We didn't really set out for this to be some sort of anti-Acclaim week, but for some reason after dealing with the lamentable Vexx yesterday we're taking a look at the equally tawdry and hopeless Dakar 2 today. A product of Acclaim Studios Cheltenham, Dakar 2 dramatises the race from Paris, France to Dakar, Senegal with less gusto than mid-90s Skoda salesman, and all the visual splendour of a mucky day in Bognor Regis.
The ugly, the ugly and the ugly
Right, we're going to list all the things we like about Dakar 2. They should fit in one paragraph without too much difficulty, even if we continue to pad it out with mutterings about how abysmal the rest of the game is. First of all, there's the 'five little pieces of cheese' progress meter in the bottom left. Each chunk is gradually coloured blue as you move between checkpoints, and each chunk turns red/green depending on how your time matches up to the qualification minimum. The design limits you to five checkpoints per lap or race, but you'll be thanking the game for every second away from the so-called gameplay anyway. Um, and that's it - all there in one paragraph. All one of them.
What makes Dakar 2 so bad is much easier to pinpoint. It's just no fun to play. The Campaign mode is basically one big Time Trial (which won't come as much of a surprise if you have any idea how the actual rally works), and players get to choose from cars, trucks and motorbikes to take through 12 stages spanning desert, bush and mountain. There are also Arcade/Quick Race modes, which behave more like traditional races, a split-screen multiplayer option (horizontal or vertical) and a fair variety of things to unlock. However you won't be much inclined to unlock them for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, the handling on each vehicle is woeful, with physics that allow you to slip 50 feet down an almost sheer cliff-face on one stage only to crawl back up. In a truck. Elsewhere, the bike rider feels like he's on a unicycle, and the way the vehicles steer sharply as if on an invisible turntable, and react to track furniture as though it's spring-loaded, makes the game feel like a cartoon stuck on fast forward. Ironic really, because there's virtually no sense of speed when you're moving between turns, and no 60Hz mode either, tech-heads.
Track design consists of regular twists and turns, most of which can be taken at full pelt (including some hairpins), but you'll want to avoid even the slightest nudge of scenery, because a few parps here and there will leave your engine incapable of escaping second gear. Once or twice, the game throws in some variation to the circuit and linear racecourses, with what the packaging describes as "unique GPS navigational levels". These are basically Smuggler's Run-style offerings, which have you tearing across the desert in one direction before forcing you to turn left and drive off in another direction to find the next checkpoint. It's smooth sailing for the most part, but occasionally you have to navigate round an extra-tall sand dune. Or avoid a sea of suspension-knackering shrubs (helpfully coloured the same as the other, non-destructive shrubs).
Look away now
What stands in the way of entertainment above all else though is the total lack of difficulty in some areas, and the complete opposite in others. This writer waltzed through the Campaign mode on the default Medium difficulty in the ugliest truck imaginable without failing to qualify - or even not coming first - once. However, throwing one's self into the mix with a bike is a much more fearsome proposition. Though you can't unseat AI riders with a truck to the face, a slight gust of wind in the wrong direction is enough to put the player's face in the sand. Coupling this wildly inconsistent challenge with the lack of any opposition (except from the odd car, truck or bike racing their own race), the monotonous track design, the woeful physics and the hideous oversteer, and the only thing missing is uninspired graphics. Hang on, missing? Au contraire - they're out in force.
On the whole, the game looks bland and unremarkable, and as though it's been squashed from widescreen to 4:3. The vehicles all look like late-PlayStation offerings, each as unimaginative and low-poly as the next, and each is covered in plenty of low-resolution textures advertising various things we've never heard of. We spent the entirety of one race trying to count all the ads on our truck, although we reckon we double-counted some of them. This was more fun than paying attention to the game properly, but we still won the race.
The tracks themselves vary from unashamedly insipid desert offerings, with the same repeated sand, rough sand, dark sand and powdery sand textures, to slightly greener/browner circuits with trees and rocks blocking the sides. There's little of particular merit - the draw distance in the desert stages is pretty good, but what's being drawn rarely lives up to it, and occasionally you get rain effects, but they're so insignificant that you'll just think something's wrong with the TV. On the other hand, there are plenty of things which could be described as symbolically awful. The bikes, for example, are basically plastic toys with glued on riders who, should they come unstuck, roll around on the ground in the brittle, legs-askew posture of a deceased mutt.
The last we'll speak of it
Dakar 2 is a very bad game, which should be reserved for children under five, and that bloke from The Fast Show who thinks everything's brilliant. It's not exaggeration to say it's the least fun of all the games we've played this year. While we can appreciate that Acclaim yearns for a hit game like the desert lusting after the rain, we can't see how throwing substandard, undercooked, multi-platform tat at the problem is going to solve anything. Do not buy this. Ever.