save by deleting the save data from %appdata%\Local\Dakar2Game\Saved. The tutorial will then replay on next launch. Also note: Shaders aren’t ‘shadows’, they are code that executes on the GPU often used to improve or adapt the visuals.


Main screen, Garage, Warehouse.

Vehicles

Purchased vehicles are stored in your garage (active vehicles) and warehouse (in-active vehicles). Each active vehicle in the garage can be entered into an event independently and any mid-event saves take that vehicle out of action until you either finish the entered rally or withdraw from it similar to how vehicle activations are handled in SnowRunner. This, in my opinion, is the perfect way to handle the different classes of vehicles and still give you the freedom to save progress and switch things when you want to step away from one of the longer events to do something else with a different vehicle. It’ll even save your exact position on a stage and allow you to resume where you were in both Sport and Professional modes.


Resuming in-progress event from Garage.

If you finish an event with a podium you’ll be offered a vehicle by a sponsor. This vehicle will often be registered for a specific event and you’ll get to keep it only after you complete that rally.

I’ll talk more about the physics of the individual car types later on, but the game includes a massive amount of licensed content from recent Dakar events along with some historic beauties. Each has a unique make-up, meaning that some may be better than others, so whether you are entering a race with a Car, Bike, Truck, Quad or SxS, there are a ton of options. The cars look great when driving and feature clean, sharp textures, an array of damage levels to the body and components, and become covered in snow, sand, dirt and debris as you drive along.


Car, Bike, Truck, Quad and SxS.

Rally Events

It’s hard to see the true scale of the rally stages in Dakar Desert Rally until you have unlocked a few of the longer ones and see them overlay on the full map of Saudi Arabia. Unlocking depends on the level you have attained with XP from races. Each event can be entered by any of the vehicle classes and hovering your mouse quickly displays where you’ve finished in each event with which class. Additionally, the map has a full set of events you can compete in for each game mode (sport, professional and simulation) and each offers a unique experience and different terrain. To enter an event you simply select the vehicle and then select a rally (or resume one) from the map.

I think this again is a perfect way to display the races; It’s so quick, so easy, displays just the right amount of information. The only real downside of having to unlock map progression like this is that you won’t get to see what this title can be truly capable of within two hours. If you’re a Steam shopper seeking a refund thinking this game isn’t for you then you might miss out by limiting yourself to that timeline.


Mode select, Event Map (Professional events showing), Stage load.

Before and between stages you visit the Bivouac (a temporary camp visited during the rally) where you can repair and adjust your vehicle with an array of different settings to try to help you get the best result. Though I can’t say I have found any real setup magic with any of the vehicles, you may find it all more useful than I did. Most of the time I just visit ‘tune vehicle’ and repair my damage.

Game Modes

Sport mode offers a great flat-out Dakar racing experience not seen in the other modes that almost takes navigation out of the player hands by giving you waypoints to follow for the cleanest and quickest route. Don’t get too confident through because you absolutely can still choose the wrong direction around an obstacle and fall foul of what feels like an infinite number of complications. The A.I. are extremely easy in this mode and they all set off with you in a pack at the start of the event. Damage really never felt like much of a factor and was easily repaired during the stage or between stages. Extra XP is awarded in this game mode for air time, drift time, top speed time, etc, and that isn’t a part of the gameplay experience in Professional or Simulation.

Professional mode offers a more realistic Dakar experience, and while the driving experience doesn’t feel any different it does hand navigation back to the player by giving you a direction to follow and a crude sketch of any important changes of direction. They’re not perfect and on an unknown route you’ll get lost quite often – as will the co-driver if you don’t stick to the traces or tracks he told you to. You start events in this mode by yourself, presumably so you cannot use the A.I. to navigate, and will encounter opponents en-route. The A.I. are slightly harder in this mode and matched fairly well in most classes on areas of the map I had no familiarity with. Damage was again easily repaired between stages, but damage was certainly more of an issue when repaired during the stage because the time lost can lead you to lose the rally.

Simulation mode is locked until you build up XP to be level 25, making it impossible to experience before the Steam two hour refund window expires. I got to Level 25 around the time I got the achievement for driving 10,000km, but I am fairly sure you could get it quicker by doing more Professional-level events over the Sport-tier than I did. The main difference in this mode over Professional is that you cannot revert back to the last waypoint if you get lost, and although I didn’t use that very often it really does make it ultra-important to listen to your co-driver carefully while combining their input with the on-screen notes. Damage has an even higher cost in Simulation mode, the AI are “legendary” and the cars are limited to speeds by rule (meaning, you have to stay under that speed manually). Immediately unlocked in Simulation mode is the 2020 ‘Dakar Experience’, while the 2021 ‘Dakar Experience’ requires Level 26. I’m also told that a completely free ‘Saudi Arabia Extended Map DLC’ is on the way, which makes sense considering all the events are currently in the North-West areas of the visible map.

