Racing games are a genre that vary wildly across the category’s subgenres. From a core design standpoint, racing can range from arcade to kart to simulation racers, and even the type of racing itself runs the gamut from track racing to off-road racing. Titles typically check boxes to define themselves in this regard. For instance, Dirt 5 is an arcade off-road rally racer, while Gran Turismo 7 is a simulation track racer, but occasionally a game tries to appeal to everyone by checking several of those boxes as a means to bridge the gap between arcade and simulation racing. This is where Dakar Desert Rally shines the brightest, by offering an experience that will appeal to racing game enthusiasts regardless of their niche.
When it comes to racing games, I am typically someone who gravitates towards a good arcade racer. Simulation titles like Gran Turismo or WRC are usually not for me, so I was a bit apprehensive about diving into Dakar Desert Rally. Getting dropped directly into a tutorial that played like an arcade racer was a promising start, and the more I raced the more my apprehension waned.
The only single-player game mode in Dakar is career mode, but there are three racing modes which pull double-duty as the game’s difficulty modes: sport, professional, and simulation. Each mode has its own settings and parameters, with sport mode offering an arcade-like experience, professional leaning firmly into simulation territory, and simulation being a full-blown…well…simulation. There is one major caveat that will likely annoy most hardcore racers who want to jump into simulation mode straight away – it requires you to rank up to career level 25 to unlock it. It’s a bit of a grind, and while I understand it was likely done to protect casuals like myself, the audience should be trusted more to choose what experience is best for them.
The good news is that the racing itself is a thrill, especially in sport mode. Speeding across the open desert, winding through narrow canyons, and ramping off of dunes is a blast. Your AI competitors keep things interesting as well. It’s commonplace for a foe to ramp a dune at too high a speed, only to crash-land in front of you and then barrel roll, requiring you to adjust last minute for a near-miss. Other times, the AI will bump you out of the way as they overtake you. But even though sport is very much an arcade mode, it never forgets its roots. Holding down the accelerator the entire time is the best recipe for a crash, as is slamming on the brakes too late as you head into a turn. Driving too fast will cause you to lose control on the sand, and braking too hard will lock up your wheels as you become a crash-test dummy against that massive boulder you were trying to avoid. In other words, your driving technique still matters here.
As you can see, sport mode resonated with me the most. While I held my own in professional, I was out of my league in simulation. In sport mode, you’ll have visible waypoint markers, less difficult AI competitors, and damage will cost less to repair, among other settings. Professional mode removes the visual waypoints and relies instead on your navigator – a co-pilot that shouts out instructions like a robot – and the Roadbook. The Roadbook is a step-by-step instruction manual for navigating a course, written in a sort of rally racing shorthand which is best described as part jargon, part hieroglyphs. There’s a lexicon that explains the Roadbook and its plethora of symbols, but it’s overwhelming and makes you feel like you’re preparing for a chemistry exam. Professional mode also changes the dynamic of races because most of the time you won’t race simultaneously alongside your competitors, which does remove some of the moment-to-moment excitement, but is more in line with the spirit of the real-life Dakar rally. Simulation mode, meanwhile, is as close as it gets to the real thing and includes longer stages, the highest difficulty AI, and speed limits, among other changes.
Race modes are not the only thing locked behind your experience level, as the game’s various events and stages must be unlocked as well. Each race that you finish awards both experience and Dakar Points, which is in-game currency used to purchase new vehicles and, more importantly, repair your vehicle between events. There are several class of vehicles on offer: cars, trucks (massive trucks), motorbikes, quads, and side-by-sides. Winning an event will allow you to spin the Sponsor Wheel, where you can choose Dakar Points or a new sponsored vehicle, which in-turn requires you to complete a race event to keep that vehicle at no cost to you.
The goal of any event, regardless of mode, is to finish in the shortest time possible while driving through each waypoint marker. As you race, the navigator will rattle off instructions, directing you to the next waypoint and alerting you to upcoming hazards. Miss too many waypoints and you’ll be disqualified. Drive off the map into the ocean and you’ll also be disqualified. Trust me on that one.
Each event consists of multiple stages (races), and your performance across the various stages will determine if you win or not. Things like missing waypoints or suffering a catastrophic repair will come at the cost of time penalties which may push you down the results board. Landing on a rock after ramping a dune too fast and ripping off your entire front axle is a pretty catastrophic repair, for example. Again, trust me on that one. Thankfully, vehicles show the appropriate visual damage after crashes both small and large. Overall, there are a lot of races to partake in, and a lot of variety in the courses themselves that keep things fresh. You’ll drive across wide open deserts, through rivers, between canyons, and up snowy mountains (yes, really).
The game’s environments are buoyed by one major quality – they’re absolutely gorgeous. Racing through Dakar Desert Rally is a visual treat, and not just because of pixel counts, but rather because the vistas here are stunning. There are two graphical modes on offer to highlight these environments. Visual mode favors 4K resolution, while performance mode favors 60 frames-per-second. Oddly enough, the visual mode appears to be the best performing of the two modes. Weather and day/night systems will see you racing through thunderstorms, sandstorms, snowstorms, and moonlit deserts that will leave you longing for a photo mode (which is coming in a post-launch update). Weather also adds a dramatic effect to races, where driving neck-and-neck with your competitors through a thunderstorm just might force you to the edge of your seat.
On the multiplayer front, things are pretty basic. The only mode available is online free racing, which includes either quick play or custom races. For the first few days, I had no luck finding an online match, but eventually would start to get paired with other humans, albeit only one or two at a time. Mercifully, the game populates the remaining spots in an online race with AI competitors.
I think it’s safe to say that no matter what type of racing game you typically prefer you will find a mode that suits you in Dakar Desert Rally. Successfully bridging the gap from arcade to simulation racing is no small task, which makes Dakar’s high level of accessibility all that more impressive. The game leans on its gorgeous locations and thrilling moment-to-moment gameplay, which come together for a rally racing experience that is quite good.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Hello! My name is Jason Dailey, and I’m a noob here at Gaming Nexus. When not working my day job, I moonlight as a husband and father to two dogs. Of course, I am also an avid gamer and general nerd. My favorite genres of games are strategy, management, city-builders, sports games, RPGs, and shooters, but I don't limit myself to those. My favorite game of all-time is Red Dead Redemption 2 and I have somehow played it for nearly 1,000 hours.
My first video game system was the NES and I never looked back. I currently play on PS5 and PS Vita, although I recently dabbled in Xbox Game Pass on PC for a short while. I co-host a weekly PlayStation news podcast with a lifelong friend/family member called The Dual Sense Podcast, so I stay pretty well versed in that ecosystem. Before that, I co-hosted a basketball podcast.
Follow me on Twitter @TheDualSensePod, or check out my YouTube channel.