All racing games are faced with the same difficult decision: do you want to be a pure fun arcade racer, a full-on simulation of a particular motorsport, or try to straddle the divide of accessibility and realism with the ‘simcade’ genre? Dakar Desert Rally is a game that answers that question with a simple “Yes”. This is a game that checks all the boxes when it should really only be allowed to tick off one.
The Dakar Rally is one of the toughest tests in motorsport — a rally raid that challenges participants with fully off-road multi-class endurance racing through some extreme and highly varied environments. The first event took place all the way back in 1979, with the current home of the sport seeing you race through Saudi Arabia as the first stop on the FIM Rally-Raid World Championship, each year picking a different start point and winding through the country over more than a dozen stages, on the way to the finish line in Jeddah. The event explores the country’s diverse biomes, from desert to scrubland, steppes and mountain ranges, and weather conditions from scorching sun to snow.
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There are obviously various ethical questions that surround sporting events within Saudi Arabia at the moment — from ‘sports washing’ the country’s reputation through holding and bankrolling sports, to the scenes from earlier this year with the country’s war in Yemen seeing rebel drone and missile strikes on an Aramco oil depot blacken the sky above the F1 2022 Saudi Arabia Grand Prix. It’s an ethical question that I’m sure some will consider alongside Dakar Desert Rally’s video gaming credentials.
There are two ways to tackle this kind of event. You can go for a full on simulation that’s about as niche and hyper-targeted as it gets, from the navigation method through to the handling, or you can go arcade with visual overlays guiding you through the environments and head-to-head racing with other cars. Dakar Desert Rally does both, letting you really choose the kind of game and experience that you want from pretty much polar opposites of the gaming scale — OK, so there’s no Split/Second world destruction or combative Motorstorm racing, but it’s still pretty arcade.
We got to sample both ends of this spectrum, starting first with the arcade-like Sport mode. This is where the game will hold your hand the most, putting fun and accessibility first, but still building on the foundations of a comprehensive recreation of the sport. It has all the authentic vehicles across multiple classes, 30 stages taken from the 2020, 2021 and 2022 Dakar Rallys, the vast open-world rally map, the dynamic time of day and weather, and more.
Sitting down behind the wheel of a racing truck, gameplay is immediate and accessible, getting you off to a rolling start alongside a field of other vehicles and then following the waypoints and markers that you need to pass through in order to check off your progress through the rally. While there will be a designed route through the environments, you’re also given plenty of license to go off script, so long as you hit the next GPS marker successfully. As I’m racing, I take a wrong turn, having to turn around and lose a ton of time to the competitors, but the developers and their more encyclopaedic knowledge of their game are then keen to point out the various shortcuts, the jumps, the bumps that I can take instead of following the tracks in the sand.
I’m not going to mince words when I say there’s a brutal step up in challenge and difficulty as you take on the Professional difficulty level — the guiding rails down the side of the metaphorical bowling alley have been removed; now, instead of having handy visuals to lead you to the next point, you have nothing both a compass and a digital Road Book.
You’ll have to learn how to read the Road Book if you want to have any kind of success here. You’ll quickly pick up what it means by ‘Follow Traces’ — follow the tracks of other vehicles, basically — but you still have the second-to-second task of keeping tabs on the total and relative distances you’re travelling, the compass direction you need to follow, and be able to digest the small topographical drawings of the scenery that you’re passing through to hit each marker.
Professional mode will seriously challenge your ability to juggle multiple tasks. However, there’s still a handful of assists available here, such as being able to reposition your vehicle and having autosaves at each waypoint. Between those, the ‘medium’ repair costs, and the speed of the AI you’re competing against, there’s still some added challenge for simulation to throw at you.
Going back to the Road Book for a second, this is actually the key to a custom Road Book Editor built into the game. Once you’ve learnt every twist that the 30 stages in the game offers you, you can use this to create your own stages in the world, and then share it with others. The game is playable both on your own and with online multiplayer for up to four players.
Catering to both ends of the racing game spectrum is an impressive task to take on, but even from a relatively short hands on, it feels like Dakar Desert Rally is pulling it off with aplomb. The Sport mode should make this game thoroughly accessible, but there’s also fathoms of depth to the challenge that having to race and navigate from the Road Book will offer for more sim-minded players.
Dakar Desert Rally is out on 4th October across PlayStation, Xbox and PC.
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