Gravel Review — A Pretty Off-Road Racing Game that Misses its Potential
Developer Milestone's Gravel for PC, PS4, and Xbox One may not meet its potential, but it's hard not to have fun in the arcade racer.
Developer Milestone is a really well-known within the racing game community, but they usually stick to the more realistic simulation portion of the genre with games like Ride 2 and MotoGP 17. The racing genre is quite diverse though, spanning from the aforementioned simulation titles to more arcadey ones like Blur and Split/Second, which I tend to prefer. That’s why I was happy to see the studio tackle something different with Gravel, a more arcade-inspired off-road racing game centered around a fake TV show in Unreal Engine 4.
While this gamble for Milestone does pay off in some respect, especially when they take advantage of the power of Unreal Engine 4, they unfortunately didn’t embrace Gravel’s premise as much as they could’ve. This results in a technically solid game that, while very fun at first, can start to feel bland as it fails to embrace its full potential.
As I mentioned before, the main hook of Gravel is that it follows the player’s journey throughout a new season of a fake racing TV show on a fake network called Gravel Channel. This is most prevalent in the game’s main single-player mode Off-Road Masters, which is split up into multiple episodes that consist of multiple mini-challenges that you need to score enough stars in so you can progress.
These can be your typical lap and checkpoint races that have you driving through environments from around the world, time trials to see how fast you can complete a track, elimination races where the driver in last place is taken out every twenty seconds or so, and Smash-Up, where players must bust through check-marked signs on tracks while avoiding ones with Xs on them. These races are also split into four different disciplines: Cross Country, Wild Rush, Stadium and Speed Cross, all of which impact the location and layout of the track in slightly different ways.
After every few episodes are completed, players must take on the master of one of the disciplines in a series of one-on-one races. These masters are actually the real-life racers Scott Parker, Ryan Carter, James Wantanabe, and Justin Evans, giving Gravel’s world some authenticity. While Off-Road Masters does give the game a nice chunk of single-player content to sink their teeth into, I never felt like it embraced the TV show aspect enough.
While there is a Show Points system that encourages taking advantage of drifting and reaching high speeds, that only applies to leveling up one’s character to unlock cars and liveries, so the TV theme never really influences the gameplay in a noticeable way like it did in something like Split/Second, which had a somewhat similar premise. The show’s announcer also speaks in an unenthusiastic monotone way, which would take me out of the experience when he was supposed to be hyping me up.
I like that Milestone attempted to do something more original with the television premise instead of the normal Season Mode, but they don’t take advantage of it enough. This leaves the meat of the single-player portion of the game feeling unfulfilling, as it can’t decide if wants to embrace the more arcadey spin the TV show theme can bring, or just use it as a new way to present a simulation game.
The gameplay also mixes the two, with decent results. The controls aren’t as technical or precise as some more hardcore racing games but can be heavily tweaked and customized in order to be comfortable for experienced players to use. There is also an emphasis on high speeds and drifting at many points, but bringing in the more technical knowledge from the genre will also help players. I found the controls to be enjoyable for off-road racing, albeit somewhat simple. Sadly, the physics can sometimes be inconsistent.
After some collisions, with both the environment and other racers, my car would be tossed and flipped around in a cartoonish way; sometimes, it even flipped on its side from what seemed like nothing. This may have been done to give the game a more arcade-like feel, but the rest of the controls don’t justify the sometimes wacky results. Fortunately, Gravel’s rewind system, a staple in many racing games, does allow you to easily correct these weird physics kinks, but it still breaks the pace and cause you to give up points nonetheless.
Outside of Off-Road Masters, Gravel boasts Free Race, which just lets you race on tracks unlocked in the main mode, and Time Attack, which just contains leaderboards for time trial versions of every track. There are also weekly challenges, the first of which has players beating the developers’ time on a Namibia track, that players can partake in a get themselves placed on worldwide leaderboards.
These side modes are good for killing some time in, but they are typical of the genre and don’t offer anything too special, which makes the whole package feel a bit lacking. If you aren’t interested in those, you only have Off-Road Masters to rely on for entertainment; otherwise, you’ll have to turn to online, which is actually quite fun.
Online matches run smoothly and can be typical races or a unique capture the flag mode. Of course, racing real people is more entertaining them taking on the AI, and Capture the Flag takes advantage of some of the game’s better-looking areas. Players drive around a large circular map in order to collect a flag and return it to their home base. Capture the Flag is where Milestone captured a more arcadey feeling the best, as the non-linearity justifies the drifting and less-realistic aspects of the game.
Gravel also looks great, taking full advantage of Unreal Engine 4. While the occasional shrubbery will pop-in, it is hardly noticeable unless you look for it. Locations from Alaska to Africa are all realized colorfully and vibrant, and have a very dynamic and natural look and feel to them. The rain and snow effects also looked good, and have a noticeable impact on control. Milestone has seemed to have gotten the hang of Unreal Engine 4, so I can’t wait to see them take advantage of it more in future games.
While Gravel looks good and plays well, it suffers from never deciding whether it wants to be a simulation game or and off-road arcadey racer. Because the game never reaches its full potential its premise holds, it just ends up as a somewhat forgettable racing game that changes too much to be a great offroading simulation experience and is not zany enough to compete with the more arcadey competition.
If you are a huge racing game fan that is interested in what the game is trying to do, it may be worth checking out, as it’s not a poorly-made game. Otherwise, I’d wait for a price drop before adding this to your collection. Gravel does have a lot of room to expand for a sequel, so I do hope Milestone gives this type of racing game another stab with more memorable results.