In a world where racing has gotten a little stale, the Gravel Channel has been launched to liven up the spectacle and give viewers a wider variety of disciplines to gorge on. Taking the best drivers for each series, it’s head-to-head competition all the way as the battle to be crowned champion heats up. With a need to master different vehicles and event styles, the jack of all trades will be the hot favourite to win, but that means defeating the elite on their own turf… have you got what it takes to walk away with the trophy?
What happened to the arcade racing game? Over the last few years things have steered towards the a more simulation led gameplay and not left much in the way of a “pick up and play” action focussed racing experience. Go back a generation and we were inundated with them, so it’s good to see that the genre hasn’t disappeared completely. Milestone have developed Gravel – an off road racing game that mixes up styles, events and vehicles to give high speed, loose surface thrills. Think what would happen if Motorstorm, DiRT 2 and DriveClub were all thrown into a fuel tank to power a game, but on a slightly lower budget. Lots of cars, lots of tracks and lots of different disciplines to get to grips with means a game that offers up plenty, and manages to focus it so there’s progression and achievement all the way through as well.
The meat of Gravel is the career mode (called the Off-Road Masters) and is a mock TV show covering the international jaunts of the greatest drivers in the world as they travel from continent to continent to take part in all manner of extreme races. There are checkpoint races on wide open courses; stadium battles with opponents; time trials that need gates smashing through; track racing… they’re all familiar events that we’ve seen in other games, but rarely all in one place. Take Smash Up for example, it’s a spin on the time attack modes in the DiRT series, though Gravel takes it a step further and adds red crosses and green arrows to the gates that randomly spin up and decide which one has to be hit to maintain speed. Getting the wrong one slows the car down, and the decision on which gate is which isn’t made until about 50 m away. Getting the fastest time through the course takes some skill in learning the layout, and a fair dose of reaction time and luck with the random gates. It sits nicely in the arcade feel of the game and adds a different type of challenge to just going flat out to the end of a stage.
Not that the other modes get boring, the tracks have too much variety for that. From desert to snow to mud and over beaches, there’s a huge amount of different surfaces to get used to, and they all handle differently. These aren’t just standard point-to-point circuits either, they’re littered with obstacles and hazards to keep drivers on their toes and spice up the action. Jumps, water pools, trees, rocks and gates all add to the challenge and create a sense of hyper-realism where it’s clear you’re in real world locations in real cars, but are still doing something out of the ordinary. There’s a purpose to the objects in the way though, it’s to help build XP and level up. Increasing levels opens up new cars and liveries, and finishing races gives the points. Bonus points are earned by drifting, jumping, hitting top speed and various other actions during racing and are added to the final race score. Chain moves together and there’s a multiplier comes into affect to increase the reward, and then there’s a percentage increase depending on the level of difficulty in play. It sounds complicated yet just runs along in the background whilst encouraging more daring and visually spectacular driving.
It might be more arcade game than sim, but Gravel still has enough elements to give the hardcore a good time as well. It’s easy to toggle all the driving aids and set varying degrees of each so that the handling model can be tuned to each player; the AI can be altered on the fly; and there’s an option for a decent amount of tuning pre-race too. It’s not Project CARS 2 levels of car tweaking, but it’s more than a simple loose/stable slider. Not that on the lower difficulties there’ll be much adjustment needed – it’s possible to just jump straight in and have a blast without worrying if the differential is slowing the lap down by a couple of tenths. With some courses it’s also natural that there’s not really any changes needed. The compact stadium races in trophy trucks are a prime example because there’s not much time in the lap to make a huge difference, plus there’s a fair amount of agro going on between the drivers, so spending ages fine tuning the balance won’t stop the AI getting in the way or ramming the rear end of the truck. Damage is modelled and has an effect on the performance and handling, and as with all settings, it can be dialled back or turned up full based on preference. In fact preference is one of the key things about Gravel – it doesn’t force the player into going beyond their comfort zone, it’s very adaptable and accessible.
On the whole the presentation suits the type of game on offer, and the tracks themselves are nicely detailed if not 100% crisp. Things do run smoothly though with no tearing or slowdown, no matter what’s happening on screen. The use of the day/night cycle and weather conditions come into their own during the later events, and there’s photo mode on hand to capture anything that looks particularly impressive. There are other nice touches like progression locked behind a “boss” to beat in order to carry on, and that all the key drivers are proper video capture rather than faceless entities (it does make me wonder if they’re some of the dev team). Milestone’s skill however, remains in the handling of the different vehicle types, and they’ve really managed to make them distinct and enjoyable. There’s no ultra realistic road holding here, there’s just fling it into the corner and hope it sticks action, and most of the time it’s satisfying. With real world off road vehicles on offer it’s not difficult to find a favourite, and some events will need experimentation with which car works best – the most powerful is not always going to be the fastest because the track surface has a huge influence.
Gravel isn’t a AAA title though, and the lower budget stands out in a couple of places. There are some liveries that are familiar, but the developer lacks the the license clout to get the branding approval. Music is extremely generic, and even though the menu sound is perfunctory, the in-game is probably best turned down. The host of the show that appears in voice over form is the exact opposite of what’s needed to build excitement and intrigue for the race. It’s probably happened during localisation, but it stands out as being weak, and oddly sort of disappears after the first third of the game. Then there’s the career menu that has the cursor default to the current set of events, but the display decides to fixate on things halfway up the table and locked out – it’s weird, disorienting, and completely unnecessary. It’s also tricky to tell if the online matchmaking is broken or just that no one’s playing it. For all the attempts made to get in a race, I’ve not managed to get past the initial lobby. That will severely impact the longevity of the game, and even though there are weekly challenges that will definitely test your skills (and add a huge dose of XP when completed), if there’s no multiplayer community I can see it getting cast aside when the main campaign is complete.
For the faults though, Gravel is a competent arcade racer that does genuinely offer up a lot of enjoyable driving. There’s more variety in it than it looks on the surface, and it’s easy to set the right balance between having a challenge and avoiding frustration. Sliding through mud and leaping across streams at full speed is just plain fun, and barging through other opponents to take a win in the last 200 metres can be exhilarating after a hard fought battle. It also stands on its own in the genre at the moment, there isn’t anything else like it on console that I can think of, and that makes it an interesting proposition. If you’re looking for a racing game that’s easy to pick up and play then Gravel is one to consider, there’s hours of sideways action with a floored accelerator to be had.
A PS4 review copy of Gravel was provided by Milestone’s PR team, and the game is available now on PC, Xbox One, PS4 for around £45.