The 2023 Dakar Rally Raid event, held in Saudi Arabia, actually started on New Year's Eve 2022, and finishes on January 15th. This is the fourth time Saudi Arabia has hosted the event, which was formerly known as the Paris-Dakar Rally.
Over the years we've played and reviewed a truckload of rally games on Gamecell so were really looking forward to a slightly different spin on the genre–a licenced rally raid game with real vehicles, drivers and riders. Wide open areas, lengthy stages and less precise pace notes than road rallying were what I was expecting, and that's what you get. I was instantly impressed with Dakar Desert Rally's overall presentation, which is extremely polished. The game welcomes you in and offers you some helpful tutorials–or complete freedom.
Once you choose your type and make of vehicle you need to finish in the top 8 of a qualifying event to progress and unlock the first stage of an actual rally, and while this might sound easy, it's not. As with most rally games, you get an indicator to show you what's coming up and pace notes called by an American co-driver, but they're rather vague, nothing like as comprehensive as road rallying (for obvious reasons) and so learning a stage is the key to success. This isn't easy as some are quite long (10 minutes plus!) You can even check the co-driver's roadbook if you wish, but it all looked like some sort of alien language interspersed with red exclamation marks to me–fortunately developer Saber thought to include a lexicon for those who wish to learn what they all mean, and learning key warning symbols is advised, but far from vital. As annoying as the co-driver can be, you'll miss him when you do a rally on a bike or quad as you only get the HUD display to advise you of what's coming up. In real life, bikes run the stages first, with quads, cars, SSVs (lightweight prototypes) and trucks to follow–in the game the field seems more mixed up, but if you're quick or slow and get ahead of, or fall behind, your group you'll come across various vehicles from different classes, which makes the game feel very realistic.
Each event has a minimum experience level requirement so as you level up you unlock more stages and vehicles. Your garage slots increase with your level. Racing, in any event in any vehicle, will earn you Dakar Points (to spend on new vehicles) and Experience Points (which see you progress in your career.)
Camel grass is often the only feature on off-piste sections where you leave the desert tracks altogether. There are regular checkpoints and CAP (compass heading) points and failure to pass through a checkpoint incurs time penalties. Miss more than one and it's highly unlikely you'll qualify for the next stage.
Despite the fact that AI drivers do make mistakes; take dunes too fast, crash on fast corners and battle with each other, Dakar Desert Rally has a problem with the AI, and bizarrely this can occur before the start of a stage and before you have any control of your vehicle! Unlike the real Dakar rally, you and your group of opponents all start together, staggered very slightly, like a race car grid at a rolling restart. This has occasionally resulted in my car/truck having damaging collisions in the run-up to the start sequence! Once underway, the AI improves and will avoid collisions but it's never less than aggressive, and exhibits none of the camaraderie and respect shown by real Dakar competitors. Another major irritation is a thorny old issue with racing games & sims; the opponent's vehicles always seem to come off better when there's the slightest contact between you–and this is always irritating no matter how famous the franchise is, or how much fun the racing is or how good it looks (yeah I'm looking at YOU Forzas and Gran Turismos.)
I was rather disappointed that the game has no replays, not even a quick 20-second job to replay a spectacular incident or crash. I certainly used them on occasion in Forza Horizon 5, so I rather missed not having any in a game with equally exciting offroad action and stunning scenery. I was surprised that there's only a 4-player online multiplayer and leaderboards, but given the questionable race format and collision physics maybe that's for the best.
Other than some occasional frame rate drops on Xbox One, visually the game is a treat; the scenery is often stunning and the dust, sand and water effects are as good as I've seen–you won't believe how tough some of the weather makes driving–particularly if you like to use an in-car/on-bike view as I do. If, like I did, you find it hard to believe Saudi Arabia gets weather as extreme as simulated here then you haven't been watching this year's event on Eurosport. The weather can ruin a stage for you but the AI competition seems to struggle in adverse weather or darkness too. A chase helicopter buzzes around at a worryingly low level (just like the real thing) and was the only thing I had to guide me home after a crash on a night-time stage that destroyed my headlights!
The vehicles are highly detailed with interiors, working lights and wipers and the game caters for all kinds of racer with several views. The damage modelling is extensive and you can both see and feel tuning adjustments like tyre pressure and suspension ride height. The vehicles "dirty up" as you progress, and the windscreen wipers are vital. The day draws on and darkness descends so lights are just as important. You can examine vehicles, rev the engine and turn the lights on in the garage, and even test drive any vehicle on a special stage before purchasing it.
Driving-wise, the handling feels pretty realistic to me; the vehicles all have a good feeling of weight to them (particularly the bikes.) A nice drifting slide can quickly go wrong on deep sand and jumps can be unexpectedly HUGE and damaging when navigating the crests of dunes. Prudent use of the brakes, subtle touches of the handbrake and even the lights and wipers aided my quest for success. Your vehicle will take damage if you crash (and you will), but can be fixed during the stage (with an appropriate time penalty) or at the bivouac pit garage at the end of each stage. Personally I think the windscreens are a bit fragile and will shatter on relatively gentle landings, which means you have a crazed view unless you crash again and smash the glass out entirely! I've switched views to a chase cam on a number of occasions to make it easier to see.
The game has Sport, Professional and Simulation modes, so you can literally make it as hard as you like, but even on Sport mode it's not going to be easy until you learn the stages and familiarise yourself with the handling characteristics of your chosen ride. This means there's a genuine challenge that along with 30 massive stages (that somehow rarely look the same) will keep you coming back for more.
I think Saber Interactive has done the licence proud, and despite some slight flaws and omissions they've produced a top driving game that is quite unlike anything else out there...