The Dakar rally is an annual off-road endurance race that takes place across South America and requires the traversal of incredibly tough terrain, such as sand dunes, mud and rocks. The cars used are true off-road vehicles rather than modified on-road vehicles and a racing day may consist of up to 900km of distance travelled. The 2018 Dakar covers almost 9,000 kilometres, through Peru, Bolivia and Argentina and lasted fourteen days. It’s safe to say that the event is regarded as one of the most arduous and demanding events on the motorsports calendar and attracts a worldwide TV audience hooked on the coverage. It’s therefore a real shame that the official game based on this event is so dull and uninspiring.
First things first, I was unable to play Dakar 18 on my Xbox One X, because as soon as the loading screen finished the console crashed and had to be manually rebooted, giving me an ‘overheating’ error message. On the sixth crash I decided not to continue in case it actually caused some damage to my console. Luckily I also own an Xbox One S, so the review is based on that version. No other game has caused that issue ever with my X console, so I have to assume there is a bug in the game. However, at the time of completing this review there was a huge update which may have fixed this issue, albeit weeks after the initial release.
Once you do get past the loading screen there are a number of options available to you, from the career orientated Adventure mode, which is essentially the video game participation in the Dakar rally, through the usual online multiplayer and split screen modes, and finishing with a strange treasure hunt mode, where you explore the courses to find treasure. Obviously the place to start is Adventure mode and it all kicks off with a tutorial. Now, this does a great job of explaining the mechanics of Dakar, and specifically the ‘Race book’ but it installed a sense of dread in me as I realised that Dakar 18 wasn’t going to be a fun experience. Dakar 18 is not really a racing game, and you have to treat it very differently. It is more of a simulation than a racer, and will probably only appeal to huge fans of this event.
It’s a very faithful representation of the actual Dakar event in that you won’t find any pre-determined tracks here. The course is a large open world where you have to reach certain locations on the map with the aid of directions and instructions either from the on-screen race book or by audio clues from your annoying co-driver. This may be an instruction on what compass heading to head on, or to follow some barely visible tracks, or to drive along a canyon. Until you get used to this you will get lost, at which point your co-driver will just berate you disappointingly but give you no helpful instructions apart from telling you to return to the last checkpoint. Which you won’t find because you are lost. It’s all rather frustrating, and not much fun. The checkpoints are also not marked in any way shape or form, meaning there are no visual aids to get you there. A random piece of desert is the checkpoint, and this does mean that a twenty minute race will just be a thrash around some sand. And it’s not fun. Once you get used to the navigation it becomes easier, however a big annoyance is the co-driver’s insistence in moaning at you if you are slightly off course, even if its because you decide to take a less vertical route over a whacking huge sand dune. And he insists of warning you of imminent danger in the desert by shouting “SAND” at every opportunity. At times I found myself shouting at the TV – “WE ARE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DESERT, I KNOW THERE IS SAND!!!!!”
The main aim on each stage is to finish in the quickest time, there is no actual racing other cars here, and its normal to complete a whole race without encountering another car. When you do see them it could be that they are stuck in some deeper sand, which is a minor shade of brown different to the regular sand, and Dakar 18 actually gives you the opportunity to stop to help them, by towing them out of the mess they are in. This will affect your time, so I am not sure why you would stop to help? Obviously there is a sportsmanship element in the actual rally but in a game its a feature that I would never use. The control of your car is very realistic and the weight and speed does feel pretty good, and its too much fun to just go full speed over the top of a sand dune, even if this results in serious damage to your car which will require an immediate fix at the expense of a time penalty. So, the only fun part of the actual driving experience is discouraged.
Graphically, well, Dakar 18 is nothing special. It would look great on a last-gen console but we have moved on a lot in the last few years. There are lots of times where scenery has just popped-in and there is a distinct lack of any scenery during your races. For example, the first few races see you driving along a coastline – with sand – but there are no features to be seen in the water or on the beach. It’s just extremely sparse and boring. And not much fun. I’ve used that phrase a lot in this review, and that really is the main issue. Dakar 18 is not fun to play at all, especially the first few levels of dull, boring sand. At times I have been so determined to play more of this game but found myself giving up, mainly due to the length of some of the levels. You are looking at 20-30 minutes of lonely, boring nothingness whilst following a point on a compass. And the real issue with this is that later levels may well open up to be more interesting visually, but the first few hours puts a huge block on casual players even seeing it. Add to that the incredibly long loading times and the dead multiplayer and Dakar 18 is really not a game I would recommend, unless you are a huge an of the real-life event. When you think it released at the same time as Forza Horizon 4 and is the same price, it doesn’t take a genius to know that it will struggle to find an audience looking for a good racing game.