Middle of the off-road
Self-proclaimed ‘definitive off-road challenge’ – Gravel – is the latest title from Milestone, the powerhouse behind the MXGP, Ride, WRC and Moto GP series. With a roster of games such as that under their belt you’d expect Gravel to be a surefire hit, wouldn’t you? Well…
When you first jump into Gravel you’ll be transported straight back to the early 00’s, assuming you’re old enough to remember those. The grungey logo matched with the opening metal music, which bears a slight resemblance to Burnout 2’s theme music, is enough to tickle the nostalgias of any 90’s kid and sets the tone perfectly for what’s to follow. Gravel is the pure definition of teenage angst – it’s moody, doesn’t say a lot but manages to find enjoyment in its simplicity.
Gravel is a game that doesn’t hold back when it comes to its content, offering a full campaign, free play racing, time trials, weekly challenges and an online mode. Gravel’s campaign – Off-road Masters – is a series of interlinked episodes, comprised of racing events, under the guise of a TV show with the same name. Each episode of Off-road Masters is aired on the less than inventively titled ‘Gravel Channel’ which serves a purpose to offer up a loose narrative to your activities within the game. Each event is prefixed with overly enthusiastic, but stereotypically true, race-style commentary in an attempt to gee you up for the race. It’s cheesy, sure, but given its due, it’s a nice feature that suites the game’s vibe and certainly adds a bit of something to an otherwise stale start to the race.
The main goal of Gravel’s campaign is to collect stars which are needed to progress further through the game. Complete each event with varied success and you’ll receive a reflective number of stars with 1 being awarded for simply completing the event, 2 stars for being a bit better and 3 for being the best. During the first few episodes, the game is fairly lenient when it comes to doling out the stars. Finishing an event in any pole position will get you 3 stars but as you progress further through the campaign you’ll need to come first in order to claim an event’s greatest reward. Once you’ve collected a small handful of stars you’ll be able to start playing the next episode, regardless of whether you’ve finished the previous one or not, and once you’ve got mega star bucks in your star purse you’ll be able to take on one of the masters.
The masters in Gravel’s campaign are kind of like pro-racer minibosses, each of which with their own specialism in certain types of events or racing environments. The ultimate aim of the campaign is to beat each master and claim their title’s as your own. To do this you’ll need to take part in a handful of 1-on-1 events which must be won in order to claim the coveted title for yourself. At the start of each showdown you’re treated to an FMV of the showdown master and, as you’d expect, it’s cringe-levels to the max. One chap jumps in the air whilst playing air guitar. Really. Fortunately, he’s the first master and can be dealt with fairly swiftly and the following masters tend to just stand there with gurning looks on their faces to project a sense of higher importance.
The events themselves come in a variety of flavours, all of which will be familiar to racing game regulars: standard lap, checkpoint & elimination races are joined by time trials and championships (a collection of all the aforementioned with points carrying over to each round). There’s not a huge amount of originality here save for one game mode called ‘Smash-up’ which has you driving through dynamically changing signs at high speeds, but if it ain’t broken don’t fix it. The game’s events are spread across a mixture of locales including beaches, forests, stadiums, caves, tarmac tracks and quarries, each of which has its own quirks. The more spacious tracks allow you to push for speed whereas the closer knit tracks require more control and finesse. You’ll also be racing at different times of day and during different types of weather which adds a nice bit a variety when playing through the campaign.
Smash-up events are the standard point to point time trials with a slight difference. Walls of grey signs are strewn about the track and as you approach them they’ll turn on, revealing either a red cross or a green arrow. The aim is to hit the green arrows in order to maintain momentum as hitting a red cross will slow you down significantly. It’s both an interesting and infuriating game mode but nonetheless adds a much-needed injection of uniquity to the list of events.
