Dakar Desert Rally Review: A rough ride

The Dakar Rally is one of the toughest rally raids on earth, with cars, bikes, quads, and trucks covering thousands of miles across gruelling terrain for the fastest time. But despite its enduring popularity, the Dakar Rally (formerly known as the Paris Dakar Rally) is underrepresented in racing games aside from a couple of forgotten Paris Dakar Rally PS2 games in the early 2000s.

Back in 2018, Portuguese developer Bigmoon Entertainment (now known as Saber Porto) changed this with Dakar 18, the first official Dakar game in 15 years. While it was a faithful recreation of the demanding rally raid event, it fell short of its potential thanks to its frustrating difficulty, terrible vehicle handling, and underwhelming graphics.

Four years later, a sequel has arrived with the release of Dakar Desert Rally. This time, the sequel benefits from a longer development time. In theory, this allows Saber Porto to fully realise their vision and make the most authentic Dakar game ever. Does Dakar Desert Rally deliver this promise or get stuck in the sand?

Version tested: PlayStation 5

Desert storm

Dakar 18 was criticised for its steep learning curve. Luckily, Dakar Desert Rally’s new Sport Mode rectifies this. Not to be confused with GT7’s Sport Mode, this is a traditional arcade-style mode where you race against other vehicles starting at the same time.

Giant glowing beacons also highlight waypoints while a dynamic racing line reveals the route. It may not be faithful to the real Dakar Rally, but Sport Mode makes the game more immediately accessible than Dakar 18, appealing to players who enjoy casual racers like Forza Horizon and DiRT.

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That said, there’s a surprising lack of accessibility options – you can’t adjust the AI difficulty, enable vehicle assists, or turn off damage to tweak the difficulty.

With multiple vehicles from cars to massive trucks ripping through the desert and aggressive AI opponents will take you out if you crash into them, Sport Mode has strong MotorStorm vibes and is great chaotic fun.

Sport mode is far from easy, however. Slamming head-on into a rock at high speed will terminally damage your car. Likewise, jumping over a steep dune too fast can send your car somersaulting across the desert, leaving you stranded.

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These spectacular smashes show off Dakar Desert Rally’s excellent damage model: cars crumple, windscreens shatter, and body panels and wheels fly off. Severe damage can be repaired on the fly but will cost you a time penalty.

Professional mode removes the beacons for players who want a more authentic Dakar Rally experience, meaning you have to rely on your Road Book and co-driver to navigate the treacherous terrain. This adds another layer of challenge, but the robotic-sounding co-driver sometimes makes calls too late so you can’t always rely on them.

Simulation mode ramps up the difficulty further by removing save points and disabling respawn while increasing the AI difficulty and adding speed restrictions. This mode is locked until you reach Level 25, however, which can take roughly ten hours. While it makes sense to ease casual players in gently with Sport Mode, it means hardcore fans have to grind for hours to get the full Dakar experience.

Spectacular scenery

Saudi Arabia is the real star of Dakar Desert Rally. From vast deserts to snowy mountains and sandy beaches, the environments have an epic sense of scale.

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This is an admirably ambitious game. With over 130 stages covering 20,000 square kilometres according to the developer, Saber Porto claims Dakar Desert Rally is the “biggest rally racer ever.” Although the scenery can get repetitive (this is a game set in a desert after all), obstacles like shipwrecks to dodge and planes with conveniently placed wings to jump over add variety.

Visually, Dakar Desert Rally looks spectacular. Vehicles kick up thick clouds of dust and dirt, environments are supremely detailed, and the time of day and dynamic weather effects that reduce visibility are some of the best we’ve seen in a modern racer.

Shaky ground

Unfortunately, this visual fidelity comes at a cost. On PS5, Dakar Desert Rally suffers from frequent frame rate drops - even in Performance Mode. Stutters are particularly noticeable when driving through water or the race gets crowded with opponents.

It’s not game-breaking, but the unstable frame rate regularly dips below 60fps in Performance Mode - not ideal in a game requiring fast reactions to avoid crashing into the scenery.

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Future updates will hopefully optimise the performance. Until then, we recommend playing in Resolution mode, which locks the game at 30fps. Ironically, Resolution Mode offers a more stable frame rate than Performance Mode while running at 4K resolution.

More problematic is the erratic vehicle handling. Cars generally feel responsive on a DualSense controller but lose grip far too easily. Frustratingly, this results in situations where it’s impossible to recover if you oversteer and spin out of control into the nearest rock even after counter-steering and lifting off the throttle.

Bikes and ATVs also feel too sensitive and spin out easily if you steer too sharply. Heavyweight trucks, on the other hand, are more stable, enjoyable to drive, and satisfyingly weighty.

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Unfortunately, playing with a wheel doesn’t improve the driving experience. Using a supported Thrustmaster wheel, the slightest input turns the wheel full lock even after changing the settings.

Other wheel users are reporting a lack of force feedback with Logitech wheels. Fanatec wheels are also not supported at the time of writing. Saber Proto says it's working to improve wheel compatibility and fix these issues in a patch update. But right now, Dakar Desert Rally’s wheel support leaves a lot to be desired.

Lost content at launch

Disappointingly, the revolutionary Road Book editor where you create and share your own stages is absent at launch, as is the promised free-roam mode and custom events. Even features like the livery editor, replays, and photo mode are missing.

These features are coming in a future update, but it leaves Dakar Desert Rally feeling incomplete despite its extended development time. There are other issues that need polishing too like a bizarre bug where your car stalls at the start of every race in opening cut scenes.

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It’s a shame because the team clearly has a deep passion for Dakar. With over 150 vehicles including bikes, cars, trucks, quads, and SXS from the 2020, 2021, and 2022 Dakar Rally races plus an assortment of historic cars unlocked by winning events in every vehicle class, there’s a lot here for fans to enjoy.

With more game modes and polish, Dakar Desert Rally could evolve into something special. As it stands, Dakar Desert Rally is an ambitious and often-exhilarating dirt racer that captures the gruelling nature of Dakar, but an oversensitive handling model, performance issues, and missing content at launch let it down.

RacingGames Rating: 7/10

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