Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Big Moon Entertainment
Publisher: Big Moon Entertainment
Review code provided free of charge by the publisher.
The Dakar rally is an epic test of driving skill, endurance and navigation as it spans hundreds of kilometres over unforgiving sand dunes and tricky terrain. Just completing the thing is a massive achievement, never mind actually winning it. Despite how amazing this all sounds there hasn’t been a Dakar game in years, which feels like a missed opportunity. Can you imagine a sort of DiRT Rally experience, but bombing over dunes rather than driving along a track? Well, that’s what the new Big Moon aim to do with their new Dakar 18.
A lot of the game focuses on navigating each stage because unlike most driving games there’s no set track or route to follow. Sure, you will occasionally be driving along a road or something like that, bu that typically only accounts for a tiny bit of a single stage with the rest of your time spent driving up and down dunes. To navigate you have the road book at the bottom right of the screen which will tell you the CAP heading to take (think of it as a compass) as well as listing the distance to the next waypoint, potential dangers and landmarks. When you’re in the cars you have an incredibly annoying co-pilot to help you, but if you opt to take a bike or quad onto the dunes then you’re entirely on your own.
It encourages a more careful style of driving, something that is emphasized by how easy it is to damage your vehicle and thus wind up wasting valuable time repairing it. On the easier difficulty, there’s always a marker pointing directly to the next waypoint when you’re off-track so you can be quite liberal with your turns without fear of wandering off course, but once things get harder adding extra distance to your odometer can throw off your navigation massively so you need to keep things tight. Once you get more adept you’ll start to learn when you have time to detour around things that might potentially slow you down, and make use of the fact that you can manually adjust the odometer to match it back up with your road book.
There is an option to restart at the last confirmed waypoint in case you get completely lost, something that can happen quite easily since your co-pilot will fail to mention it for ages and then will provide no help in getting back. You’ll suffer a hefty 15-minute penalty for using this feature, though.
You can even get yourself stuck on sand dunes, beaching your otherwise trusty machine on a pesky hill. When you do this you can actually jump out, equip a shovel and begin working on freeing yourself. It’s such a cool idea, but one that instantly becomes a chore when you step out of the vehicle as the movement of your avatar is stiff and awkward, and trying to dig exactly where you want is a pain in the backside. You can apply special boards underneath your tyres, too, but putting them down and picking them up is an exercise in frustration as you bumble around near the tyres hoping that the button prompt will finally pop up. Meanwhile, your co-driver and possibly even your mechanic (if you’re driving the big trucks) will clamber out of the passenger side and simply stand there, unmoving and thus potentially actually blocking the very area you need to clear out.
Digging out your vehicle can also mean putting up with your co-drivers constant nagging. Numerous times he’ll repeat a line about having got enough fresh air or how you don’t have time to admire the view while you’re furiously attempting to shovel a mountain of sand from directly underneath your car where the game won’t quite let you reach. He won’t help. He’ll just stand there and bark the same, infuriating lines of dialogue. If there was an option to hit him with the shovel and bury his carcass in the sand I would have used it in a heart beat.
The co-driver’s personality isn’t just frustrating when you’re throwing sand around, either. His constant barks of, “Attention!” and general crappy attitude quickly made him become one of my most disliked video game characters ever. I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the voice actor or the developers who pushed him to sound that way, but he’ll begin to grate on your nerves after just a couple of minutes.
The later stages can be lengthy affairs, taking up to an hour and a half or more to complete. On the easiest setting the game will autosave after every validated waypoint so that you can safely quit out of the game, but for some reason on the harder settings this option disappears entirely. I get why they did it as it stops you from simply loading up a save whenever you get lost, but it also makes just playing the game tricky because if you need to go let a friend in or do a task you face losing a lot of time and progress.
Annoyingly you can’t take a break from your main Dakar career to try another vehicle, either. If you want to do that you need to start a new game which will overwrite your previous game, and you’ll have to start from the very first stage again. For some insane reason, there’s no option to simply jump onto any stage with any vehicle outside. Even Treasure Hunt mode, where you literally just drive around the map looking for some items, only lets you choose the vehicle that you’re currently using in the primary Dakar. If you want to choose something else you’ve got to start a new game, which again means losing your existing progress.
At least the map is vast and somewhat impressive in that sense. I believe its several thousand kilometres of desert, rocks and even beaches for you to drive across. Of course, it’s mostly sand. And some more sand. It’s hard to make all that sand look interesting.
Alright, so the game isn’t the most visually accomplished. The vehicles models themselves actually look fairly decent, but outside of that we’ve got some horrible character models, stiff animations and when you do occasionally stumble across a landmark in the desert it looks pretty naff. But this is a low budget title, so visuals aren’t all that important.
The audio is a little better, although that could be because there isn’t much of it. You get the same basic menu song, the annoying co-driver and then each vehicle in a class tends to sound the same. All the trucks sound the same, the quads sound the same etc.
But it’s the driving where everything really falls down a sand dune and into a Sarlaac pit. As much as I actually enjoy the navigation side of things much of it does boil down to driving in a series of straight lines to the next waypoint, and that means the physics and handling need to be top notch to make all of that sandy adventuring fun and challenging. Oh boy. Where do I start? Well, to begin with, the suspension modelling, a vital aspect to any off-roading game, appears to have been chucked in some time during the final five minutes of development. A very recent 22GB patch (yup, you read that write) has improved things, but there’s still a large sense of disconnect between the vehicles and terrain that feels wholly add odds with the cornering which is unsurprisingly tricky on sand. Without coming to a dead stop a simple turn can take an ice-age thanks to all that sand, a hefty dose of realism that goes against the otherwise weirdly floaty feeling that the vehicles have. Getting up steep hills is just a case of flooring it rather than good throttle control, as well, which is a wasted opportunity.
The best of the bunch are the trucks, I reckon, because at least the handling feels like its consistent and makes sense, their huge weight and size making getting over bumpy areas more enjoyable as you can’t just hit the gas and hope for the best. The bikes are horribly twitchy, and again feel like they’re sliding along a plastic surface atop the sand and dirt. The quad bikes are arguably worse and are prone to weird moments where a teeny-tiny bump will throw into a mad slide or spin. The 4×4 buggies just feel…horrible. And finally, the RWD beasts are quite fun, but do also suffer from going nuts at random times.
It’s worth knowing that a lot of people on the Steam forums are having compatibility issues with various steering wheels. I briefly tested with the Logitech G920 and everything was working fine, though the force feedback leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to communicating the terrain, but if you’ve got a wheel and are considering picking this game up have a look on some forums to see if there are any potential problems.
The most frustrating part of Dakar 18 is that it has moments of genuine awesomeness and so much raw potential. Bombing a truck over a massive dune only to see the vast expanse of desert stretching out before you is pretty cool, and navigating bumpier terrain carefully has an almost relaxing feel to it. There’s something eminently satisfying about working through a huge stage on the harder settings, too, especially without a co-driver barking orders in your ear. Just you, a vehicle, a road book and a whole lot of driving across a seemingly never-ending sea of sand.
For every good moment, however, there were major flaws that left me with a bitter aftertaste. The handling model needs huge amounts of work, there are directions in the road book and that are yelled by the co-driver which are entirely wrong, simple options like playing a specific stage are missing and it looks like it should have come out on the last generation of consoles. It isn’t a terrible game and I want to like it a lot more than I do. With some work, there could be something pretty cool here, but for now don’t bother unless you’re a die-hard Dakar fan, just have a lot of money to spare or perhaps simply if you want the developers to create a sequel.