Gravel review - Team VVV

Reviews Gravel review

Reviews

Kevin Dooley

News Editor

Posted on

Game: Gravel

Platform: PC, PS4, XBox One

Publisher: Milestone S.r.l, Square Enix Co.

Release Date: 27/02/2018

2017 was a ground-breaking year the racing genre thanks to the high-profile releases of Gran Turismo Sport, Forza Motorsport 7, and Project CARS 2. Throw in the likes of F1 2017, WRC 7, and MotoGP 17, and you have a distinct bias towards simulation-focused titles, leaving arcade racing fans out in the cold.

If 2017 was the year of simulation racing titles, 2018 is the year of the arcade racer. The Crew 2, V-Rally 4, Wreckfest, and Onrush are all releasing this year, but the first arcade racer of the year has already flown out of the nest: Milestone’s new off-road IP, Gravel.

Gravel promises a return to the old-school racing scene and aims to be a fast-paced and fun arcade racer inspired by classics such as Sega Rally. Does Gravel set the bar high for the upcoming onrush of arcade racing titles to match, or is it left spinning its wheels in the gravel trap?

Channel your inner racer

The off-road racer centers around the fictional “Gravel Channel,” which comes complete with a British commentator who can be heard in between events adding the usual cheesy one-liners you’re either going to love or hate.

The single-player career sees you take part in numerous “episodes” much like Split/Second, each consisting of several events.

In keeping with the traditional racing formula, you must obtain the required amount of stars to unlock further episodes. Gravel is fairly generous in this area; you’ll typically earn one star for simply completing an event, with three reserved for finishing first (although sometimes a top three finish is sufficient).

Gravel Stadium Circuit Trophy Truck Racing

Once you’ve completed a few episodes, you’ll face off against the discipline master across several events, which require you to finish first each time. This is repeated until you have taken down all four masters leaving the final showdown with the Off-Road Master Champion.

Gravel’s events are split across the following four disciplines: Wild Rush, Stadium Circuit, Speed Cross, and Cross Country. Wild Rush is your typical multi-lap race, while Cross Country sees you racing from point A to B. Stadium Circuit events take place in outdoor stadiums with tight and technical circuits, including some cross-over tracks. Finally, Rallycross races, which take place on real-world rallycross circuits no less, can be found under the Speed Cross moniker.

Playing through the career earns you show points allowing you to level up, unlocking additional vehicles and liveries in the process. This is essential, as you’ll initially only have access to one vehicle for each of Gravel’s four disciplines. Show points can be earned based on your finishing position, how many assists you have turned on, and AI difficulty. That’s not all though: you can also rack up show points during events by sliding sideways, completing jumps, and maintaining a high speed.

Admittedly, the career mode in Gravel isn’t massive in scope – you could probably complete the game in a weekend. However, this is largely forgivable simply because Gravel is such a blast to play. Indeed, when I was close to finishing the campaign I was already looking forward to playing it through a second time, which is always a good sign.

Rally rather impressive

Without a doubt, one of Gravel’s strongest aspects is its impressive mix of real-world off-road vehicles that clock in close to the fifty mark. Vehicles range from insanely fast rallycross pocket rockets to big and beefy trophy trucks.

There really seems to be something for everyone: classic rally fans are well catered for with iconic cars like the Lancia Delta S4, Ford RS200, Porsche 911 RSR Rallye, and Renault R5 Maxi Turbo.

Gravel Rallycross Rain Toyota 86 Alpine A110

Elsewhere, more modern classics like the Toyota Celica, Subaru Impreza, and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VI are all available, as is the tail-happy Escort RS 1800 Mk II along with the Abarth 131 Rally, and Alpine A110, which should satisfy the older generation. Throw in over a dozen tricked out SUVs and Gravel offers an eclectic and excellent mix of off-road vehicles.

However, as good as the selection is the vehicle models and textures leave a lot to be desired and look decidedly dated compared to other recent racing game releases. Vehicle interiors, on the other hand, are sufficiently detailed but don’t expect anything genre-defining.

