For the uninitiated, the Dakar motorsport event is a yearly rally raid race that is known to be the most challenging in the world. Like an event in a WRC or DiRT Rally game, you are not racing on a circuit, but point to point with a co-driver and against the clock. Except, where a rally stage may typically last under an hour, a rally raid stage on the Dakar lasts a whole day and the event itself is a whopping 15 days, with just one rest day in the middle.
The terrain is not easy going either, with the journey across Peru, Bolivia and Argentina – a brutal slog that includes desert dunes and muddy bogs. Neither is it restricted to cars, as bikes, quads, buggies and even trucks all compete alongside each other in respective classes. Half a month of constant, punishing competition across the harshest environments the world has to offer; a true test of competitor and machine.
Which brings me neatly to Dakar 18, the first cross-country rally video game based on the storied event since Dakar 2: The World’s Ultimate Rally on the PS2 came out in 2003. Ever since playing the demo for that game on repeat, I have longed for a modern Dakar game. With the current generation of technology, we are at the point where large detailed open worlds are possible alongside accurate handling models. Dakar 18 should be the perfect blend between challenging gameplay and stunning vistas.
It’s not. Not by a long stretch.
In Dakar 18, you can choose to drive or ride any of the aforementioned vehicle classes that appear in the event itself, and you race them across 14 stages set in the three countries. Each stage can be as long as 900km and take up to two hours to complete. You have got to be focused as a player for a long amount of time, which adds to the endurance authenticity. The levels are also vast, which is sadly matched by the equally vast loading times. If you can see some rocks in the distance, you can drive to them. The early Peru gaming area is gigantic and seriously impressive.
Adding to the authenticity is the co-driving system. Unlike a rally stage where you co-driver tells you the severity of upcoming corners, in a rally raid you have to navigate according to a serious of coordinates to check off various GPS waypoints. This is very confusing at first, especially because the tutorial is uninspiring and the more in-depth training mode lacking any form of explanation.
Slowly but surely, you get the hang of things. On the medium ‘Competitor’ difficulty, there is no arrow to point you in the right direction, so you have to listen extraordinarily carefully to your co-driver (provided you are in a car or truck, as bike riders follow on-screen map icons) and keep track of the coordinate strip at the top of the screen. Mis-hear or misunderstand a call, however, and you get lost. There’s no reset button, no rewind mechanic and you can’t even follow your tracks through the sand or mud back to where you came from because they disappear.
You can select to go back to the most recent waypoint you passed, but there is a time penalty of 15 or 20 minutes, which basically rules you out of contention for victory. You have to choose between restarting the whole stage, which means you could lose an hour of progress, or taking a massive penalty to keep going. It’s fine in principle, because there is a serious tone to the game. In 1982 Margaret Thatcher’s son Mark took part in the Dakar and got lost for six days, and you didn’t hear him complaining about the lack of a rewind button.
The problem is you get lost most of the time because your co-driver is useless. On so many occasions they call a direction change after you’ve already gone flying past the turning point. The notes are just too late, and unlike some other rally games, you can’t adjust how early or late the directions are read out. You’re just stuck with a co-driver that arrives later than a West Yorkshire bus and end up meandering around the middle of the desert without any help to get back on track.
If the co-driver isn’t being useless, then they are busy shouting. Really loudly. Then there are the directions themselves which can be obtuse, to say the least. “Go right over the dune” is different to “turn right” – The former means go straight on and not to turn right, which is incredibly frustrating.
I recommend turning the difficulty down to Rookie, because then at least you most of a stage you have a little yellow compass marker right the top edge of the screen to help with the correct direction instead of relying solely on your partner. This isn’t a racing game, this is an orienteering simulator and I always hated orienteering at school.
When you are navigating across the sand dunes of Peru, there is fun to be had. Provided you know which way to go, the handling of the all-wheel-drive cars and trucks is satisfying and there is a nice flow to your progression through the event. It’s when the ground gets harder that issues start to arise. Off the sand and onto dirt tracks, there is all the precision of a cruise liner, as large steering inputs result in not much actual steering action.
Using the handbrake at almost every turn is essential and while steering wheels are supported they’re not something I recommend using. Meanwhile, the bikes are skittish and unruly. By far the biggest offenders are the rear wheel drive cars. The game warns you that they are for experienced players only, but it feels like an excuse to mask poor vehicle dynamics. The lifeless controls are completely at odds with the professional tone and challenging navigation.
Sadly, the environments also get progressively less inspiring and unfinished as your proceed through Dakar 18. The wide open spaces, rocky landscapes and dunes are eye-opening, but as you transition into Bolivia, they are replaced with drab surroundings which are as dull as dishwater and worse, in Argentina, there’s the feeling that development is still ongoing. I came across frame rates so bad in the penultimate stage that I found it really difficult to drive.
In these later stages, you will come across villages where you have to keep your speed below either 50 km/h or 30 km/h. Once again, your co-driver calls out the start of the speed limit zone too late which invariably means you arrive over the speed limit and get a penalty. The game doesn’t tell you if you have a penalty until you have finished the stage an hour later, and you may come across twenty speed restricted zones in a stage. Some are automated, where the game takes over control, but most are not and there is no cruise control or pit limiter-style button to keep your speed in check.
I came across game-ending bugs too, such as one where my car got stuck in some mud without front tyres right on a waypoint, which meant I constantly respawned into the same situation. I had to restart the whole stage and lost an hours progress. I also haven’t been able to get into an online multiplayer game yet, the game just gets stuck on a loading screen. As you race, you come across rival AI vehicles, but they are unable to control themselves, weaving about or just appearing out of thin air in front of you. There is the option of getting out of your vehicle to help tow other competitors out of deep mud, but apart from the tutorial, I didn’t see an opportunity to use it once.
Away from the main event and multiplayer, there is a strange treasure hunting mode, but there is no explanation as to how to go about things and it just feels like a tacked-on afterthought. Again, it highlights that Dakar 18 is a contradiction of terms. Brutally difficult on the one hand, trying to appeal to a casual audience on the other, it ends up appealing to neither.
Dakar 18 is sadly a misjudged game that can feel refreshingly different to start with but ends up being incredibly frustrating, behind the pace and poorly implemented. With a focus on navigation and gruelling competition, refinement of crucial gameplay elements is sorely lacking. Some of the environments are truly epic, but the way the game fails to build upon them means they go to waste.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4
Also available on Xbox One and PC