Release Date: February 27th, 2018
Developer: Milestone SRL
Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Gravel sees Milan-based racing enthusiasts and developers Milestone SRL come back to the off road and showcase their expertise in a title that favors a more arcade approach to the off-road experience, having an almost Sega Rally Championship vibe fused with a bit of Dirt - two amazing series that I feel sometimes get overlooked on the topic of some of racing's best. Milestone SRL is certainly no stranger to racing titles either. These guys have done nothing but, in fact, giving us majority of the MotoGP and WRC series, with Ride being one of their more recent and popular games, though Ride never clicked with me as I found it boring and tedious, but this isn't about those games. This is about an awesome off-road experience that I wish games would do more often in a way that's inventive and fresh, instead of designing a map and putting a brown color palette smeared on top. Thankfully, Gravel has some of the best track designs I've seen in a long time that keep it consistently fun, but the overall presentation of the game keeps it from becoming a game you should undoubtedly pay attention to.
When you've played just about every arcade racer under the sun like I have, they tend to be pretty easy to pick up and understand. Not that racing games have ever been particularly convoluted when it comes to controls, but the way you go about utilizing brakes and acceleration (as well as nitrous and other mechanics if made available) can vary from game to game. Simulators are notorious for being harder than anything else to pick up; even if you have a license in real life and very well understand how a car works, it just feels a little odd playing something realistically with a controller instead of a wheel and pedal. You can get the hang of it, but the best experience for those types of games will always be with a wheel. Arcade racers on the other hand are perfect for controllers, but just as previously mentioned, they WILL vary. Wipeout feels very different from Blur, which feels different from Split/Second, which feels different from Burnout and Mario Kart. Gravel, however, tends to find that sweet spot in between arcade and simulator, which makes for a unique experience when playing, but once you better understand the physics and get used to the lack of traction thanks to most tracks being on, well, soil and sand (frequently wet or icy thanks to weather) instead of asphalt, things start to click a little more, but it'll take a few races to ease into it.
It's interesting because the first few races I partook of in Off Road Masters, the game's campaign, I actually didn't do too well, though I was getting consistently better and placing higher as well each race. The first race, which should have been the easiest, I came in last place. I was a little confused as to why that happened, but I let it slide. 2nd race? 4th. 3rd race? 3rd. 4th race? 1st. It definitely had it's own way of using physics, but in the end it all worked out rather nicely and makes sense for what it's trying to achieve, which is that off road and adrenaline fueled racing, filled with moments and twists and turns where anything could happen, for better or for worse. Gravel doesn't do much outside of braking and accelerating to enhance its gameplay, but it does have a rewind feature that works in the same fashion much like Forza, where by the press of a button you can go back a few seconds and redo any mistakes that may have happened, or may approach a turn or obstacle a little differently for a more favorable outcome. I personally love this in Forza, because while some may consider it cheating or "too easy", I find it as giving a second chance, as sometimes resetting can take way too long, and with some races that take multiple laps and can last upwards of 5+ minutes, nothing is more grueling than doing it over again. Especially with how the tracks are designed, it's almost as if you mess up once you're done for the entire race and there's no recovering from your mistake, so the rewind feature is a nice way of learning from your mistakes, practicing that section over again, and potentially succeeding in what otherwise would have been a disastrous situation or may have caused you to redo the entire race over again. In titles like Need for Speed, Burnout, or Sonic & All Stars Racing, taking out your opponent is almost the point of those games. Whereas in Gravel or some other titles where it's the environment you have to be cautious of, in these titles you and those around you *are* the obstacles, but it's also designed in a way that when you wipe out, it's only for a brief moment before you can get back on track and be on your way again; it's nothing that'll ruin the game after one mishap.
