Dakar 18 brings the grueling world of the Dakar Rally to our living rooms, offering a unique chance to step into one of the most demanding forms of Motorsport on the planet. Is this a faithful representation of the madness, or has it gotten lost in the desert?
Another day, another modern racing title. 2018 has really spoiled racing fans, in both the good and the bad sense of the word. We’ve had incredible titles like Forza Horizon 4, and some rather dire titles in the form of Super Street: The Game. Dakar 18 looks to cut its own path, quite literally, on it’s way to the finish line. The developers over at Bigmoon Entertainment clearly know they’re onto a niche here, and they have embraced it. For that, kudos.
The vast majority of players are going to have next to no idea how this whole ‘Rally Raid’ thing works. This isn’t like what you used to get in DiRT titles of old. This is the real deal. Because of this, what Dakar 18 needs to start with is a thorough, engaging tutorial. What it actually starts with, is the worlds most over-enthusiastic co-driver giving a half-arsed talk about how it works while you stare at an image of your hud with a few red lines. This literally lasts about 5 minutes and gives you EVERYTHING you need to know. In one go. If you’re thinking that’s stupid, that would be because it is. You’re then thrust into a race to prove yourself, and 30 seconds in you’re out the car, towing a rival. Then your clutch breaks. As the title introduces you to its mundane mechanics gradually, for just long enough for you to forget what the happy chap at the start said, so by the time you get around to the actual race, you’ve got absolutely no idea what on earth you’re doing. Oh dear.
The best bit, there is a fully fledged tutorial in Dakar 18. It’s tucked away in the menu. Why? I have no idea. Yes, the full tutorial is long, but it is an absolute must. All the short tutorial at the start did, was frustrate me and make me put the game down for 2 days. This is not the experience you want for any title, and especially not for a new franchise that is covering a unique standpoint of Motorsport. Once you go through the full tutorial, the game starts to make sense. You’ll learn about how to use the hud and how to use the calls from your co-driver to navigate, and you’ll learn it all at a rate that’s actually tolerable, and hands on. Those of you who grab Dakar 18. Make sure you play this before anything else.
Once you get through the agony of the introduction, you’ll be welcomed by the gloomiest menu known to man. Seriously what is it with titles and either being so dark and macabre that Aaron wants to form an emo band with them, or so vibrant Skittles are trying to sue? Dakar 18 most definitely falls into the former, and while it’s not exactly ugly, it’s far from the inviting open bliss that we’ve come to expect from its competitors. There are a few design choices that really don’t make sense, such as making driver and vehicle details so small Stuart Little would have a hard time.
“But what’s it like to play?” I hear you scream from the background. Well, once you get past the introduction that’s so awful you’ll want to uninstall and you take a week out of your schedule to master the tutorial, it’s actually a nice change of pace from the regular grind of racers that come out year on year. Rally Raid races are an interesting concept. Think back to that orienteering class you had in high school. It’s like that, but 1000x bigger, and one hell of a lot faster. Oh, and if you get lost you genuinely are buggered. Impending mortal doom aside, there’s fun to be had here, and the title does so enough with its difficulty to make the title accessible.
At Rookie level, there’s always a blip on your on-screen direction guide that marks where the next checkpoint is, as well as a considerably more focused directional indicator when you’re near to the right patch of terrain. The Rookie-level gets a little boring fast to be honest, as you find yourself not taking hold of what Dakar 18 has to offer. Bumping things up to competitor level, you’ll lose most of your on-screen guides, and have to actually take heed of what your navigator tells you, or read the map yourself while crashing over sand dunes. This is where the real fun of the title is, in learning your way around this unique style of racing. There is also a Legend mode that removes all but the usual basic assists you’ll see in other titles, like automatic and ABS, which gives those looking for a real challenge well, a real challenge.
