Gravel – Review

Milestone have long been racing fanatics with Gravel being their 45th release (and vehicular based game) since 1996, so there’s plenty of pedigree on offer, but lets take a look at the rough and dirty sounding Gravel.

Gravel sounds and at a distance looks every bit as rough and grimy as the name suggest, we’re not looking at Rally car’s drifting through the snow in Sweden, we’re talking about a wide range of licensed vehicles jostling for position in wide open checkpoint races and tight circuits, with AI unafraid to give you a nudge on the corners.

From the main menu, things change slightly, the fictional Gravel TV introduces the action but the narrator sounds more like a polite waiter than an egotistical commentator, DJ Atomika set the standard for realistic and well placed commentary but Gravel’s offering just sounds a little bit clean cut for this extreme racing world.

Bypass this annoyance and things pick up, there’s plenty of modes on offer from a standard free-race to online lobbies, time attack and weekly challenges which task you with some tough tasks and leaderboards, the backbone of the game comes in the Off-Road Masters mode with 60 separate events spread over various race styles,  Lap Race and Circuit Race join the aforementioned Time Attack and there’s also Championships and Head to Head races in special events against the best racers (complete with an intro and some back story) for each discipline including Circuit racing, Wild Rush, Speed Cross and Cross Country.

The set-up is very approachable, easy to understand and well presented. Without winning a race you can still get two stars and with only 120 out of 180 required to unlock the final challenge you shouldn’t have too much trouble progressing.

The core racing is thankfully well balanced and while AI is competitive, any rubber banding is kept to a minimum, get in front and driving well will keep you there, but don’t expect it to be quite as simple, AI car’s will generally try to avoid you, but if you’re in their way they’re not going to hesitate to fight for position even if it means smashing you against a wall.  It’s what arcade games should offer, afterall if I wanted perfect racing lines and clean corners we’d only ever talk about Forza.

Races range quite drastically, from tight circuits to wide-open cross country events and the surroundings differ accordingly, it’s all very believable but there’s a few issues which bring things crashing back down to earth.

As I mentioned earlier, the commentary just feels a little too clean and crisp, there’s no attitude or emotion and it doesn’t carry well with the darker Gravel TV image, during race’s there’s a few other contradictions that started to grate, Car’s can drive miles across the desert and come out looking fresh from the showroom, but a muddy american circuit will see them caked in dirt with barely a puddle gone by, car damage is also kept to a minimum which is disappointing, I’d rather push my wreck over the finish line than take a life-threatening tumble and drive off like I’ve just left a car wash.

Another area of improvement would be the weather effects, they look good, very good in fact and while not blockbuster standards I found more than enough reasons to use the camera mode to capture wallpaper worthy screenshots of the action. However one race in particular stood out, the sky was black, rain falling like a hurricane and the headlights looks fantastic approaching through the mist, but to raise visibility I decided to use an internal camera showing just the screen and bonnet, as the wiper blades flashed back and forth, I noticed there wasn’t a single rain-drop hit the screen, no rain effects at all other than what soon started to feel like a very fake hollywood blanket of rainfall in front of the external cameras.

It’s certainly not perfect, not by a long shot, but until we get Codemasters OnRush in the Summer it’s a welcome stop gap in the world of Arcade off-road racing, it’s just a shame that a little more attention wasn’t given to those issues mentioned above.

As mentioned I really enjoyed the overall graphical style, watching a reply would time and time again produce photo realistic action shots and the sound effects and music sit considerably higher than the lousy narration.  It’s disappointing to find so many contradictions which seem more like developer oversight than intentional decisions, but these little things soon add up, thankfully there’s still plenty of positives to highlight.

Overall presentation was impressive, both with the action, TV style overviews and even the menu layout and while cornering was great and the varied race styles kept it from feeling too repetitive much of the racing seems to rely on regular jumps to keep the action ticking over, Annoyances aside, Gravel has enough to keep you going for weeks and the Weekly Challenges throw new tasks your way, Multiplayer could have done with a little more attention rather than just single race events, but the controls, challenge, range of vehicles and locations all go some way to improving my opinion of Gravel.

Racing feels light giving a very loose arcade feel, almost similar to Sega Rally or FlatOut meaning drifting round long corners wouldn’t take much practice allowing you to fight for position much easier, I just wish the cars looked like they’d been in such a battle.

Arcade racing controls are always tough to call as many people would prefer them more realistic, heavier or even more twitch responsive, but for me Gravel felt good in the hands.

Ultimately it’s tough to be too positive when there’s regular contradictions and the control style won’t please everyone, but gone are the glory days of Blur, Split Second, Midnight Club and Need for Speed Underground so if you’re looking for an accessible and fun Arcade experience then Gravel is well worth a look

(all images captured in-game using Xbox DVR)
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