Gravel also has some extremely well designed tracks behind it to help its overall fun and replayability of the game. I had a crazy amount of fun going through a variety of vistas, mountains, seasides and other off-roading locations in high-paced races where the weather was dynamic and the cars naturally and seamlessly would get covered in whatever they were driving on top of. The way the tires and the ground connect and how everything seems to have some sort of interaction with it that also sticks is rather impressive, and the particle effects should be applauded as well. Overall the gameplay is solid and the races are tight, but it's everything that surrounds these races where things start to become banal and, in some cases, cringeworthy. For starters, when I first booted up the game I began to ask myself what the hell it is I got myself into. I had seen trailers and gameplay footage and Gravel looked fun; it gave me vibes of MX vs ATV, Pure, and Test Drive which I absolutely loved playing when I was super into them, but the first time you boot it up and start Off Road Masters, you get this horrendous announcer that almost sounds like an homage to WWE Crush Hour, and this terrible FMV footage of god knows who these people are dancing around and doing these scripted poses and stupid staredowns that gave me flashbacks to trash like Need for Speed (2015), which apparently no one learned from. The only game that I believe to successfully pull off live-action cutscenes that felt worthwhile was Her Story, but I digress. Despite the actual races themselves being perfectly fine, going through Off Road Masters is a chore because of all the nonsense you have to listen to from the narrator and the stuff you have to watch in between. None of it is good, and takes away from the experience as a whole.
Outside of Off Road Masters, you have a bunch of other modes, but the presentation in the menus is abysmal. In addition to the game's campaign where you're racing to be the best on the off-road circuit by beating a bunch of try-hards, you also have Free Race, Multiplayer, Time Attack, and Weekly Challenges. These are pretty standard modes where you can race at your own free will, race against others in local and online, compete at getting the best possible laps, and achieving goals for rewards respectively. There's a ton to do with a variety of maps and cars that will keep you busy, but the rewards are few and far between with little recognition that don't make much feel worthwhile. While I had fun in most of these modes, I saw myself losing interest rather quickly, and this came especially in Multiplayer Mode where, when playing online, I would disconnect and lobbies would disband halfway through a race. This happened so frequently that out of my 20 or so "races", I probably only completed about 5 of them. This was not an internet issue on my end, as I had been playing Overwatch before and after with no issues whatsoever, and streaming VRV and Plex at max quality. These were servers that were about as good as PSN's firewall.
The menus are lackluster and you're shown the Gravel logo time and time again between loading screens and whenever you do anything outside of a race. You're stuck in this dimly lit, dilapidated warehouse or garage (it's hard to tell, really) with a projector and a steel cutout of yet another Gravel logo with flames behind it. It's fascinating if anything because the gameplay, track design, and everything when you're actually racing feels really good and modern, but outside of that it feels like you've been transported to N64 menus. The generic music in the background doesn't help its cause either, and the whole thing feels like a poor attempt at recreating Excitebike 64.
There are definitely things within Gravel that make you appreciate the game as a whole, and off-roading games are always welcome within the racing genre, but it's hard to recommend at its full $49.99 asking price when, as an arcade racer, there are just so many better options, especially with the Burnout Paradise Remaster just around the corner - and for cheaper. Gravel's presentation makes it feel low-budget, even if the gameplay itself is clearly refined. The corny cutscenes to the generic music to the servers (or what lack thereof) - it all just feels meddled together and not cohesive in the slightest. It's just mode, mode, mode, done, and rather than feeling like a title that's encompassed around offroading and being seen as "This is Gravel", it ends up looking and feeling more like an amalgam of styles and properties similar to compilation titles like Midway Arcade Treasures or Namco Museum. Maybe it's the lack of seamlessness between modes, the long loading times in between, or the polygonal Crazy Taxi looking folks in the sidelines that stick out in an otherwise pretty game, but I constantly felt pulled out of the game, and almost as if it was doing it on purpose, pushing me away to ride somewhere else.
- The design of the tracks and levels are really great and invite you to come back and race on them again, whether in an arena, on a mountain, or speeding through a beach and the great outdoors.
- The Photo Mode, although barebones, is nice to have and fun to take photos with (all shots in this review were taken by myself through Photo Mode)
- Some of the music is very fitting, though the overall audio mixing raises some questions
- Controls are intuitive and have Forza-like mechanics such as a rewind feature
- Lots of cars to choose from but not so much to the point where it's overwhelming
- Great for trophy hunters
- The FMV stuff is terrible and incredibly corny
- The announcer might be from WWE Crush Hour
- The main menu is extremely bland and uninspired, feeling rather low-budget
- For what it tries to accomplish, I almost feel like the game takes itself way too seriously despite the aforementioned FMVs and cringe-y live-action stuff
- The multiplayer servers are poor
A big thank you to Milestone SRL and Square Enix for providing us a copy of Gravel for the purposes of this review!
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