I was gone on vacation when this came out and when I came home two weeks ago I had planned on getting it, but the lukewarm reviews and the number of updates being released made me hold off. So I finally got it a couple of hours ago. I have run through the tutorial races and the first two rally stages, running a four wheel drive Mitsubishi.
A couple of caveats regarding my impressions. First I am using an X360 controller, so all the high drama from a lot of reviews about how the game isn't supporting some wheel and pedal hardware isn't meaningful to me. It is working just fine with my controller.
Second, I've had an interest for years about the Dakar Rally, ever since it moved to South America. When NBCSN started actually providing coverage I ate that up, plus over the net I've watched the daily reports through British websites. Since this game follows the route of the 2018 event, I'm pretty familiar with the course, the teams and the regulations.
There's an introductory video several minutes long that informs the player about the HUD, driving and navigating. Then there are several tutorials that expand on this by letting you actually experience some racing over different terrain so that you can familiarize yourself with the concept of navigating by compass and distance. I had to do a couple of the tutorials more than once to grasp what was happening, but I got the hang of it eventually.
So, on to the main campaign, err, rally. I selected Rookie difficulty as it includes navigation clues when running off roads or trails, which can be of real help. As mentioned, I'm running a four wheel drive vehicle which the game suggests for rookies.
The first stage, Lima-Pisco, is a short 35km special that isn't too challenging, although I managed to get lost enough on one of the ten waypoints that I needed a reset which added 15 minutes to my stage time.
The second stage, Pisco-Pisco, is a loop that runs out into the dunes, then back near the shore before arriving back near where we left. It's 271km, mostly off-road/trail, so you're navigating by compass and odometer most of the time. And there are some really freakishly large dunes. I completed the stage in 51 minutes, plus another 15 minute penalty. And I don't remember this as being the longest stage.
From the standpoint of car physics, my impression is that the way the car is behaving is what I think it should feel like. I know that's not very scientific, but for me, a lot of the nonsense being thrown around in reviews is people just trying to find a reason to complain. I played a lot of race sims over the years, although not that many off-road ones, so I have experienced many interpretations by many games of what the physics should feel like. And in Dakar 18, the physics seem fine to me. It's like modern art, I don't know what it is, but I know what I like.
In terms of graphics, the game is nice looking. Again, I don't set a very demanding high level of expectations. I'm running at 1920x1200 on a 27 inch monitor, with a GTX 1060 6GB. The game defaulted to a graphics quality setting of Epic(!), so I'm guessing what I'm seeing is the best the game has to offer. The level of detail is quite serviceable for the purposes of racing. Regarding views, there are the usual chase, in-car, bumper and overhead views. The in-game view is set too far back from the windscreen for my taste, but then I'm using the chase view because it helps give the best look at the upcoming terrain.
Finally, gameplay. Between those first two stages I've put in more than an hour of racing. And the racing is good. The vertical challenge of running up, down and across the faces of dunes feels very real. The car I'm running felt twitchy at first, but after a few minutes I felt quite at home driving it. I did manage to damage the car bad enough to cause a withdrawal from the stage, from which I was able, as an option, to reload from the last waypoint. And that was on Rookie. I didn't get to see how well damage was modeled, like can I overheat the engine requiring me to drive slowly or just shut down and cool down at intervals. Or how the game handles flat; these cars carry a couple of spares just for that purpose.
I did come across a minor issue. The second stage, according to the information menu page that preceded the run, says there were to be 42 waypoints, but the stage completed info screen said there were 121 waypoints, which sounds right. It might just be the way they count them. I do know that there were ninety(!) navigation road book unique instruction panels. Each panel (which consists of three parts) are graphical representations of the next set of instructions and road conditions, like this:
The road book is one of the more important elements of the game. Rally raids like Dakar are as much about navigation as about raw speed and vehicle performance.
It's 2:30am and I'm wiped so I'm going to wrap up my impressions here. I'll post some more tomorrow.