The difficulty also stems from the sort of vehicle you chose to take on the perils of the Dakar rally in. Within Dakar 18 you’ve got 5 options: Rally Raid cars, Bikes, Quads, Trucks, and SxS Buggies. All of these vehicles handle differently, and should you chose a vehicle that sees you riding solo (Bikes and Quads, for reference) you’ll be without your co-driver. This is both a blessing and a curse. A curse in that you’re on your own and have to read your own navigation notes. A blessing in that you don’t have to listen to the co-driver. Seriously, where did they find this guy?
As for how these vehicles are to drive, well you’ll find little to be desired. There is a clear difference between them all with the Trucks being clearly heavier and more lumbering in their mannerisms, but the general driving physics within the title are incredibly lacking. While the title focuses on realism with its portrayal of the sport and it’s world (we’ll get onto the world in a second) the handling simply doesn’t reflect the same ethos. The game is definitely more arcade focused here, and while that’s all well and good, it doesn’t do the arcade-style handling half as well as its competition. All vehicles feel vague and disconnected. While yes, sand is a loose surface, it still provides you with feedback, something that Dakar 18 really lacks.
Where the title tries to be more realistic again is with the damage model. If you take things too far, hitting jumps harder and faster than you should, you’re going to cause some damage. This can even happen with hitting rocks. It’s nice to see, however, it’s also really inconsistent. You can travel over a small rock and cause crippling damage, having hit a jump at full speed beforehand and done nothing. It’s a nice system that in a perfect guise would add a lot to the title, but right now it simply misses the mark.
One of the most lacking areas for me is the environment created. Yes, the team has chosen to create a faithful representation of the Dakar Rally environment, but it simply doesn’t create an engaging environment for a video game. The engagement of this land in the real world is the sense of peril, which simply isn’t translated across by Dakar 18. A lot of the world looks the same, and while I understand that that is what makes navigation so important, it’s also bland and uninviting. there are different types of sand, and dirt passes carved through the landscape, but they’re simply not illustrated well enough. It’s a shame because this is a faithful representation, but sadly faithfulness doesn’t make for a compelling game environment in this case.
The area that Dakar 18 really lacks is when it comes to game modes. There’s the base content, which puts you into a team and sends you off to tackle the Dakar Rally. aside from picking your ride of choice, your team has very little impact on your game, which feels like an oversight. Title’s like DiRT 4 and even the recent WRC titles all make your team an integral part of the title and give you a sense of progression. That’s the one thing that Dakar 18 really lacks. A sense of progression. Nothing really feels like you’re working towards anything.
The title does have multiplayer, but it’s rather dead. The nature of the racing doesn’t lend itself well to a multiplayer mode and instead seems more of a leaderboard style affair would be better. You can make use of split-screen play, but again, it’s a little lacking. A more interesting mode is Treasure Hunt, a mode that lets you visit your previously beaten rally sections to hunt for arbitrary hidden items. Sadly, looking over terrain you’ve already looked over with next to no purpose frankly, isn’t engaging. Some more arcade modes would be appreciated, simply to break the monotony of the base content.
Lastly, you have Dakar 18’s graphics. Long story short, it’s nothing to write home about. They’re certainly passable, and the title makes use of some neat features within the Unreal engine. The depth of field is impressive, but up close the game is really lacking. Vehicle models aren’t too crisp, and the character models are very much a one size fits all affair. the environment is drab and lacks detail, and you’ll notice a lot of repeated textures. I get it, it’s a big world they’ve created but it doesn’t take from the fact that this really does detract from the overall look and feel of the title. Sometimes the game looks great, others it looks incredibly dated. It’s this level of inconsistency that really hurts the overall appearance of Dakar 18.
Dakar 18 is an interesting title. There’s clear potential here, but it ultimately falls flat. There are assets here that the game fails to use, with the lecture-like introduction that’s more off-putting than it is informative and the rather questionable physics this isn’t a game that will grab your attention for very long. While the world is expansive, it’s ultimately dull and lifeless and doesn’t lend itself to replayability in the way a dedicated track would.