I’m sat in a sim racing cockpit, the force feedback of the Thrustmaster steering wheel doing its best to rip my hands clean off as I ascend a giant sand dune. The nose of my Toyota Hilux is pointing at the sky.
Over the blind precipice, I grab air, way more than anticipated, but I keep the throttle pinned wide open. These rally raid-specification dampers should be able to handle anything I throw at them.
The landing is brutal, but I’m still in control. Getting my bearings, I then must avoid a truck competitor who hasn’t navigated quite as successfully and is sitting on its side. I slew to the right, narrowly avoiding the giant obstacle, but I hit one of its detached body panels which tips me briefly onto two wheels.
Somehow in all of that, I managed to overtake a key rival to move up to third position, and then the heavens opened as a thunderstorm hit.
This is Dakar Desert Rally, a new open-world driving game – and simulator, more on that later – that delivers the sort of visceral thrill I’ve been after for several decades.
To rewind a little, the Paris-Dakar rally is a real-world test of endurance for cars, motorcycles, quad bikes and even trucks. Over the years, the route has evolved, switching to South America between 2009 and 2020, and then from 2020 exclusively in Saudi Arabia.
Each year, over 400 crews take to the rock and sand-strewn environment to see who is quickest across 12 days of sun-baked competition. A test of speed, bravery and navigational skills.
I have fond memories growing up watching the event on Eurosport, as Mitsubishi, KTM, Kamaz and Schlesser buggies duked it out over varied terrain, with the likes of Kleinschmidt, Masuoka, Vatanen and Peterhansel cemented legendary status.
But, the video game scene largely ignored it. There were two Paris-Dakar games on the PlayStation 2 by Acclaim, but then a 15-year wait until Bigmoon Entertainment’s Dakar 18.
That game had the official real-world licence, route and entry list. It also featured realistic route guidance but it was fragile, overly complicated and, especially on two wheels, handled worse than a Piaggio Ape.
That same studio, however, did not give in. Three years later, and after being purchased by Saber Interactive (which in turn is now part of the Embracer Group), Dakar Desert Rally made its public debut at Gamescom ahead of its release later this year.
It’s completely different to the past title, mercifully. All-new from the ground up.
“We developed Dakar 18, and from the very beginning we were very excited about the game’s navigation,” explained Paulo Gomes to Traxion.GG, Dakar Desert Rally’s Game and Studio Director.
“But, there were a lot of things we could not include on our wish list.
“We said ‘we need to do the next one incorporating the things that we weren’t able to include in the first one’ and building upon what we had learnt.
“With the Saber support, we were able to proceed with the three years of development required to reach this new game.”
Gomes is filled with pride, finally witnessing media reactions to an early build of something that has been hidden away for so long. You can tell that he lives and breaths the spirit of Dakar.
There’s a lot to be proud of, too.
The 20,000 km2 open-world area is used not only to deliver a simulation mode that sets speed limits and removes the mid-stage saving process – plus the hardcore, real-world aping roadbook navigation system – but a more accessible Sport Mode that is more akin to a traditional off-road racing game.
So not only is Dakar Desert Rally trying to replicate the real-world event as authentically as possible, but it’s aimed at the Forza Horizon 5 crowd too, should you want it to be.
On top of that, the physics engine needs to simulate cars, trucks, SSVs, quad bikes and motorcycles. All feature visible and mechanical damage, changeable set-ups and within a setting that utilises a fully dynamic weather system.
“I would say that it’s multiple games in one,” said Gomes.
“We have five vehicle categories. We have three full years of Dakar events – 2020, 2021 and 2022. We have the three game modes too, Sport, Professional and Simulation.”
Which is great on paper, but if it doesn’t have a clear direction or adaptable underpinnings, it won’t work well as either a game or a simulator.
I must stress, again, that I did not play a final build nor spend days at the helm, but despite this concern, so far things are shaping up to be rather promising.
The location is visually detailed and diverse, which is no mean feat when the event is placed within a location with arguable less variation in scenery than in prior years. There are some over-the-top jumps, like a shortcut over an abandoned plane’s wing, but there are also authentic tracks through sand dunes.
A pleasant surprise at this juncture is the car and truck handling. The bigger machines rightly lumber along in comparison, with greater force feedback through the steering wheel peripheral, a larger turning circle and noticeably greater inertia.
Meanwhile, motorcycles are a giant step forward, keener reacting than the recently released MX vs ATV Legends, which is a dedicated title. More finessed inputs at slower speeds is still an area to develop, however.
As is the visual fidelity, with some pop-up and frame rate changes – but again, this is far from the finished article and this is far from a definitive verdict.
When my time with the title ended, I did find myself yearning for that ‘one more race’ in order to earn enough in-game currency to unlock another vehicle. There’s much more of a gameplay hook here than simply driving through the Dakar event.
The Sport Mode – read ‘arcade’ mode – sees you racing against rivals for position, instead of time, with the more traditional set-up part of a separate Dakar Experience section unlocked later in the game. It’s surprisingly good fun, with visible beacons to head towards and straightforward rival abilities.
Your computer-controller rivals have been programmed to act wildly, so you will see them making mistakes and generally be fallible too, adding to the frenetic action.
Moving to the more serious side, navigating by a roadbook and CAP heading degrees noticeably slows down your pace, with the events becoming more about refreshing your orienteering skills from Scouts or Brownies than outright speed.
All the while you are constantly earning cash to fix your vehicles and XP to reach higher levels or unlock game modes. These are mixed with a car collection element, with over 150 set to feature, plus classic vehicles from the event’s history, such as the ungainly Citroën ZX Rallye-Raid, should you complete events using each of the five classes.
Dakar Desert Rally is gigantic, and this is before we consider being able to create your own routes, share them online or download other players’ creations.
“Everyone can create their own routes and even rate each other’s, so the community will see who has created the best roadbooks,” explains Gomes.
“It’s all about allowing the community to create an endless Dakar experience, whether this is in Sport Mode, Professional, or Simulation.”
Just to be clear. This is an official game of the real-world event, that includes not one, but three seasons of routes and vehicles. You can drive a car, ride or motorbike or explore in a truck.
There’s an arcade racing career with an open world, route markers and XP, but also a full simulation section trying to replicate the real-world event. Single-player and online multiplayer competition are included, plus the ability to create and share roadbooks.
So, going back to this article’s title, it’s no exaggeration. The fact that it drives well is a minor miracle.
We’ll be back before the game’s launch on 4th October for PC, PlayStation and Xbox to see if the final version successfully manages to meld all the elements into one cohesive experience.