Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Review copy supplied free of charge by the publisher.
Milestone have been around for years, quietly pumping out a variety of racing games that have rarely amazed but have clearly found themselves small audiences. Now, though, Milestone are back with another original IP and while it’s unlikely Gravel is going to be competing with the big boys of the genre it’s a surprisingly robust and enjoyable arcade racer that revels in letting you scream around corners.
But to get to that good stuff you’ve first got to deal with the presentation which feels like it took note of the DiRT franchise’s foray into “extreme!” and pitches itself as some sort of TV show named Gravel presenting the Off-Road Masters races. At the start of events, you’ll be subjected to a thankfully skippable chunk of commentary from the show’s presenter, and there are even FMV sequences involving over-the-top personalities who you’ll get to face-off against throughout your career, almost like boss stages. To be fair to Milestone their career mode is straightforward and bland in the sense that you earn stars for completing events which in turn unlock more events, so it feels like they attempted to use the Gravel TV show concept to spice things up, but it comes across as hokey, and not in a particularly fun way, despite some knowingly cheesy intros. Still, I have to admit that a lot of people will likely enjoy the schlocky styling. It’s a deliberate design choice, but one that just didn’t click with me.
Ignore that weird stab at American “extreme!” TV and you’ve got a solid racer here that feels like a nostalgic look back at the glory days of racing where being realistic just wasn’t much of a thing. The handling is focused firmly on arcadey goodness as you can fling cars into bends at high speed and happily slide around them with liberal use of the throttle, brake and steering. It actually reminds me of playing Saga Rally in the arcade back in the day as there’s a sort of lightness to the cars as they slide across mud and sand, but it’s nicely balanced so that they still have a sense of weight when the tires dig in, especially the larger trucks. Meanwhile different surfaces alter the handling to a nice degree. I was especially fond of the snow-covered tracks because they allow for even more sliding goodness.
While the cars are all licensed the tracks themselves are purely fictional and Milestone have used this to their advantage to craft a bunch of awesome places to races. Rolling beaches, lush jungles, and desert dunes are all included and almost all of them are a pleasure to race on, mixing nice wide areas where you can just hold the throttle with tighter, trickier areas. In total, you get sixteen locations to play on, but each one has several track variations which bumps up the available track amount up by a good bit. it’s just a shame that Milestone didn’t get a bit more nuts with their designs. It seems they still wanted a degree of realism to their game, even though there is also the occasional insane jump. I just feel as though they could have committed a bit more to the arcade feel in their track designs.
It all comes together in one lovely driving package that doesn’t completely sacrifice depth, either, as it still takes a bit of skill to pilot your machine to victory once all the driver aids are turned off. Sure, the way the cars handle encourages you to powerslide around corners and abuse the handbrake, but it’s also typically slower to do so unless you really nail the angles. There’s a biting point where you angle too much and the car suddenly grips again that can really throw you off.
The A.I. racers don’t really take advantage of that like they should, though. It isn’t that they aren’t fast, but what you might initially perceive as aggression reveals itself to be more of a desire to adhere to the racing line. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if they even know you exist, so unable are they to make overtaking moves off the line.
Rewarding your manic driving style is the points system. Sliding, leaping and speeding all shower you in Style points that will, in turn, unlock more of the vehicles on offer so that you can gain even more points. These points can be chained together, too, so a nice drift into a leap will net you more than normal. I don’t know exactly why but it pleases the soul to get so liberally showered with points for driving like a nutcase rather than necessarily taking the best lines. Sure, you can hit the apexes, but why bother with that when you can powerslide around the entire corner like a boss? Slower? Yeah. More awesome? Oh, yes.
Throughout the career mode you get to bounce, slide and barge your way through a few different event types in a solid selection of machinery ranging from Suburu Imprezza’s to chunky trophy trucks that boast enough horsepower to keep Jeremy Clarkson amused. Circuit racing and checkpoint races make up the majority of your time along with stuff like solo time trials and elimination races, but Gravel does take an intriguing stab at a wholly original game mode where you have to crash through checkpoints that spin like a slot machine as you approach them; hit a red cross and you get slowed down, hit a green checkmark and you can speed through. The novelty factor the first couple of times makes it sort of fun, but after that, this is a horrible mode which delights in making you take awkward lines.
Outside of the career you can embark on any race you fancy, or you can head online to make use of the standard multiplayer modes, plus a couple of bonuses in the form of Capture the Flag and a cool take on King of the Hill called King’s Rush where you attempt to avoid getting hit. The only let-down is that there are no local split-screen modes which would have been awesome with Capture the Flag and King’s Rush. Aside from that the online side of things is a lot of fun and I didn’t experience any major connection issues. Only time will tell if it can maintain a decent player base, though.
There are also daily challenges that toss you onto a specific track with a pre-selected car, and beating the given time results in some bonus Style points. It’s a nice idea, but the Style point rewards could be a problem since they aren’t hard to get anyway and there’s a very finite amount of stuff to unlock. Still, it’s nice to have a challenge to log-in to each day.
Milestone has never created what you might call visually impressive games, a symptom of their limited budget, and Gravel doesn’t buck the trend. It’s a bright, colorful game with a few nice vistas, but everything looks like it’s very slightly out of focus, a blurring of everything that you get used to but that is still a tad annoying. This does at least somewhat hide the very basic textures that don’t really do justice to some of the classic rally machines on offer like the Lancia Stratos. Of course, this is on the standard Xbox One, so I can’t comment on the PC version or of any improvements on the Xbox One X.
The audio can be a bit rough around the edges, too. The vehicles themselves sound okay for the most part and there’s a generic rock soundtrack that does a good enough job of matching the on-screen action, but the noise of certain terrain just sounds off, such as water which just sounds…odd. Overall it’s a mixed bag.
But the graphics and audio are secondary to the gameplay, and I think in that regard Gravel does very, very well. The fact that we have the technology now to create realistic driving simulations is fantastic and has led to some superb games, but it has also meant that the classic arcade racer has faded away, so it’s nice to see Milestone giving it a whirl and doing extremely well at it. If you’re looking for some arcade thrills, give Gravel a go.