While I can understand the potential frustration for users to have to unlock events at all levels, especially the ‘Dakar Experience’ itself, I work full-time and have a family… I did it within the review period. It’s truly not that hard, and the leveling up is as much fun as you want it to be.


Sport mode map, Professional mode map, Simulation mode map showing ‘Dakar Experience’ 2020.

Saudi Arabia

At 830,000² miles (2,149,690 KM²) Saudi Arabia is the 13th largest country in the world by area and it’s recreation in Dakar Desert Rally is an achievement in both design and development. The map is a massive 7,722² miles (20,000 KM²) and marketed as “the biggest open-world racing game ever”. The variation in environments may be unexpected to many, but in the mountains of Saudi Arabia it is quite common for it to snow between November and January and your first snow blizzard, sand storm, and mountainous sand dune is a unique challenge to Dakar Desert Rally.

Most of the better events available in the Sport and Professional modes seem to vary between 200-400km in length and the longer stages can go through a massive variation of environments that all look absolutely stunning. The tracks are all well designed and will occasionally catch you out if not paying attention, even in Sport mode.

It’s somewhat frustrating that Dakar Desert Rally doesn’t feature a photo mode option. It’s a pretty enough game that as I have driven along it has reminded me of Red Dead Redemption in the way the environments blend together, and has produced moments of natural beauty especially with the dynamic lighting of the day/night cycle and the setting sun.


Car cockpit, Car screenshots 1, 2, 3 with damage, Bike onboard, Bike screenshot, Truck cockpit, Truck screenshots 1, 2, Quad cockpit, Quad screenshot, SxS cockpit, SxS screenshot 1, 2.

Controllers and Physics

At the time of writing Dakar Desert Rally includes profiles for most Logitech, Thrustmaster and a few other controllers including the Fanatec CSL Elite – though they all will require a lot of tweaking. You can also bind your own controller and I’m told they plan to add other controller profiles in the next few days. This fixes one of the biggest complaints about the previous title and I’m really satisfied with this. The title is reasonably playable on keys but it’s difficult to have proper finesse of both steering and throttle with the loose surfaces so you’ll find yourself spinning out quite a bit, and while gamepad users will feel right at-home playing this, I used a wheel for everything except the bikes because I’m simply not as comfortable with a pad.

I don’t think many of us went into this one expecting absolutely hardcore physics modelling, but most of us expected something believable we could enjoy. Thankfully, they have delivered a decent experience where the physics are different enough between each vehicle model, category and team to keep each event interesting and exciting. You can absolutely feel the difference in surface types and a difference in those same surface types again if it happens to be covered in rain, ice or snow. You can fully leave the surface in a believable way and control slides quite nicely if you have quick enough hands. There are a decent amount of physics flaws and limitations such as the ability to land a jump from any height if the wheels touch first that will separate this from ever being considered a top-tier “simulation” for it’s physics, but I personally think in this case it’s important to overlook that for the real simulation value it does offer of the Dakar region and Rally Raid itself. If you’re familiar with SnowRunner and the kind of “feels weirdly right but isn’t actually realistic” physics it provides – and can enjoy them for what they are – then Dakar Desert Rally is a solidly enjoyable mix of simulation elements in an arcade experience.

Cars seem the most difficult to drive as they seem extremely sensitive to both weight transfer and changes in terrain as they will lose traction in the rear on loose surfaces. Bikes are absolute rockets with terrific grip, but obviously prone to a complete wipeout if you land badly or touch any obstacle. Trucks are top-heavy with smooth, predictable handling and require you to carefully pick a line based on the terrain so as to avoid rolling them. Quads, like bikes, are super fast and handle well, but flip easily if you are sideways as they will dig into the sand. SxS’s have an incredibly wide wheelbase that makes them extremely stable and allows for terrific handling, but it seems very easy to lock the front wheels when braking and leave yourself with no steering if you don’t adjust the default setup in the bivouac.

You can manually control bike and quad rider’s weight displacement if you want to, but while it may improve realism it might not give you a better experience with these physics.

Driving Views

You can cycle the view you want to use when driving using (by default) the C key. The default views include what appears to be Driver’s head, Cockpit, Cockpit Centered, Co-Driver, Helicopter/Far Chase, Near Chase, Chase, Nose and Hood. What’s truly amazing is that the developer has clearly done everything they could to make this a major feature by also allowing you to change how much the camera moves when the car does, the height and also depth. You can also look around in these views using the mouse. The obvious potential for movie-making is really showing, but the lack of a photo mode does limit that.

