Touted as the ultimate off-road experience, Gravel is a new arcade racer brought to us by Milestone, the developers behind MXGP, Ride and WRC. With promises of extreme vehicles, spectacular scenery and no-holds-barred competition, does it live up to its claims?
What struck me early on with Gravel is how much it reminds me of a rally game from the mid-2000s. When beginning a new game the player is introduced to many of the worlds best drivers in their fields; from Stadium Master Scott Parker to Cross Country veteran Justin Evans with a backdrop of fire, attitude and a metal guitar riff that would feel right at home at a Metallica concert. Gravel is loud and brings a pinch of nostalgia to the table reminiscent of PlayStation 2 era racing games.
Starting a new career allows the player to create a basic racing profile consisting of their name, from there, they’re thrown into the first race of the game. A tutorial of sorts that provides the basics of the game. Gravel isn’t condescending as much to tell you how to accelerate and brake as chances are this isn’t the first racing game you’ve picked up but it will introduce you to the rewind feature, much like that found in the Forza franchise. It allows a player to correct any potential mistakes that may have been made mid-race. Handy for first-time races on a new track or when the CPU gets over-aggressive. Which happens a lot.
Though despite the simple control scheme which makes the game immediately accessible to newer players Gravel also offers settings for the more advanced racing aficionados. with the option to tune the vehicles; including breaks, transmission and suspension, the more tech savvy will be in their element.
And while the AI seems to take any opportunity it can get to take you down, it doesn’t help that at times the physics can get a little ropey. More often than not a single bump or knock can be enough to send your car spinning wildly out of control at odd angles making the rewind option a necessity rather than a luxury.
The bulk of the game is presented as a TV show divided into a number of episodes. These episodes are comprised of different race events to keep things interesting. Cross Country, Wild Rush, Speed Cross and Stadium. Each offers their own style of gameplay requiring the player to adapt to overcome. The Cross Country events – which I found to be my favourite – are fast dashes from point A to point B while Wild Rush sees players face off against the CPU in lap races through a number of varying locations. Speed Cross is a more typical race style taking on laps from real-life tracks from Europe and the USA while Stadium races drop the player into an arena – both real and fictional.
Unlocking each episode is done by earning a set number of stars. Unlike traditional racing games, this is not always through hitting the podium but rather by fulfilling objectives laid out in each race. Once enough stars have been accumulated players have the choice to continue in the current episode and to take on the final race in the series or to move onto fresh, new races.
All of this variety keeps the game feeling fresh and exciting and breaks up the tedium I find in other racing games of track after track after track. It’s nice to go seamlessly from one race style to the next without batting an eyelid. That’s not to say, however, that it’s easy. Mastering a single race style is tricky enough, but being required to master all four takes some practice.
And that’s not just to say on a track by track basis. With its dynamic weather Gravel throws in a number of hypothetical spanners in the works. Racing styles that fare well on the beach may not work as well on grass or mud; while the same tactics need to be vastly altered when it’s raining. Not only does it add more depth to the gameplay but it makes it feels more real and forces the player to adapt to real-life conditions; blurring the line between video game and real life.
From the Alaskan mountains to the Plains of Namibia to the beaches of Florida, Gravel offers a variety of different locations from around the world with over 65 tracks. It’s hard not to be impressed with this much content on offer. Couple this with over 70 vehicles to choose from including Toyota, Porshe, Ford, to name a few, each can be customised with unlockable livery – there’s a lot to keep players interested.
Visually speaking Gravel is a bit of a mixed bag. In most cases the environments are beautiful. The backdrops all look flawless with some great lighting as well as water reflections, but what lets it down is the vehicles themselves. They feel out of place for this generation and look clunky in comparison to everything around them. On occasion, I found the higher resolution textures took some time to spawn in – most likely in an effort to keep the framerate consistent – even on the PlayStation 4 Pro.
While not perfect, Gravel does what it set out to do; and that’s to be a decent racing game. Sure there are problems with the visuals and the AI may sometimes be a bit over-aggressive but Milestone has ensured the game is packed to the brim with content and unlockables. Easily accessible to new players and advanced players alike, Gravel strikes that perfect balance which will keep players coming back again and again but doesn’t offer anything too groundbreaking.