Over recent years, Milestone has been focused on motorcycling games and the studio has built up a fair scuderia of titles. Out of the last dozen or so titles, only one of those games has featured vehicles with more than two wheels, so it's a bold move for the studio to introduce a new IP running with four wheels in place of two. Gravel
builds on the studio's gaming strengths and experience mixing mud-based circuits, off-roading, and rallycross. The question is, in the world of Gravel
, are four wheels better than two?
The storyline, if it could be considered one, positions the game as a Motorsports TV broadcast dedicated to offroad racing called "Gravel Channel," covering a series of races. It's neither a league nor a career. In fact, it is simply episodes of races that the player can work through.. Additionally, the player will unlock special races against "Offroad Masters" — superstars in a particular area of off-road racing — and will go head-to-head with these fictional characters.
It's a simple premise, perhaps a little too simple, as unlocking race after race does not have that feeling of reward and ultimate progression. However, it also allows a certain degree of freedom, as the player can choose any of the episodes and even attempt the head-to-head races, as long as the criteria for unlocking the episodes have been met. Those criteria, for the most part, come in the form of stars. Each race awards a maximum of three, usually for winning outright or setting the fastest time. Amass enough stars and further episodes unlock. Luckily, amassing those stars is where all of the fun is to be had.
After a period in which racing titles have striven for realism or semi-realism, it's refreshing that Milestone has gone for an all-out arcade racing game albeit with a slightly more serious tone. There's a multitude of off-road vehicles from which to choose, all from recognized manufacturers, such as Toyota, Mitsubishi, Abarth and even Porsche, and for those looking for a little cosmetic flair, there are multiple liveries for each of the cars. Along with recognized cars, there are recognized liveries and sponsors, and car settings can be tweaked for players who want to try and squeeze a little more performance out of each vehicle. The actual race events are stripped down versions of races you might find in Forza Horizon
, The Crew
, or NFS
, but here it is pure racing. There are no tales of revenge and payback, or festivals to arrange, and no cliched Hollywood storylines or wanton destruction or insanity. There are no distractions or diversions whatsoever. This is a title that distills the off-road races from other titles and leaves everything else out. It is about out-and-out racing, albeit with arcade handling.
It works well too, with the cars behaving predictably if not altogether realistically across the various off-road surfaces. It's true that on occasions, the physics model will throw up something unexpected, but for the rest, it delivers an intense racing experience where players can easily perform impressive powerslides and drifts on all of the loose surfaces. There is a good mix of real world rallycross circuits, fictional stadium locations and fictional checkpoint races across vast areas of Namibia, Alaska, and the fictional island of Blue Paradise. There are canyon races in an old mining quarry and perilous short circuit races at Frozen Peak on Mont Blanc. Surfaces range from loose gravel to frozen lakes, beaches, deserts, and Milestone's favorite, mud tracks.
Although there are no transitions during racing, events will take place at different times of the day and during some very different weather conditions. Add into the mix the loose and bumpy surfaces, it can be a challenge to keep up the pace while racing. Luckily, the seven AI opponents also struggle and play pretty fairly. They're not overly aggressive, although contact is inevitable in such a race, and will continue to make mistakes even at higher levels. For once, you never feel like the AI is cheating or has supernatural driving skills, and with a number of different AI settings, every level of driver is accommodated by the title.
During each race, various driving actions will reward the player with race points which eventually level up the player, unlocking more cars and liveries. It encourages players to aim for bigger jumps and slides, and a few other risky maneuvers. Although, the risk is more to do with losing places than damaging the car which seems almost indestructible. The damage model is limited; you may find yourself completing races with offset steering or a slight loss of power, but totaling a vehicle despite spectacular crashes never seemed possible.
Along with circuit racing and the longer checkpoint races, the game introduces a unique event called "Smash-Up," a sort of slalom race with boards that the player is expected to drive through. The only catch is that the face of the board rotates like a wheel on a slot machine, randomly changing to let you through or delay you, and trying to adjust your car at the last moment to make the gate on the loose surface can become frustrating quickly. Single player also provides Time Attack mode, weekly challenges in which the courses and vehicles are locked and Free Race in which players can select their own course, however, the tracks have to be unlocked in the central game mode before they can be selected.
Graphically, the game is a mixed bag. Milestone's expertise in the creation of mud and dirt tracks is clear to see with the stadium circuits looking the best. The wet muddy tracks glisten in the sun and deform as vehicle wheels tear at the surface. Unfortunately, on the larger scale tracks outside of the stadiums, we start to see issues with the UE4 engine. There's a clear line where the draw distance begins with detailed textures springing into view at a clear boundary. The vehicles themselves seem to suffer the same paint problem seen in other Milestone titles, where everything seems to be painted in watercolors with a sort of blurry effect. However, the overall environmental effects, the water, sunsets, sunrises, and reflections are all very nicely done. The rain was exceptionally good and provided the most torrential rainfall ever encountered in a racing title, and the snow too was fairly convincing.
Happily, for the most part, the performance issues seen in the recent Monster Energy Supercross - The Official Videogame
, seem to have been resolved at least for the most part. However, in one particular course, the game seemed to freeze for so long, I was beginning to think that it had locked up totally. Overall, as always with Milestone, the menus and general presentation could do with a little polish. The audio fares a little better, with a rock soundtrack perfectly befitting any real-life motorsports broadcaster and the engine sounds being sufficiently loud especially when surrounded by multiple vehicles.
Online offers the same point-to-point races with up to eight players being able to race against each other. When the lobbies are not full, any spare slots will be taken up by AI drivers which ensures that you always have a full race. Additionally, there's a tag game mode and a variant of capture the flag. Just as in single player, the racing remains fun and intense.
The achievements are relatively straightforward with the majority of the 30 being attainable through single player and only two requiring online play. Most will be unlocked on playing through the races in the campaign although unlocking all of the liveries will take some grinding as they are only unlocked by reaching a high rank or level.
As always, it's worth noting that there are no loot boxes or microtransactions in the title at the time of review. A season pass is available which currently brings additional Porsche cars to the title, and reading between the lines in the achievements, it's reasonable to expect more cars and perhaps more tracks in the future.Check out our Best Xbox Arcade Racing Games Available in 2018 article for a compilation of other great games in this genre.
attempts to create a full arcade racer with a serious side. It feels like a welcome amalgamation of a number of familiar arcade titles, distilling the racing elements and doing away with distractions and diversions. While this allows the player to jump into race after race after race, it makes it feel one-dimensional at times. However, the arcade racing is certainly fun and engaging, and it's fully adaptable to any racing level. Fans of old-school racing games should certainly enjoy Gravel
. Milestone has created something that's been missing in the genre, and though imperfect, it's a good start to what may be a new recurring franchise.
- Simple fun arcade racing title
- Intense old-school racing
- Balanced and fair AI providing a challenge to all player levels
- Feels very one dimensional
- The presentation is a little unpolished in places
The reviewer spent around 13 hours scrambling through mud, dirt and other loose surfaces. 24 out of 30 achievements were unlocked. The download code was provided by the publisher for the sake of review. The game was reviewed on the standard Xbox One.
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