Dakar is a form of rallying which is as much about your navigation skills as your speed. It’s also fraught with danger, notoriously so, as you face the untamed elements. You negotiate a hostile and unforgiving environment and terrain, rather than the relative safety of a bespoke race track. Steep sand dunes, unpredictable, undulating roads, not to mention the constant danger of getting lost, make Dakar a stern test of endurance. In principle, it seems an ideal fit for video games, particularly when we haven’t seen a Dakar game since the PlayStation 2 era. Does it live up to the enticing premise?
It didn’t. Well, not on release day, anyway. It arrived in a sorry state, with a litany of issues including iffy handling, washed-out visuals, bugs and glacial loading times. I had just about finished my diatribe of a review when news landed about a patch for PS4, a whopping 37GB download which, I’m relieved to say, elevates the game back into contention. I’m not sure why the patch took a week to land, but I’m glad it’s here. This review, then, reflects the latest, much improved 1.02 build.
For the uninitiated, Dakar is a bit different, since your focus isn’t simply on the finish line; you also have to pass through a series of waypoints along the route. These aren’t arranged in a convenient or linear fashion, however. Instead, you’re following directions, either from your co-pilot (not possible in the motorcycle class, for obvious reasons) or notebook in the bottom right of the screen, using a central compass to stay on the right path. It is entirely possible to get lost, although you are nudged out of ‘forbidden’ areas. Missing waypoints will see you incur costly time penalties at the finish line or worse, have you facing disqualification. Lower difficulties help keep you on the right trail, while the higher modes simply leave you to your own devices.
You also come to understand the surprising fragility of your vehicle, which gradually gets destroyed by the unforgiving terrain if you persist in driving with abandon or too much exuberance. During my very first tutorial race, I was prompted to repair the clutch, accessing the repair menu via the touchpad. I was very conscious of time ticking away as the repair was applied, so it pays to drive with at least a modicum of mechanical sympathy. It’s the usual conflict of risk vs reward. Not that I could forget that for any length of time, with the co-pilot constantly berating me for every misdemeanour. Before long, I was searching the menu for an ejector seat option, just to silence the constant barrage of criticism.
Interestingly, given the unbridled chaos of the races, a degree of sportsmanship is occasionally encouraged. At one point, my co-pilot suggested that I help out a fellow competitor who was mired in thick, unyielding mud. Within minutes I lined up my truck and attached a tow rope, hauling him to safety through brute force. Moments like this mix up the tempo of the game and add another element of realism.
The main game consists of three modes: adventure, explore and multiplayer, with the latter featuring online and split-screen options. Adventure is the main campaign across 14 stages, while explore allows you to revisit tutorial stage challenges, view treasures picked up from races and undertake several training missions, such as following a track through the sand without veering off. In adventure mode, you are free to pick from the five vehicle classes, which include motorbike, quad, car, jeep and truck.
The kernel of any racing game is a satisfying handling model, and, pre-patch, it never really felt like Dakar delivered on that front. Something about the physics didn’t seem quite right. The individual vehicle classes were distinguished well enough, but, for me, it all felt curiously light, floaty and disconnected. When you are bulldozing through the landscape, you’re expecting to feel the weight and brutality of the vehicle as it shakes and shudders over the absurdly bumpy terrain. But I felt precious little of the expected impact, the throwaway feel conveying little of the carnage playing out on screen. It often felt a little anodyne, and not at all what you’d expect given the manifold dangers and thrills provided by the sport in real life.
The good news is that the patch seems to have largely addressed a lot of these flaws. The vehicles now have a greater sense of weight to them, offering a more realistic feel as you negotiate the uneven landscape and fly over sand dunes. The bikes are wayward and slippery – perhaps excessively so- while the jeeps feel planted but more cumbersome. At least they now convey the sense of being the lumbering beasts they really are. It’s still a long way from perfect, but there’s fun to be had with the revised handling model.
The patch substantially improved the visuals, too, which were distinctly below par upon release. They are now decent, if still miles, behind the best on PS4. Performance seems better too, with less of the juddering framerates and tardy scenery pop-in that plagued the day one build. Attention to detail falters when you venture outside the car though, for example, the way tow ropes magically appear in your driver’s hands to the stilted, staccato gait of your character as you make your way back to the car.
There are moments of graphical finesse, which probably will make for some interesting screenshots, but I’d prioritise stable performance and better-defined vehicle models over the odd pretty vista. All told, it’s now more than acceptable in isolation but still exposed as pretty average in a stable full of pristine PS4 racers.
On another technical note, the game took an interminably long time to install, with glacial background installing blocking my progress beyond the tutorial for far too long. We’re literally talking hours here. Presumably, that’s now been resolved following the patch. Long loading times have been curtailed somewhat, but will still test your patience.
Overall, Dakar is not without merit. It offers something a little different to the usual racing formula and will no doubt be welcomed by passionate fans of the sport. There are moments of fun, although I still feel there is room for improvement where the handling is concerned. It’s easy to get lost on the higher difficulties, and this may serve as a source of frustration for those who don’t fully buy into the navigation concept and simply want to race.
To be clear, with the patch applied, it’s not a bad game. In fact, I’d describe Dakar as a game with huge potential, but it simply doesn’t deliver enough, right now, on a console which is already home to a plethora of far more accomplished racing games. Go for GT Sport, give Onrush a shot, or maybe try Dirt Rally or Dirt 4. This game really is probably more for diehard fans of the real-life Dakar rally, who will still find plenty to like and appreciate. For everyone else, think carefully. If you have no attachment to the sport, it may be difficult to justify a purchase in the shadow of such talented competition, many of which leave Dakar 18 for dust.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*
- Interesting mix of racing and navigation
- Precarious mechanical state of cars brings some interesting risk and reward strategy to driving
- Good tutorial for those unfamiliar with the sport of Dakar
- Handling, although improved, could do with further fettling
- Graphically average compared to the best racers
- Attention to detail lacking at times which breaks immersion; -Navigation aspect gets tiring after a while.