Dakar Desert Rally Review

Dakar Desert Rally Header

Extreme heat, insufficient signposting, and a batch of aggressive rivals all hurrying to the same end goal could well describe a morning commute on the London Underground, but it’s also true of the Dakar Desert Rally, the iconic offroad rally event which Saber Porto have immortalised once more for PC and console. While it’s nowhere near as punishing as actually taking part, the digital incarnation only puts the occasional tyre wrong, just keeping it from a top podium finish.

Dakar Desert Rally is a racing game set ostensibly in the desert. The Dakar Rally, once known as the Paris Dakar Rally, is renowned for its gruelling stages, and its array of offroad vehicles, all of which are aiming to conquer both the landscape and their fellow competitors. Dakar Desert Rally aims to recreate every aspect of the experience, but it also wants to encourage newcomers to the sport as well as more casual racing game fans, resulting in a batch of different difficulty settings and assists that skew between accessibility and more hardcore simulation.

Sport mode is for those more casual fans, its welcoming enhancements include clear waypoint markers, reduced damage, and less challenging opponents. It’s a great starting point, whether you’re a newcomer or not, lending a more laidback vibe to an event that’s anything but. There’s times that playing in Sport mode feels closer to the Forza Horizon or mainline Dirt series than you might expect, and thanks to the game’s penchant for the dramatic you’ll likely find yourself thoroughly drawn in.

Dakar Desert Rally Panoramic

Dakar Desert Rally will remind you of its more sim-like roots at the most inopportune moments, whether through the challenge of the handling model or the results of a crash, leading to an uneasy balance between this entry-level mode’s welcoming façade and the reality lurking beneath it. It’s still a good time, but the rougher edges of the simulation may well rub a more casual fan up the wrong way.

It really does want to sell the drama though, and those Forza Horizon comparisons stretch to its dramatic action film soundtrack, with sweeping strings and pounding drums helping to get the adrenaline levels rising. Then there’s the weather. You can find yourself in the middle of a maelstrom, with rain, sand and lightning obscuring your already-limited visibility, or at the other end you’ll be blinded by the baking-hot sun. Dakar Desert Rally throws everything it can at you and looks fantastic while it does it. You have to hope you’re up to the task.

There are two further difficulty levels, with Professional immediately shifting to the more realistic solo time trial format of the real event, upping the challenge from the AI and removing the glowing arrows and checkpoints that help you out so thoroughly in Sport mode. The topmost difficulty, Simulation, is locked behind your experience level. You must achieve level 25 before you can truly embark on your Dakar simulation dreams, removing all of the crutches available elsewhere, and putting you utterly on your own path.

Dakar Desert Rally road book

There’s no objective markers or auto-saved waypoints here, stages are longer, there’s a speed limit in place, and you have to follow the traces of other racers, listening closely to your co-pilot, following the CAP marker and referring to your roadbook before the race if you want to have a hope of success. It’s far from simple. While there’s newfound frustrations from losing your way in the immense expanse of desert, the annoyance for sim fans of having to grind through the more casual modes seems to make little sense in the context.

Your frustrations are eased somewhat by the level of visual fidelity and the clear and comprehensive presentation. Between each stage there are a host of tuning options, as well as information on the route ahead, and it’s pleasingly helpful and intuitive. Equally, out on the course Saber Porto have done a fantastic job of recreating the sandy stages, rocky outcrops and the occasional appearance of a tarmac road, while the weather effects are excellent as well. The downside, if it is one, is that as a Dakar Rally game, the fundamental settings are pretty similar, but there are a host of standout moments where the developers have been able to inject some individuality into proceedings, whether racing through the rusting belly of a long-forgotten ship or via the spectacular storm effects.

The licensed vehicles are of a similarly high quality, with the game faithfully recreating trucks, cars, bikes, quads, and SxS from the last few seasons of Dakar, with the possibility of unlocking classic vehicles from the event’s past by winning races using all five different categories of craft. It gives plenty of scope for repeated play, especially if you’re working towards that classic Citroen DS 23 Pallas you’ve had your eye on since the start.

There’s definitely some rough edges that Saber Porto need to smooth off though, starting with suffering the occasional hard crash that dumps you back out to Steam and moving through to the way your vehicle stalls in the opening cinematic at the start of Every. Single. Race. Besides that, there’s the clear sense that the AI in Sport mode has a death wish, at times merrily driving straight into you with no thought to whether they’re in a huge truck or on an extremely exposed motorbike. When you file these next to petty annoyances like the weird camera disconnect when you suffer any collision, they really serve to take the shine off what is otherwise a promising package.

Dakar Desert Rally Mud

There’s also some big question marks over the way the game handles different surface types. I always think fondly of the Xbox 360-era Sega Rally with its deformable tracks, and I’m yearning for that kind of distinct difference in Dakar. I should be able to feel the difference between a clear path through the dunes and following some deeply furrowed traces and it’s not there. Equally, there seems little penalty to rushing through water compared to sand, with only the gradient of the course seeming to have a clear bearing on your vehicle’s velocity.

Saber Porto has promised a raft of further updates to the game in the coming months, further fleshing out the action with photography modes, route creation, and free-roaming across the 20,000km map, though it does feel a little like these things should have been in place at the start. Still, it gives buyers plenty of new content to look forward to, and there’s a heap of racing action to work your way through in the meantime.

Dakar Desert Rally promises a lot, and delivers on a good portion of it, recreating the renowned rally event in spectacular fashion. While players may have to wait for all of the features on their wishlist, there's a huge amount of enjoyable rally racing to get stuck into.
  • Fantastic visuals
  • Five vehicle categories
  • Enjoyable sense of progression
  • Some annoying rough edges
  • Handling on different terrain could be more nuanced
Written by
TSA's Reviews Editor - a hoarder of headsets who regularly argues that the Sega Saturn was the best console ever released.