Whilst the campaign is meaty enough to grab your attention for quite some time it’s no good if the actual racing part of the game doesn’t stand up to par. Fortunately, it does, mostly. One praise for Milestone is the inclusion of quite a robust list of gameplay options including tweaks for driving assists, AI difficulty and changes to vehicle’s handling. Driving assists can be enabled, limited or disabled completely and opting for the more difficult options will reward you with a score multiplier (another stat used for unlocking vehicles and liveries). Vehicle options work slightly differently, allowing you to tweak the suspension, tire alignment and all that under-the-hood gubbins. Each option also has a little pointer beneath it letting you know what tweaking a certain value will actually do, which is a nice addition. The two systems combined mean you can really tweak the driving style of game to your liking but it’ll more than likely take a few races to figure out what’s best for you.
But, even with the variety of options available the vehicle’s handling can be a tad sporadic. Most of the vehicle’s in the game feel weighty, naturally, and you’ll be spending the majority of the races battling to keep them inline. This is an arcade game but that doesn’t mean you can drift a truck around a corner at 120mph, there is an air of realism embedded in its roots. Weirdly, however, the vehicles feel both weighty and airy. They’re truly Schroedinger’s car. Occasionally you’ll find your vehicle flip into the air after hitting a small blemish on the track or if you clip a barrier at an awkward angle. This is most noticeable on the arena tracks where your truck will bounce around like it’s propped up by 4 space hoppers. It’s something that you ultimately get used to but it can be infuriating in the early hours of the game. Fortunately, the game features a rewind option that allows you to rectify any mistakes by literally rewinding the race back a few seconds. It’s a mechanic that has cropped up in quite a few racing games and it’s certainly welcome in Gravel.
As mentioned earlier you need to earn points to unlock vehicles and liveries and these points can be collected in a number of ways. You’ll receive them for completing races, earning more for a higher finish. You’ll also pick up points by performing actions within the race, performing drifts or driving high speeds for example. These actions can also be chained to increase the total number of points claimed for performing them. Your collected points level you up and it’s when you level up that you unlock the new vehicles and liveries. The majority of the vehicles will more than likely unlocked by completing the campaign whereas some of the liveries require you to level up to 99 to unlock them. If you’re the kinda guy that wants the 1000 gamerscore or platinum trophy you’ll need to get your grind on. That being said, points aren’t just tied to the campaign and can be collected via any method of play, be it online or single player. Weekly challenges are also a great way to level up as they offer sizeable point pools for completing them.
The list of unlockable vehicles is also impressive for a game of this calibre. There are roughly 50 of them to unlock, all licensed and each with a nice selection of liveries to boot. Vehicle’s span across all eras from old 70’s classics through to more modern machines from last year. You can expect to get behind the wheels of rally cars, trucks & prototypes from manufacturers such as Subaru, Lancia, Ford, Mitsubishi and even Porsche, amongst others. Each vehicle also has a modelled cockpit should you prefer your racing experience to be more immersive.
Each of the vehicle’s models looks great and whilst they don’t have the same amount of detail seen in other high budget games they certainly look the part in motion. One of the standout features of Gravel is how good it looks. Some of the environments can be a little bare in places but when they shine they really do shine. Racing through the jungle is incredibly exhilarating with towering trees whizzing by in a heartbeat. This is only intensified during night time races when all you’ve got are your vehicle’s headlights to lead the way. Other tiny licks of graphical prowess that stand out are the way in which the mud reflects the stadium lights, it’s a weird thing to highlight but it really is quite great. And the way in which your vehicle muddies up throughout the race is a nice touch, especially as driving through water cleans the car. As with everything else in Gravel, it’s nothing new but it all surmises to a great visual spectacle.
Whilst Gravel is a great-looking, fun to play, game its downfall is that it rarely does anything different from other racing games out there. Milestone has certainly not shied away from including stuff to do in the game but in almost all cases you’ll think ‘this is like [insert-racing-game-here] but not quite as good’. But that’s not to say Gravel is bad. There’s plenty of good content here to keep you entertained but it never quite dips its toe into the pool of greatness. The campaign will last you around 10-15 hours depending on how much of a completionist you are but expect to spend a lot more time to unlock everything in the game, in particular, the vehicle liveries. Online mode is more of the same with standard races and was admittedly a little rough when I tried it out but there could be some fun to had here with friends. If you’re itching to play a new off-road racer you certainly won’t go wrong with Gravel but don’t expect it to knock your socks off.