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December 2022

Dakar Desert Rally

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Racing
Publisher: Saber Interactive
Developer: Saber Interactive
Release Date: Oct. 4, 2022

About Tony "OUberLord" Mitera

I've been entrenched in the world of game reviews for almost a decade, and I've been playing them for even longer. I'm primarily a PC gamer, though I own and play pretty much all modern platforms. When I'm not shooting up the place in the online arena, I can be found working in the IT field, which has just as many computers but far less shooting. Usually.


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PC Review - 'Dakar Desert Rally'

by Tony "OUberLord" Mitera on Oct. 4, 2022 @ 5:00 a.m. PDT

Dare to drive in the most massive open-world rally racer ever where you will face extreme open-world environments, realistic physics, and authentic vehicles from the legendary Dakar rally.

With the exception of the first few minutes of the game, I disliked the time I spent playing Dakar Desert Rally. It's obvious that the game strives to be much more than it is, as the rally raids of Dakar naturally lend themselves to a rally game of epic proportions. To deliver on that promise, however, the game would've had to get many different elements right, and every part of Dakar Desert Rally has varying levels of problems under the hood. Rather than hit its mark of being an epic rally game, it is instead a lesson in constant frustration as it gives occasional glimpses of what could have been.

In real life, the Dakar Rally is rather incredible. Over two weeks, hundreds of participants driving cars, trucks, bikes, UTVs, and quads navigate and race their way across 8,000 kilometers of desert stages. It's a brutal test of man and machine as race teams work to keep their vehicles operational despite the brutal nature of the sand, the heat, and the jarring impacts of the terrain. The game follows those same beats, and among those vehicle classes, you collect your own and enter it into series of stages where you race alongside other competitors.

It's a little jarring when you're in the first race and you're hauling along in a car … only to come across some bikes or trucks on the course. Your race is only among other vehicles of your class, but you'll often share the route with vehicles of other types that are in their own races. It makes things chaotic as you end up going wheel to wheel with vehicles that shouldn't even matter to your race. You'll get proximity indicators that a vehicle is pulling alongside you and worry that it is a competitor, only to see that it's a motorbike zipping past.

It underscores the first big problem with the game: The AI for other drivers is dreadful. They lack any sort of collision avoidance and stick to their racing line even if it means causing a collision in the process. You'll stick to your line, mind your own business, and absolutely get taken out because the AI's route inexplicably weaved around instead of going straight. You'll pull alongside a competitor only to have them suddenly turn into you as if you were never there. In a nutshell, the AI is so poor that you must assume that other drivers don't check their mirrors and have the accident-avoidance skills of a novice in a public multiplayer lobby.

As for the trucks and bikes, the AI barely knows how to drive those things. In a race where you are in a bike of your own, winning the race by massive margins is possible if you complete the stage, as the AI will likely have laid down the group of bikes in the middle of the course and had to reset with the time penalty. The trucks face their own problems and often tip over because they floored it across the dunes and let the resulting physics do its thing. It's rage-inducing to have a great stage as a car and come around a blind corner only to slam into a tipped-over lorry at full speed because the AI can't be trusted to handle itself and ruins a race that it wasn't even part of.

Given that a big part of the Dakar Rally is navigation, you have enough things to worry about. The stages aren't in straightforward courses that cut through forests or on established tracks. Each stage takes place in an area of the desert with crisscrossing tracks and paths, and it's important to only take the paths that lead you to your next waypoint. The game offers a voiced co-driver to help you navigate the waypoints of the course, and there are notes at the top of the screen to show what comes next.

The problem is that the notes at the top of the screen rarely convey usable information, with the most egregious part being the odd white and green lines that try hard to convey something, and for the life of me, I never figured out what that was. The co-driver is the worst navigational tool you have at your disposal and delivers notes that are incomplete at best and outright wrong at worst. On one stage, the co-driver says to go "straight," but if you do, the blind crest ahead leads you directly into a boulder. Other rally games give you a steady stream of usable information from your co-driver; in Dakar Desert Rally, you'll get, "left soon," as literally your only note for a long time, or notes that are flat-out deceptive. I found my ability to complete a stage successfully increased dramatically after I turned off the co-driver voice completely and relied on the near-indecipherable notes at the top of the screen.

As you complete stages, you gain experience and Dakar points, the latter of which you spend on vehicle repairs and buying new vehicles. The repairs in the Sport mode are fairly forgiving, but in the Professional mode, where you have fewer navigational assists, the repairs can stack up. At level 25, you unlock the Simulation mode, which is both a relatively realistic portrayal of what the real-life Dakar Rally participants go through and a slog to unlock. Completing a stage gives you roughly enough experience to gain a full level, but I averaged six to eight frustrated restarts for every stage I completed due to issues colliding with the brain-dead AI or having to navigate the course at speed and completely unassisted.

Thankfully, the vehicle handling in the game is mostly challenging but fair. In the UTVs and cars, you get a feel for how to handle the terrain rather quickly. You'll learn how to set up your vehicle when going over bumps to minimize the upset to the car and maximize traction. The same cannot be said for the bikes and quads; while the bikes handle somewhat well, they are prone to odd instances of oversteer, and the quads oversteer so unpredictably that it makes the entire class a joyless one.

The game is easy on the eyes but is murderous on the hardware. With a Ryzen 3700X and a NVidia RTX 3080, I generally had to run the game on either all Medium or all Low settings. Otherwise, I'd hitch for tenths of a second at a time despite having the frame rates be otherwise smooth. The game struggles to load things in time, even running on a system with an otherwise healthy NVMe drive and 32 GB of memory. The struggles are such that you'll have car wheels not turning or simply clipping into the terrain until the proper things load to let them look normal. Bike riders "T-pose" until quite a few seconds pass and they gain normal animation.

There is a good game somewhere under all of this, but it is buried under the weight of every part of Dakar Desert Rally being unlikable for some reason or another. There are the briefest moments where it shines through, the sun is hitting you just right, and you're blasting through the stage skillfully at top speed. The problem is it's at that moment that you round the bend and slam into a random truck or the game hitches and you suddenly understeer into a rock wall. Substantial patching would do this game wonders, but as it stands, it's a joyless mess that delivers frustrations at a far greater rate than podiums.

Score: 4.7/10

Reviewed on: AMD Ryzen 7 3700X, 32 GB RAM, NVidia RTX 3080

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