Sometimes in life it pays to do something different, to chuck the norm into the bin. Sometimes it doesn't. In the case of Dakar 18, the final result sits somewhere between the two now that a much-needed 'day one' update finally made it to the Xbox One.
Replicating the gruelling and unforgiving nature of the rally was never going to be easy for Bigmoon Entertainment, admittedly. But then it could make use of rugged terrain, crazy vehicles and having to navigate in the wilderness ─ ingredients for a winner.
Dakar 18: The Right Direction
Dakar 18's premise is the same as the real event. You drive a vehicle such as a huge truck or less beefy yet faster off-roader or motorbike and then navigate your way to victory as fast and as damage-free as possible.
That involves learning how to navigate using waypoints because GPS guidance is a no-no. Visual descriptions from your co-pilot, degree angles and odometer readings all require you to keep your eyes on the terrain and user-interface compass.
You can also follow other drivers although this is a weak tactic used more for undoing how lost you are because following means you are potentially going more slowly. And it's the time at the end of each stage that matters most.
Replicating the barren, inhospitable landscape of rural South America where the Dakar race now takes place (Africa was deemed unsafe), you can drive for long periods of time without seeing anything other than a sand dune or tree.
It's a lonely affair and the antithesis of most racing games where you share a circuit. But this is also the most appealing element because there is a sense of satisfaction when you finally master the navigation stuff.
Dakar 18: Breaking Down
Unfortunately, Dakar 18 is too unpolished in too many places. The graphics are dated at best and do little to entice you, while the physics system (though being improved by the developer) is almost laughably basic.
Not only that, the little cut scenes at the start of a race highlight the awkwardness of the humans in the game and the damage system can be inconsistent. Destroying your car on a twig when close to finishing a stage can be frustrating.
How much damage the vehicle can take depends on the vehicle itself. The giant trucks can be hurled off dunes without a care of the world, as can the bikes (although you lose your co-pilot's helpful instructions). But a rally car, quad and SxS buggy requires a more delicate approach.
This does add a level of depth, but the problem is that using the vehicles is rarely anything but unsatisfying. The movement never quite seems right and is more arcadey than realistic, which seems odd in a game so keen on realism.
Much of the Dakar 18 experience hinges on the difficulty setting. Rookie gives you a compass direction to follow at all times, which makes life much easier although you can still get lost in the early days. It's easiest but also tires quickly.
Go for a more difficult mode such as 'Competitor' and you have to do everything yourself, which highlights the navigation element that makes Dakar 18 unique. Go wrong and it can be tense watching the clock tick on as you attempt to retrace your steps.
The truly brave (or stupid) can tuck into the 'Legend' mode, which is even less helpful. But then if you are hooked on getting from A to B in Dakar 18, it will prove extra satisfying once mastered. Mainly because the area of play is 5,791-square miles in size.
It's the key elements that needed to be present and correct for Dakar 18 to shine, but not only is the physics system poor and the visuals dull, it's also that the vehicles handle like each other and the terrain is similarly repetitive.
Beyond the career mode is online and offline multiplayer, which can be amusing for both the right and wrong reasons. There is also a treasure hunt mode that has you treading over previously run stages to find, well, treasure.
These provide some relief in between long sessions of the career mode, but an extra more or two would have helped justify the cost and perhaps helped with longevity. There is also the issue that retracing your steps can prove repetitive.
More customisation and simulator-esque decisions such as what tyre pressure to run and weight-saving measures are also odd in their absence. Decisions that can make or break a team in the really rally seemingly overlooked.
Dakar 18: The Conclusion
Tackling a video game version of the Dakar 18 rally is something Bigmoon Entertainment deserves a pat on the back for and its creation appears to improve with each update. But the core gameplay is still too limited and too basic to really make be rewarding.
Those who really enjoy the navigation element will find it difficult to put down. But for everyone else, it's a bit of a gamble. Buy it cheap and maybe you can find some fun out there in the desert. Just avoid expecting to come across gaming nirvana anytime soon.