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Dakar Desert Rally is a survival racing game about not getting lost

Saber Porto's Dakar Desert Rally marks a triumphant return to gaming for the iconic rally raid event with the first new entry in four years

dakar desert rally gameplay preview: survival racing game two motorcyclists driving in desert area

Dakar Desert Rally, the latest instalment in the racing game series, thrusts players into the front seat of souped-up trucks, cars, motorbikes, and more in a high-octane race for the ages. Breathing new life into a series that goes all the way back to 1988’s Paris-Dakar Rally Special, developer Saber Porto has brought Dakar back to the virtual world in style.

“There are no rules in Dakar,” Saber Porto founder Paulo J. Gomes enthuses as I clamber into the rather impressive racing rig. “That’s why certain cars don’t appear in the game – some companies don’t want their cars to be destroyed.”

Well, that’s reassuring.

Once I’ve gotten somewhat comfortable, Paulo opens up a seemingly never-ending list of every vehicle under the Arabian sun. Selecting a fancy looking car, I roll up to the starting line with victory in my eyes. As the sands shift in front of me on the starting grid I smash my foot to the floor, the thought of beating my AI competitors the only one pulsing in my mind. I take off at immense speed, plotting my path through the pack and over the next horizon, that is, before I lose traction and hurtle into a tree. Yes friends, I am a licensed driver, nothing to see here.

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Much like any other racing game, players will need to beat the competition while staying on course by passing through different beacons. The difference here is that you can get to those beacons in any way that suits you: veer into the sands or stick to the path – the decision is yours; just watch out for the trees and boulders.

Until I brush up my skills you’ll find me zooming around in the much more forgiving, casual-minded ‘sport’ mode, but there are two others; professional and simulation. We take a look at the latter, which is the hardcore option for avid simulation game enthusiasts. Here, you need to navigate the open-world circuit in the same way actual race drivers do: by using a compass, a roadbook of markers to watch out for, and those rusty orientation skills you learned at that one outdoor school trip.

This is what makes the Dakar series really feel unique – rally games have implemented pace notes for years, but in Dakar it’s ridiculously easy to take a wrong turn and not realise until your wheels are spinning up in deep sand. Following these while flooring the throttle also forces you to concentrate on every minute detail ahead of you, not just how fast you’re going. A humble boulder can be the geographical marker that keeps me true, and the roadbook lists diagrams, cautions, section distances, and so, so much more for me to interpret while I battle to keep the car doing a 180. From the outside it looks like a fairly pedestrian dash across some sand dunes, but in the cockpit your eyes are zipping around like your life depends on it.

While body and limb aren’t at risk for anyone playing Dakar Desert Rally, the result of the race is. There are no auto-saves as you drive, and damaging your vehicle too much means it’s game over. This is the real Dakar experience, and I’m relieved to switch out to a controller after my first few attempts for a slightly less intense experience.

You’ll also be hit with a vast array of weather conditions that can change on the fly (not unlike my home city, Glasgow). One moment the sun is splitting the sky, the next your windshield is being pelted by some of the most realistic raindrops in gaming, making it almost impossible to see what’s in front of you.

Not only is Dakar daring, it’s gorgeous (and sometimes frightening) to look at – and there’s a lot to explore. To be exact, there are 20,000 square metres of desert to tear through, with everything scaled 1:25 based on the real-life area. This makes Desert Rally the largest rally sandbox game around. It also boasts an extensive roster of vehicles (over 150, to be precise); with everything from motorbikes to trucks at your disposal. Inspired by the 2020 to 2022 events (the last Dakar game came out in 2018), you can take pretty much every vehicle for a spin.

Dakar Desert Rally gameplay preview survival racing game: Car skidding in dirt while driving in an electric storm

And boy am I glad I did. Taking the foundations of what makes a good racing game and building upon it, Dakar Desert Rally feels every bit as exciting as the world-famous event it’s based on. While sport mode is great for newcomers like me, the simulation mode is where the thrills are, and while I’ll never be a professional racer, shredding the sands while trying to decipher the pictorial road notes made me believe the fantasy between inadvertent collisions.

The Dakar Desert Rally release date is set for October 4, 2022, and the game will arrive on Xbox Game Pass from day one. If you’re looking to pick it up on Steam, you can pre-purchase either the standard or deluxe edition to get ahead of the competition.