Now and again, I come across a game that I really wish I could enjoy more than I do. Gravel is such a game. The little story behind it – racing game specialists Milestone, ordinarily producing licensed realistic racers, working on their own project of an off-road arcade racer – is a great backdrop. Although it’s not a bad game, it’s certainly not a great one.
The cars are licensed but the tracks are not, allowing you to drive recognisable vehicles around settings entirely of the developer’s own devising. You’ll bump and slide around dirt arena tracks, hurtle up grassy hills and along beaches, and just generally race along surfaces that it’s not a great idea to traverse at high speeds. Which is, of course, exactly the sort of thing we all like to do within the comfort of a videogame.
Some important racing game standards are met. There’s a decent selection of tracks and cars on offer, and the cars differ from one another noticeably (though mainly in terms of power, an issue I’ll return to). The tracks distinguish themselves well, too; though none of them are as memorable as the best of Forza Horizon 3 (a game regular readers may notice I blabber on about at the slightest opportunity). In fact, they’re arguably a little bland, with the occasional perplexing invisible border that instantly resets you to track when you seem only slightly off-centre.
That’s not to say that the game has no appeal. Far from it. Apart from the fact that there’s no current-gen racer that competently deals exclusively in off-road racing, Milestone’s experience at times shines through. Successfully taking a sharp corner at speed is a well-earned thrill, and pretty much every track offers pleasingly teeth-gritting moments where gaining or maintaining a position is almost a secondary consideration next to safely navigating your beast over the unfriendly road surface. Despite the arcade leanings, racing veterans can enjoy a limited amount of under-the-hood customisation and, by knocking the difficulty up, a significant and unrelenting challenge.
Things are also kept interesting by offering a few different race types. There’s the standard lap race, of course, as well as single-stretch checkpoint races. You also have the familiar elimination races. There are also time trials, with an interesting twist; rather than standard checkpoints, rows of electronic boards are regularly placed on the track. Just before you reach them, one or two will display green arrows, and you must drive through one of these to avoid being thrown back. Driving into the wrong board allows you to carry on, but kills your speed, requiring you to accelerate again. This is in addition to the usual challenges of an off-road track, and the optional rewind feature is disabled in this mode.
Selectively forbidding the rewind in this way is an odd decision, and one indicative of the fact that the most casual-leaning racing fans are the most likely to be frustrated by the experience. This is mainly down to the handling; although more forgiving than probably any other one of their games, it seems that Milestone can’t quite escape the instinct to offer a driving experience grounded in reality. Even with all assists on and the settings at their most forgiving, taking corners requires more planning and effort than you would perhaps expect from a game positioned as an arcade racer. If you want something that lets you throw cars around as if they’re toys, you’re better off getting that new Burnout remaster.
Elsewhere, realism is a little lacking where it would actually help sharpen the experience. Physics ordinarily work very well, your car thrown about in a firm but fair way as you zoom across uneven ground and bump against obstacles from mistimed corners. However, on rare occasions, your vehicle can flip and tumble for no discernible reason, presumably from a particularly aggressive pebble. Particularly aggravating for anybody determined to avoid using the rewind feature.
The good news is, online play works just as well as offline play; the bad news is, there don’t seem to be too many people playing online, and this means playing with other people runs the same risk of running into bugs as playing against AI.
Gravel has a fair amount of fun to offer, but the experience is uneven. When a game’s most attractive distinguishing feature is the fact that pre- and post-match commentary is unintentionally written and delivered like Alan Partridge, you know it’s one to knock down to the bottom of your wishlist.
Review written by Luke Kemp and thanks to Microsoft for the review code!