Dakar 18 Review - Off The Beaten Path

Rally racing is possibly one of the most obvious disciplines to adapt into a video game. It’s quite easy for most of us to enjoy a quick game of football or tennis, for example; jumpers for goalposts and an abundance of parks with tennis nets ensure we all have access to the sports we love. Rally racing, though, is an entirely different beast. It’s dangerous, high-octane, and incredibly difficult to pursue on an amateur level.

Thankfully, many major rally events are well-represented in the video game sphere. For the FIA World Rallycross Championship, we have Dirt 4; the World Rally Championship season is well-represented by the official WRC video game; and V-Rally 4 offers a well-rounded look at a series of different disciplines and events without a particular focus for rally novices looking to build an interest in the genre.

One event we haven’t heard from before in our storied video game world is the Dakar Rally. Until 2009, this event was an endurance race from Paris to Dakar in Senegal; in 2009, security issues in Mauritania led to the rally moving to South America instead. Dakar is open to amateurs and professionals alike, with amateurs typically representing around 80% of the overall participants.

All of this makes the event perfect fodder for a video game, and since empty niches are opportunities for enterprising developers, here’s Dakar 18 from Portuguese company Bigmoon Entertainment. Despite the name, Dakar 18 is the first time the Dakar rally has been represented as a standalone event in a video game. It’s clear that Bigmoon is hoping this first instalment will kickstart a franchise akin to World Rally Championship, for which they have provided bits of 3D art and animation in the past.

First impressions are solid. The game’s visuals are beautiful, with vehicles kicking up sand behind their tyres and mud spattering the windshield as the player passes through inhospitable terrain. The frame rate is solid; we didn’t notice any significant dips or hitches as we played, even when the action on screen was processor-intensive. That’s an impressive feat for a smaller studio like Bigmoon, as many larger studios have struggled with rally racing games and the terrain they must emulate in order to be realistic.

Here, though, we come to the first of Dakar 18’s problems: it can’t quite decide whether realism is on its agenda or not. On the one hand, a huge amount of effort has clearly been expended by the talented folks at Bigmoon to ensure that the Dakar rally is presented with utmost verisimilitude. The license is really being made to work here, with each stage of the rally represented point-for-point on screen and a litany of gameplay quirks which mirror the real-life experience of Dakar (we’ll get into that in a moment).

On the other hand, there’s just no denying the game’s central fault, and the most telling grievance many players are likely to have with it. The physics in Dakar 18 are unimpressive at best and outright broken at worst. There aren’t many moments where the glitchy physics engine actively hampers gameplay; we did experience one or two sudden jolts where they shouldn’t have happened, as well as cars’ collision physics not behaving as they should, but for the most part the racing experience is smooth. It’s more a matter of realism in terms of the way the game’s driving feels.

This is where the aforementioned realism battle comes into play. Dakar 18 wants to be a realistic representation of the rally, but the driving physics aren’t up to scratch. Damage is far too punishing, with cars appearing to take a huge amount of punishment from relatively minor skirmishes and collisions. Driving itself feels floaty and unfinished; Dakar 18’s central driving experience almost mirrors a closed beta rather than a finished game, with cars not reacting to terrain in an appropriate manner.

Driving through mud should feel sticky, driving through sand should feel drifty, and driving on solid roads should feel responsive and tight, but none of these features are quite present in the finished product. It’s a real shame, because Dakar 18 gets almost everything else right. Its career mode is well-built and compelling, presenting its tutorials organically and enticing players with the promise of mini-challenges and treasure hunts along the way. Its verisimilitude is astonishing; it presents players with a “roadbook” to assist them in finding the Dakar rally’s notoriously difficult GPS waypoints, trusting players to find their route on their own in a way that mirrors (and perhaps even betters) the excellent Burnout Paradise.

It’s clear that a lot of care has been taken to ensure that the Dakar 18 rally experience is attractive for players of all backgrounds. Difficulty is adaptive and satisfying; our driving experts loved the higher difficulty modes, which turn off most of the driving assists, while our novices appreciated the navigator and increased help on the lower settings. Unfortunately, this just isn’t enough to completely overcome Dakar 18’s below-par driving physics and central gameplay mechanics.

We’re still compelled enough by this one to give it a tentative recommendation. We’d strongly recommend that Bigmoon take another look at Dakar 18 and polish up the physics and controls, but the surrounding experience and the overall feel of the races is absolutely top-notch. Give this one a go whatever your rally background, but be prepared to deal with a fair few hiccups along the way.

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