Throwing around Gravel’s many vehicle types feels satisfying and exciting. Although it’s firmly an arcade racer, vehicles have a tangible sense of weight and bounce off their suspension believably. There’s a surprising amount of depth to the vehicle physics that makes playing Gravel intuitive and fun. Add to the mix the very decent force feedback, (should you be playing with a racing wheel, which is strongly recommended) and Gravel sets the bar high for other arcade racers to follow.

Rallycross cars feel nimble and excitable. By comparison, Trophy Trucks, are heavy and require finesse; rally cars love to get sideways, and SUVs require you to drive them hard to maintain momentum. All vehicle classes feel different from one another and are generally a joy to drive once you’re used to them.

If you happen to have a particularly heavy crash while driving your favourite off-road dream machine, you will witness Gravel’s damage system in action. Body panels and trim deform, and if you are unlucky enough you can damage your steering and engine performance. The former will send your vehicle veering in one direction, whereas the latter impedes the vehicle’s speed, which is accompanied by a constant knocking sound.

Sadly, the damage model found in Gravel never impacts the racing as much as it should. It’s largely a minor inconvenience and doesn’t truly alter the outcome of an event, which feels like a missed opportunity.

Gravel trap

Vehicle sounds in Gravel vary from decent to poor depending on your choice. For example, rallycross cars tend to sound weak, while trophy trucks sound reasonably aggressive. Rally cars generally fare much better in the sound department. That said, they won’t be giving top sounding racing games a run for their money, but are decent enough to have fun with.

As a general rule, most vehicles sound weaker from the cockpit and dashboard viewpoints. As someone who regularly uses interior views, this is disappointing. However, switching to the bonnet camera offers a happy medium. Not only do vehicles sound better, but you also gain a greater sense of speed.

Much like the vehicle sounds, Gravel’s visuals vary dramatically. In Alaska, you’ll see foliage constantly fading in as well as small rocks popping into existence. The lighting on the distant Alaskan mountains also looks flat. However, take on the same environment at night and in rainy conditions, and things look altogether more impressive: rain lashes down obscuring your view somewhat, puddles reflect the now lit checkpoint markers, and the blindingly bright turn chevrons light up the surroundings, making for some impressive visual effects.

The location of Namibia throws up some nice visual touches, too. The endless sand dunes are occasionally punctured by pools of water surrounded by trees. There are some interesting rock formations too, which are surprisingly well detailed. The desert environment fares less well at night where the ground texture’s lack of detail is exacerbated, though.

The white sandy beaches of Blue Paradise also suffer at night but look reasonably good during the day. The outback environments throw up some interesting locales but ultimately would have benefited from higher resolution textures. Conversely, the Outback looks more visually interesting at night: the environment felt moody and atmospheric and looking back at your opponents as they give chase, illuminating the surroundings as they go, makes for some pleasant and impressive moments.

Gravel Evening Racing Volkswagen Rallycross Car

Elsewhere, the snowy environment of Monte Blanc provides a nice change of scenery. Vehicles throw up clouds of white snow dust and even black ice for an interesting effect. Reflective ground ice and falling snow also showcase some of Gravel’s finest visual moments.

The right side of fifty

Gravel features five country locations, including two outdoor stadium circuits and an impressive tally of nine rallycross tracks for a grand total of 51 track configurations. The Cross Country locations of Alaska and Namibia see you driving through caves, jumping over streams, and racing over bridges, as well as taking on dunes, negotiating ridiculously large jumps, and driving under beached shipwrecks.

The Wild Rush locations are just as fun and interesting; you’ll race over white sandy beaches and head into forest areas at the awkwardly named Paradise Pacific Ocean location. Giant quarries await in the very dusty Iron Mine Outback location set in Australia (of course), then there’s the icy cold Frozen Peak Mont Blanc location which will see you holding a drift as you race among the snowy mountains. Wherever you choose to race, Gravel’s larger environments offer just enough interesting geological features, obstacles, or environmental details to keep things interesting.

