Dakar 18 is based on the popular Dakar Rally, a yearly off-road racing event in South America. The rally is known for being gruelling, covering difficult terrain in stages of over 500 miles. To describe it in as few words as possible: it’s the kind of event Red Bull sponsors.
Despite being based on a rally, Dakar 18 is not a racing game – at least, not in the traditional sense. Instead of linear tracks you’re placed in huge open maps; instead of glowing checkpoints in the distance you’re expected to follow compass bearings and simplistic map indications to piece together the route by yourself; you’ll be driving off-track through sand dunes, down bumpy and winding dirt tracks, or up soggy washes.
These distinctions in both mechanics and aesthetics distance Dakar 18 from racing games. The aim of each level isn’t to finish in a good time – although that’s a bonus – but to use the ‘roadbook’ to find your way from checkpoint to checkpoint while keeping your vehicle intact. It’s basically orienteering, but in giant vehicles and through the deserts of South America.
Developers Bigmoon Entertainment clearly emphasise the realism of this experience. Different parts of your vehicle can be damaged if you drive too fast over a hill, crash into a tree, or plunge into a river, and this can affect your performance in a variety of ways. At times your vehicle will get stuck in mud or on the crest of a hill, and you must leave the vehicle to dig your way out or attach a tether to another vehicle to get you out. This doesn’t slow down the game, however, but adds to the feeling that each level is about endurance over speed. Levels can be upwards of an hour long, so driving carefully is imperative.
Apart from this unique style of racing, the game’s largest strength is its world. Between the lighting, weather effects, and world design itself the South America of the game is stunning. From the sand dunes of Peru to the orchards of Argentina, each twist and turn in your route will put you in contact with beautiful vistas and immersive locales. Despite a rather limited render distance, you can spend the entirety the levels marvelling at the places you visit.
Each race takes place in one giant map, and while the tracks rarely overlap, you can tell from landmarks in the distance and the flow of various biomes that you’re on the same giant landmass throughout. Actually getting to explore this map is a challenge, as you don’t want to veer too far from the route of each level for fear of getting lost, but the fact you could do so adds to the world’s beauty – it feels like it exists not just as a setting for the race but as a real location.
A ‘treasure hunt’ mode does let you loose to explore the world, but its sheer size (as well as the lack of an actual map to consult to find your location) makes finding the treasures supremely hard.
Thankfully, travelling for an hour or more per level through this world can be quite the experience. Following instructions to find the next checkpoint is engaging enough to be fun without distracting from the world at large, and the more you travel, the more you get captivated by the same spirit of adventure and excitement that travelling through the real world provides. It can be quite a transcendental experience to bathe in the setting sun over the plains of Bolivia, or power through an endless sea of sand dunes, or crest a hill to see the sea twinkling in the distance. The best moments of the game come not from coasting through checkpoints at huge speeds, but enjoying the feeling of driving through the world.
Unfortunately, this kind of experience doesn’t exactly lend itself to intense or lengthy play sessions. It can be a great way to unwind after a hard day, but you won’t be playing level after level for hours in a row. The line between ‘transcendental’ and ‘boring’ is a thin one, defined largely by player temperament, and long levels and repeated terrain means the game often dips into the ‘boring’ side of the scale.
Dakar 18 doesn’t function quite as well as a driving game. There’s very little customisation available for vehicles (you can choose which of the five vehicles types you want to use, and which branding you have sprawled over it, but the latter is aesthetic). In fact, once you’ve chosen a vehicle, it only performs differently when you damage it. You can’t even change vehicles between levels – this means that if you’ve been doing the tracks in a truck, but want to complete the next one in a bike, you’re going to need to restart the campaign and drive with a bike up to this level. This is done to increase the realism – the actual Dakar drivers can’t change vehicles throughout – but it does guarantee most players won’t try all the vehicles.
On top of that, the game is rather buggy. Some of these are just silly, such as multiple avatars spawning when you leave a vehicle, but many are infuriating. The worst are poor directions – at times the on-board co-pilot will tell you to turn one direction when it should tell you the other, or won’t say anything at all when you should turn, or will make remarks that you’re going the right direction when you aren’t. When you rely so closely on the instructions provided, it can be frustrating when they’re wrong, and you have to find the correct direction through trial-and-error by driving about randomly to trigger the next direction.
Unlike most driving games, Dakar 18 is not an intense and action-packed experience, but a slow and more mindful fare. Its divergence from typical driving games may put off a lot of players, but the unique mechanics and beautiful world more than make up for this. Hopefully future Dakar games will capitalise on its highlights and eliminate its many problems.