Hooning in the Dunes
There’s something fascinating and visceral about rallying. It’s man and machine versus nature, and the battle takes place on muddy Welsh backroads, deep in snowy, Bavarian pine forests or across the arid outback of Australia. Skilled drivers exhibit courage beyond reason as they fling noisy, high-powered, sponsor-festooned automobiles around trees, through rivers, and along the edge of ravines. It’s the rough, messy antithesis to Formula 1’s high-end, super-rich glitz and glamour, and it’s way more entertaining.
I’ve owned my share of rally games in the past, mainly sticking to the Colin McCrea series of simulations that later evolved into the more Ken Block-influenced DiRT games, through which I learned the meaning of the word “hoon.” Despite all of the outrageous stunts, cool music and bright colours of the more recent titles, I’d take sliding a Peugeot 205 around the Finnish countryside in the pissing rain over screeching around a gymkhana event in a Ford Focus plastered with Monster Energy logos any day of the week.
I’ve been more-or-less aware of the Dakar Rally event, but I’ve never looked into it too deeply. The idea certainly appeals to me though; man and machine versus nature again, this time in a harsh, desert environment, careening over dunes and navigating through blinding sandstorms. When I spotted a few trailers for the new Dakar Desert Rally game (and spotted its very reasonable price point), I thought that it was time to take the plunge. I’ve been burned out a little by lengthy JRPGs after all, so it was time to try something a bit different and scratch that old racing game itch.
Dakar Desert Rally takes place in open environments with courses laid out using waypoints. Your job is to validate all the waypoints and get to the finish line as quickly as possible. There are three main game modes on offer, which range in difficulty and intensity. In Sport mode, the next waypoint is clearly highlighted on screen and you’ll be leaving the starting line with three other racers, making for a more arcade-y experience. In Professional mode, you’ll be racing against the clock without the aid of highlighted waypoints, instead being forced to find your way by using your roadbook notes, keeping an eye on your compass, and listening to your navigator. Lastly, Simulation mode is like Professional mode but with no restarts and higher repair costs at the end of each stage.
I started out in Professional mode, hoping to get that real Dakar Rally experience. It’s certainly intense, with information being fired at you constantly as you try to keep an eye out for errant rocks and trees. Your roadbook will flash up on the right-hand side of the screen, overwhelming you with symbols and arrows and arrows that go through symbols, while your co-pilot constantly feeds you audio information as well. Not only will your passenger warn you of dangers like jumps, fords and extended downhill sections, he’ll also feed you compass points and call out sudden turns. This mode takes some practice, because if you want to do well, you’ll need to keep your eyes and ears on many factors all at the same time, all while still maintaining those breakneck speeds. Relying solely on the vocals of your buddy and ignoring the roadbook and compass won’t cut it, as occasions such as him calling out a “keep right” instruction only for the course to veer off to the left seem to be fairly common. I’m ashamed at how often I found myself circling aimlessly out in the wilderness as the co-pilot fed me compass point numbers in a disappointed tone, desperately trying to get me back on track.
Eventually, I dropped down to Sport mode, and after I’d gotten over the initial pangs of failure and shame, I started to have a lot more fun. While it’s still possible to get lost if the next waypoint is behind a hill and the instructions aren’t completely clear, being more confident about where you need to go allows you to really put your foot down and concentrate on the racing. You’ll also notice that Sport mode still features the staggered starts of Professional mode, only with groups of four starting ahead of you and behind you instead of single racers. This can lead to some awesome moments where you catch up with a different class of vehicle while still fighting for position against the guys who started alongside you. There’s nothing quite like blasting up the side of a dune in a badass 4×4 while bikes, trucks and buggies jostle for position all around you.
Combining these moments with Dakar Desert Rally’s stellar weather effects are when the game really reaches its action-packed crescendo. While the environments look great in clear weather, barrelling through epic thunderstorms, fierce blizzards (yep, in the desert) and intense sandstorms is bare-knuckle racing at its finest. The developers (Portugal-based team Saber Porto) have done a fantastic job with the more extreme weather effects, with dramatic lightning strikes and impressive rainstorms offering up some variety amidst the admittedly-pretty clear skies and desert sunsets.
The experience is far from perfect, though. Odd physics and some glitchy collision detection will occasionally send you flying unfairly, and overly aggressive AI drivers will sometimes ruin your day. More egregious issues include slowdown and some absolutely killer loading times. The game has a too-common habit of chugging when you pass a waypoint, which can cut through your concentration and make you lose that all-important racing line. The load-times are also frustrating, and are an absolute bastard if you’ve wrapped your quad bike around a tree right at the beginning of the race and want to restart. While we’re on the subject of quad bikes, said four-wheeled steeds are a nightmare to control, handling like bars of soap, and turning you in the opposite direction at the slightest opportunity. Seriously, the quad bikes can get directly in the bin. The cars, bikes, trucks and buggies are all fine, though.
Some racing game fans might lament the lack of variety, but really, if you’ve bought a game called Dakar Desert Rally you should expect lots of deserts and rallying and not much else. It’s different enough to the more traditional rally games to warrant a place alongside them on a driving enthusiast’s gaming shelf, and in Sport mode it’s definitely able to provide some MotorStorm-esque arcade thrills, too. Dakar Desert Rally isn’t the top racing game around, and nor is it the first one you should choose, but if you’ve worn out your tyres on Forza, run out of fuel with Gran Turismo, and ground your gears to dust in Project Cars, there’s definitely plenty of fun to be had here for those that want to try something a bit dirtier.
Go on; go hoon along some dunes.
Played on PS4