The two outdoor stadium circuits set in the US (Florida and Los Angeles) feature five different circuit configurations. These circuits are tight and technical and will see you trading paint with your opponents as you squeeze through any open gaps. The framerate occasionally dips in these outdoor stadiums, but this is less common since the post-release patches were deployed.

Gravel represents its rallycross discipline (referred to as Speed Cross) through an impressive total of nine real-world circuits, some of which you may remember from Milestone’s underrated rally racer Sebastien Loeb Rally EVO.

To keep the rallycross action simple, Milestone has done away with the “Joker Lap”, and that’s no bad thing in a fast-paced arcade racer such as Gravel. As you can imagine, throwing various vehicles around the fast-paced rallycross tracks is a delight.

Tuff opposition

At no point playing Gravel did I encounter any obvious “rubber banding” (where AI vehicles get an artificial boost to keep the racing action close), or feel cheated in any way. The AI does not stick religiously to pre-determined paths either; you will see the odd CPU-controlled car hit an obstacle every so often, which can result in some truly spectacular crashes that will have you laughing out loud.

Gravel Wild Rush Splash Ford Rallycross

The AI in Gravel provides ample challenge. Apart from the odd event, playing in medium difficulty feels challenging enough without becoming too hard and frustrating.

Online, players can vote on the upcoming event from a selection of eight, which refresh over time. Along with events you’ve seen in the career mode, you also have capture the flag and king run events (exclusive to the online component). The latter sees you hitting the current “king” to steal the crown with points dished out for holding the prized possession.

As expected, the online experience is not quite as smooth as the single-player. That said, it still provides a fun experience and racing against human players elevates the fun factor. Sadly, player numbers are very low, so you may need to go out of your way to get some online action. A lobby system would have also been a very welcome addition.

To keep the action fresh, Gravel features weekly challenges with a specific objective to complete using a provided vehicle and track. Completing the objective will net you show point rewards. Sadly the number of show points are surprisingly low given the general difficulty of these objectives – ideally, the prize should be multiplied by a factor of five.

Besides the game modes mentioned above, Gravel also has a free race mode allowing you to visit any one of the title’s tracks – assuming you’ve unlocked them via the career mode. There’s also the time attack mode where you race against the clock. Here your times will be added to the leaderboards for bragging rights. Sadly, once you’ve completed a hot lap and given a time you are not able to see where you stack up until you reselect the location, which is slightly annoying.

Granted, Gravel has some rough edges such as poor vehicle models and inconsistent visuals and audio. However, playing through the career mode is an absolute joy. Just when you think you’ve seen everything the game has to offer, Gravel throws in a new location, weather condition or vehicle class combination to keep you on your toes and keep the action fresh.

Gravel may be inspired by old-school arcade racers from the 90’s, but it certainly has a place in today’s market. The in-depth physics model, coupled with the impressive wheel support with superb force feedback sets a new standard in the arcade racing genre for other developers to match. Gravel is one of the most fun racers of this generation and is worth a purchase if you crave an old-school racing experience, especially if you own a force feedback wheel. If however, you’re worried about the short career mode, it’s probably best to wait for a price drop.

Our Review

8 /10

The good

  • A blast to play with a wheel
  • Vehicle handling which moves the arcade genre forward
  • Varied track and vehicle selection

The bad

  • Short career mode
  • inconsistent audio and visuals
  • Poor vehicle models

Summary

Gravel may be inspired by old-school arcade racers from the 90’s, but it certainly has a place in today’s market. The in-depth physics model, coupled with the impressive wheel support with superb force feedback sets a new standard in the arcade racing genre for other developers to match. Gravel is one of the most fun racers of this generation and is worth a purchase if you crave an old-school racing experience, especially if you own a force feedback wheel. If however, you’re worried about the short career mode, it’s probably best to wait for a price drop.

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