The classic arcade racing genre returns in Milestone’s Gravel. The Finger Guns Review;
I remember fondly when I got my Sega Saturn for Christmas back in 1995. The only game my parents bundled it with was Sega Rally. This meant I didn’t get another game for it until my birthday, which wasn’t until October so as you can imagine, the only game I had to play for ten months was Sega Rally so I got pretty damn good at it. It became the standard for me in console racing games for the longest time, I would only ever judge future Rally or really any kind of racing sim game next to its majesty. It was really that good. The genre has seen some heights that may have beaten the game on a technical level, but I’m not sure if any game in the genre has been personally more fun to play.
Milestone have stepped up to this particular plate and plonked Gravel before me, as if to say ‘I VOLUNTEER’ before the pedestal Sega Rally sits upon for me. Can it fight for the crown?
Yes. And not really.
That’s not to say Gravel is bad, because it most assuredly isn’t, it’s just all a little bit basic. There’s a well-structured career mode built as a TV series that you wouldn’t see out of place in a Channel 5 Sunday afternoon slot called ‘Off-Road Masters’. Its premise is very old-school in its approach, which appeals. You collect stars in each race which will add up to unlock new competitions, instead of having to persistently unlock more XP or upgrades for your vehicles that don’t really add an awful lot to the overall experience. The structure of the career is simple enough in that there’s no enormous open world with an obnoxious douchebag in your ear telling you where to go every five seconds. You’re given a car and you’re put in a race. You win the race, you get stars. The more stars you earn is entirely based on how you perform in the race so it’s wise to get good quickly. It’s simple to get your head around and the game is all the better for it.
The career mode can deviate into ‘boss fights’ with the most astonishing *USA!! USA!!* cutscene you could ever possibly imagine short of Jenna Jameson eating a triple stacked cheeseburger on top of a Mustang. These bewilderingly over the top trailers that feature well known racers such as Scott Parker doing air guitar with fireworks going off behind him start to undo some of the goodwill the game has built up through the solid career mode. It feels tacky and unnecessary, but that could just be me being a stuffy Brit. It’s almost a parody of what a European dev team would expect American’s to enjoy. To be fair, they’ll probably eat it up whilst they chug Bud during the Superbowl Half-Time show (throw in more crass generalisations Rossko, that’ll really look great – Ed).
In terms of the racing, it feels pretty solid, about as arcade as you can expect from a AA title. You can tweak and tune the handling to within an inch of its life, which for the purists will be beneficial. If you mess up you’ve got the trusty ‘rewind’ feature that’s now seemingly a standard in all racers. Cars can be difficult to control and you may want to turn assists if you want to get a better feeling of the road. The cars can feel particularly floaty when moving a high speeds so tweaking may be necessary if you know what you needs to be taken care of. And the cars feel don’t feel any different on any surface, which is a bit odd.
The AI is pretty standard with little to write home about. The game can be tough at first without being overly punishing, the difficulty can spike a little bit out of nowhere in later races though, particularly if you’re powering through on medium. The stadium races were where I found it to be the toughest in latter races, as my techniques were coming undone rather quickly as the tracks were so narrow. Moving up the pack was proving difficult but it was certainly good fun bustling for the higher positions.
Visually, it’s not going be one of those racers that showcases the power of a console anytime soon. The whole game looks washed out, with next to nothing popping off the screen and a frame-rate locked to 30fps isn’t doing it any favours. I was playing the game at the weekend with a friend of mine and he said it reminded him of Project Gotham Racing, specifically the original title on the Dreamcast. The more I got through the game the more I found it more difficult to disagree. The models of particular cars are boxy and look as if they’re built from cardboard. It’s simply not good enough in 2018 to even attempt to compete with the likes of Forza Horizon. Hell, even the last Motorstorm looked better than this.
Gravel doesn’t look like it’s benefitting from any kind of PS4 Pro enhancements, which is a shame as racers have a habit of showing off power. It performs well with no slowdown or framerate drops that I’ve seen in my extended playthroughs and does what it needs to do but in terms of complete presentation, Gravel won’t be picked for that particular job at E3 this year. The music is infuriating, too. Turn it off and load up a playlist of literally anything else on Spotify. You’ll be better off.
Despite the visuals and the music though, it’s hard to argue that Gravel is a solid racing experience. It’s old-school progression aesthetic is appealing and is thankfully focused purely on the racing. No open world, no loud-mouth idiot in your ear the whole time, it’s a breath of fresh air in that regard and will bring out the classic racing gamer in you where all that mattered was the stars you collect.
Gravel does precisely one thing well and that’s be a competent, fun racer that’s worth checking out if you’re looking to just find exactly that with very little else sprinkled on top.
Gravel is available now on PS4 (reviewed on PS4 Pro), Xbox One and PC.
Developer / Publisher: Milestone
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy please go here.