A.I. Opponents

If everything goes perfect for you then you can beat them easily at any difficulty. The challenge of Dakar is the the unexpected, so it really doesn’t take that big of a mistake for them to destroy you – even in Sport mode. I am quite impressed by the AI though, as they will actively avoid most contact, fall foul of obstacles in a realistic way and seem to try to find shortcuts by leaving defined tracks. I also really like that when you’re in a stage race against others from your class you’ll see other vehicles types having their own race along the same route, causing both a distraction and a constant level of interest even if you’re miles ahead of those you’re actually racing.

Navigation

There was a point when, not listening properly to the instructions of the co-driver, I thought there was a bug with how it worked. The instructions are very specific and sometimes can be confusing, and if you’re going extremely fast can appear later than you needed them to be. In Sport mode you can very much ignore all navigation information and just follow the beacons, but in Professional and certainly in Simulation mode you’ll likely be going a little bit more slowly, more carefully, and listening hard. Make sure you pay attention when told to leave Track, follow Track, go Off-Road, follow Traces, etc, as the co-driver uses those and an array of objects to know where he is. Although the stages are effectively free-roam, both you and the co-driver will get lost very quickly if you don’t go pretty much along with the pre-arranged notes.


Navigation drawing informing of rocks on both sides and need to stay on Traces (the tire tracks).

Sound

All the sounds, including the music, do the job. Some of the engines sound a little flat but you can tell the difference between them, and honestly it’s good enough. The co-driver/notebook reader voice is clear and works fairly well, although sometimes seems to say too much if you’re moving quickly.

Note: If you are a content creator and want to disable music entirely both MUSIC and PLAYLIST sliders in the audio options should be put to 0%.

Settings

Along with the already-mentioned camera options are an array of other settings for almost everything I can possibly think of under the heading of Gameplay, Graphics, Audio and Controls. Most people will be pleased to hear that the controller options are extensive and although it ships with profiles for specific wheels, I was also able to bind and use the recently reviewed PXN V10 which didn’t have one at all.

Graphics options seem useful enough for an array of systems to be able to play this effectively and this does appear to be reflected in the minimum system requirements listed on Steam. Both NVIDIA DLSS and Reflex are implemented and working although I tend not to use them and prefer to run titles natively.

I always try to mention if a title properly supports superwide resolutions and I’m happy to say that Dakar Desert Rally has everything I would want in order to properly support my screen size. You can adjust the positioning of the on-screen display and honestly it’s just terrific to have these settings available and a developer that even attempts to support it.


Centered HUD, HUD Setting, Stretched HUD.

Bugs

I’ve not encountered any significant bugs, but maybe I can mention here that the menus include full mouse control and there’s no way to back out of some screens you enter with the mouse without pressing ESC on the keyboard. (I’m nitpicking on that one).

Final Thoughts

A mixture of Forza Horizons, Colin McRae: DiRT 2 (the best DiRT game to-date) and something wholly unique, Dakar Desert Rally certainly doesn’t tick the box for best physics, but it does on just about everything else while still delivering an adequate driving experience. The experience in Sport mode is entirely different and makes it feel like a very simplistic racing title, but once you move into the Professional mode and begin to understand that the entire game is designed around navigating the stages more than anything else, it becomes a quite complete simulation of everything it was trying to be. The vehicles all have their own unique characteristics within each category and although simplistic I feel the physics are good fun and believable enough when it counts.

Perhaps my only real complaints are that all events require you to finish in the top-8 for it to even count for anything and this can be a little frustrating after running an extremely long rally when you gain zero XP for all the work you’ve just put in. I’m also a little bit disappointed not to see a photo mode in such a stunning game.

To sum up Dakar Desert Rally I’m going to use a combination of words that I’ve never really used before because I’ve always felt you have ‘arcade games’, ‘bad simulations’ and ‘good simulations’ – and I always found those very easy to define. But if any racing title deserved to be called ‘sim-cade’ over ‘arcade’ then this is it, because when damage starts to matter and you find yourself driving much more carefully while listening to every word from the co-driver for fear of missing a turn, it doesn’t feel like it’s missing anything in simulation-value to me. The physics, though fun, occasionally challenging, and oddly believable in many situations, don’t perform at the same level but, honestly, I would have hated to miss out on this – the Rally Raid title that delivers on pretty much everything I’ve wanted for decades.

Multiplayer, which is a game feature, was untested. Steam key supplied by Saber Interactive for fair review.

Test system used: AMD Ryzen 9 5950X, RTX 3090, 32GB RAM.

Quick note: It seems users with mismatched manufacturers for pedal and wheels on PC are having issues with pedal detection (and a number of other controller issues). I experienced none of that, so largely refer to the controller options positively.

Before purchase please google and try to see if your setup will work!

Release trailer:

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