Gravel: review

  • Format: Xbone (version reviewed), PS4, PC
  • Unleashed: Out Now
  • Publisher: Milestone
  • Developer: Milestone
  • Players: 1 (offline), 2-8 (online)
  • Site: http://gravelvideogame.com/
  • Game code provided by Xbox

What would you expect to be watching on “The Gravel Channel”? Lots of people with gravelly voices, perhaps? So lots of Batman movies, Deus Ex cutscenes, and interviews with Clint “talks to empty chairs” Eastwood. That might be what you’d expect, but you’d be wrong. This is the fictional TV station that broadcasts and celebrates off-road racing. So, this means plenty of in-race commentary, right? Erm, no. That’s just one example of how Gravel sets up expectations that it doesn’t quite meet.

Developers Milestone are racing specialists, ordinarily working on licensed rally and motorbike games that aim for realism. Gravel, however, is pitched as an off-road arcade runaround. The cars are licensed, and there are even a few real-life racers to challenge – but the tracks are fantastical, existing only in the game. You can tinker under the hood of your vehicles to a small extent, and assists can be turned off for a tougher experience. Nonetheless, this isn’t a game that aims to recreate handling and physics with pinpoint accuracy.

It’s great to see a development house launch into an idea of their own, and there’s a lot to like here. With a variety of perspectives, vehicles, and environments – taking you around the world to places such as Alaska, Namibia, and Las Vegas – there are a lot of boxes being ticked. This is also one of the few games that we’d say benefits from leaving the rumble option on. Tearing over hills and around muddy corners, the joypad growling in your hands as you do your best to avoid shooting your car into a barrier or a tree, can be an enjoyably tense experience.

This is a polished press shot, but the real thing isn’t too far off.

In keeping with the arcade spirit, each race awards you up to three stars depending on your performance, with a certain number of stars required to unlock the next set of races. You’ll get one star for completing the race regardless of how you do; a sort of electronic participation certificate. Finishing in the top three will nab you two stars, while the full three of course can only be had for coming out on top.

It’s a game that seems to be making all the right noises for a dumb-but-fun arcade racer. In reality however, it sits somewhat awkwardly between Milestone’s usual more realistic fare, and the unrealistic excesses of the likes of Need For Speed and Burnout. This is perhaps most glaringly obvious in the handling. No matter how far you push things either way, it won’t quite reach the unforgiving demands of a simulation, nor the twitch steering and easy slides of an arcade or kart game. This helps differentiate itself from the competition, but its appeal will vary wildly from person to person.

On a technical level, it’s distinctly rough around the edges. The bland rentariff rock music regularly loops and stutters during loading screens, and once, the game completely froze mid-race for a full three seconds because – at our best guess – we were going so fast, the CPU panicked and needed to calm down. There were also occasions where we were reset to track completely unexpectedly because we’d strayed a millimetre too far from the invisible track limits. Don’t get us started on the seemingly random car flips and spins (especially when bumped by the overly aggressive AI).

Sometimes there’s water! Falling from the sky, already on the ground… or both.

A successful online mode is vital to a game like this, and here Gravel manages to scrape back some dignity. We’ve found it difficult to find others to race against – we’ve never enjoyed a full lobby – but AI makes up the numbers where necessary. Most importantly, the game performs just as well online as it does offline, though there may be some minor loss of detail to maintain this. An easily avoidable design stumble means that you’ll probably want to play the offline mode to completion before venturing online; cars that you’ve yet to unlock in the campaign, stupidly, remain unavailable to you when playing over the interweb. Sometimes, you have little chance of catching up to people using powerful vehicles you don’t yet have access to.

There’s nothing quite like Gravel on the market, and that’s a good thing. Anybody hungry for a new racing experience will have a lot of fun with this. Unfortunately, largely unambitious track design and a distinct lack of polish mean the more discerning gamer may want to give this a miss – or at least wait until it’s made the inevitable trip into the bargain bin.

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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