Dakar Desert Rally promises to be a rally racing game unlike any other. With fun vehicles like bikes, rally cars, trucks, and the like, a surprisingly varied assortment of tracks and event types, flexible difficulty options, and some above average graphics, it’s hard to not appreciate what Dakar Desert Rally has assembled here. Fans of rally style racers of either the arcade or simulation persuasion are catered to more-or-less equally and there is no question that the racing itself is quite good most of the time. Still yet, with some questionable physics and inscrutable logic driving some of the game’s core mechanics and a general performance that isn’t nearly as consistent as it should be on the PS5, the claims made in the game’s marketing that Dakar Desert Rally is some sort of pinnacle of the off-road racing genre do ring a little hollow.
The thousands upon thousands of square kilometers that Dakar Desert Rally offers players to race in is immediately impressive, but more importantly, the space’s use goes beyond just being visually striking. Most of the time, cutting through the dunes and trails of the game’s many tracks can lead to some interesting results, such as shaving off a few fractions of a second from your time, and perhaps being the difference between earning a podium finish or not. Other times, sadly, the exploration is punished with small objects like logs, bushes, and rocks bringing your vehicle of choice to a complete stop when it’s pretty obvious that you should be able to trample over them.
"Fans of rally style racers of either the arcade or simulation persuasion are catered to more-or-less equally and there is no question that the racing itself is quite good most of the time. Still yet, with some questionable physics and inscrutable logic driving some of the game’s core mechanics and a general performance that isn’t nearly as consistent as it should be on the PS5, the claims made in the game’s marketing that Dakar Desert Rally is some sort of pinnacle of the off-road racing genre do ring a little hollow."
A small penalty for hitting things is certainly to be expected, but the way this game either lets things slide entirely or punishes you to the fullest extent, with very few instances of anything in between, can discourage taking advantage of the vast landscapes more often than it should. I also found some of the slipping and sliding to be a bit over the top, as even a mild to moderate slip up with braking or accelerating improperly can result in a complete 180 or even worse, making small problems into massive ones in the blink of an eye. Even for the obviously sandy and snowy physics, grip is lost far too easily and too often in Dakar Desert Rally. Adding a pinch of salt into that wound is that, despite being beautifully designed, some races go on just a bit long.
Before getting in too deep, Dakar Desert Rally does give you a chance to experience it in your own way, with three general difficulties to choose from. Sport, which will largely resemble other, more arcadey experiences with waypoint beacons on the screen that greatly help prevent you from getting turned around, slightly easier opponents, lower repair costs, and even a checkpoint system that lets you restart from any waypoint you’ve already reached, which is a system I like a lot better than the rewinds we see in a lot of similar racing games today. Despite the loss in authenticity, this mode might be best to get started with, as the other two ratchet up the difficulty quite a bit.
The next level up, called “professional”, steps up the opponent AI to being quite ruthless and difficult, more expensive repairs, and removes the waypoint beacons and replaces them with a far less discernible map system that takes longer to translate into useful information to you than it’s generally worth. But it still lets you keep the checkpoints. The hardest, simulation mode basically just strips away the checkpoints, and further elevates all of the previously mentioned aspects like opponent AI and repair costs. It’s so difficult that the game assumes you would be wasting your time with it at first anyway, and keeps it locked behind the first several hours of playtime. Like I said, unless you really just want to get thrown to the wolves, it’s probably best to start with sport mode and just work your way up. As always when a racing game includes this much flexibility in the difficulty, I appreciate the sentiment, and it probably will result in more players being able to enjoy the game, but it does undeniably come at the cost of the game having a greater sense of its own identity.
"As always when a racing game includes this much flexibility in the difficulty, I appreciate the sentiment, and it probably will result in more players being able to enjoy the game, but it does undeniably come at the cost of the game having a greater sense of its own identity."
Not getting as far into the weeds as other beefy racers tend to, your car tuning and repairs are a fairly simplified system that you can access between events as well as between races inside of events, which is a good thing, as you’ll be visiting both of these areas quite a bit to match your current terrain with the right set up, and keeping your vehicle in good shape to make sure everything works right. Keeping it nice and simple, you can also just select “repair all” and get everything back in order for one flat price. Different types of collisions and other wear and tear do result in different parts of your vehicle wearing down, but by all means if you don’t feel like paying too much attention to that and just want to get back into the action, hitting repair all will certainly get you there if you have the cash, which, if you’re even remotely decent at the game, you generally will.
Purchasing different vehicle types also doesn’t take forever like some other games in the genre, so you can start experimenting with different vehicles pretty quickly if you so desire. I came to be quite partial to the quad bikes myself, but each type feels pretty good to race as. Unfortunately, each also can fall victim to the fickle physics and the fragile balance of speed and stability often felt like a monkey on my back that I had to placate than a fun challenge to overcome. I wasn’t able to try the multiplayer mode in my review build, but I shudder to think of what could go wrong if any sort of systemic network problems get thrown on top of these other issues.
Dakar Desert Rally is without a doubt one of the most beautiful looking racers I’ve played on the PS5 so far. Sunsets absolutely glisten on the wet sand of tropical beaches, and palm tree leaves woft in the distance and foreground in a near photorealistic way, and I just can’t praise that aspect of the game enough. It has absolutely nailed the look and feel of all of its surprisingly varied assortment of tracks and locales. Results like this can only come from a formidable combination of real-world knowledge of how these locations work and top-notch video game artistic acumen, and it’s always a pleasure to take in a new location in the game, if only the game could run these areas properly when the action gets thick. Don’t get me wrong, most of the time, in performance mode, things were smooth enough. But almost every race did have a moment or two where the frame rate took a nose dive due to too many opponents crashing into each other at once and/or when too much water was being rendered at once. I suspect with the bit of ongoing support Dakar Desert Rally will likely get, this will be mitigated to some extent, but right now it’s tough to ignore.
"Dakar Desert Rally is without a doubt one of the most beautiful looking racers I’ve played on the PS5 so far."
At its core, Dakar Desert Rally does have more going for it than not. With equally gorgeous and gigantic racing environments to enjoy, intuitive management systems, and it’s obviously unique position among other modern big-budget racing games, it’s certainly nothing to sleep on. Most racing fans should give it a look at the very least. Getting hung up on a small handful of little things might slow it down a bit, but for most, I suspect Dakar Desert Rally will provide at least some, if not many hours of fun.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.
Outstanding graphics; Great variety; Flexible difficulty.
Frame-rate issues; Irrational physics.