One of the biggest problems that Gravel faces, particularly on the Xbox One (which is the version that this review is based on), is that it’s always going to be compared to the Forza Horizon series. Which is really unfortunate as Gravel is a very good driving game, albeit without all the bells and whistles that you get with Playground’s masterpiece series of titles.
Gravel is developed by Milestone, an Italian team who have a good track record (sorry) in the driving game genre, having previously been responsible for the Moto GP and Ride games. They also used to develop the official Rally World championship games before it was passed to BigBen and Kylotonn. Having played and reviewed the disappointing WRC7 last year, my view is that an official rally game in this engine would be pretty darn impressive.
Although Gravel and the Forza Horizon series share a lot of similarities, the presentation methods are very different. Gravel ditches the open-world setting and instead goes for an edgy, Xtreme sports TV theme, called the Gravel Channel. Before races you are treated (or endured) to a commentator telling you just how awesome the upcoming race will be, and then afterwards you are told how great the race was, and to be honest this does become tedious and stale after a while. There are also some incredibly ridiculous lines of dialogue, my favourite being “If you didn’t faint whilst watching this race you’re used to strong emotions.” Wow. Although these lines of dialogue are repeated they are easily skipped and didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment. In the multitude of options that are available it can also be turned off, much to my pleasure.
So, with the open world setting not present it’s up to the menus to provide the jumping point to individual races. There are of course a number of game modes to choose from, the main one being Off Road Masters, and there are also Multiplayer, Time Attack, and Free Play modes to pick from. At this current time there are also Weekly Challenges which require you to beat a certain time in a set race.
But Off Road Masters is where most players will start. It is split into sixteen themed episodes, with each of the episodes featuring three to five individual events that will either be a single race or a small three race championship. Each race or championship has three stars up for grabs, with the whole three awarded for a win, two stars if you finish in the top three positions, and the measly one star if you manage to just complete it. Once you have enough stars you will unlock the next episode, so at times you will need to revisit earlier events for some easy stars! Amongst these episodes are special events, which are head to head races against the famous fictional drivers set in the Gravel world. There are no stars on offer here, but you will need to win the episode in order to progress.
As you win and progress your in-game level will go up and you will also unlock new cars and liveries. There are no purchases needed, as everything will be unlocked via your progression, however there is a menu option for DLC, which currently only contains a Porsche pack and a free “Bowler Bulldog” car. Obviously there is scope here for the addition of paid DLC in the shape of car packs, but as previously mentioned, there is nothing pushing you to spend real money in order to unlock cars.
There are seventeen different locations to race around, and from the beaches of Namibia’s Gold Coast to the city streets of Las Vegas these are truly a high point of Gravel. I fondly remember the first time I played the arcade version of Ridge Racer and being mesmerized by the background visuals, and Gravel gave me that same feeling. The locations are gorgeously created, whether you’re racing through sand dunes before bursting onto a beach and splashing through the water, or competing in the Florida stadium in huge trucks with fireworks exploding as you race through checkpoints. The weather and environmental effects are very impressive also, whether its water splashing up on your viewpoint as you race through the sea’s edge, or the faithful representation of that horrible muddy murky stuff you get on your windscreen in real life on a winter’s rainy day.
The driving mechanics are pretty spot-on as well. With a game mode called ‘Off Road Masters’ you will be pleased to know that you will spend most of your time sliding cars sideways through mud, grass or snow. This is achieved without too much skill and you will soon be sliding and drifting around corners with a huge smile on your face! The AI can be tough, as races can resemble stock-car races at times, and the collision detection never feels unfair. For example if you cut across the front of an opponent it will put you in a spin that will put you at the back and will be hard to recover from. Forza fans will be pleased that the rewind function is included, so any mistake can easily be rectified.
There are a number of different races to take part in. Lap Races and Checkpoint Races are standard eight car events, Time Attack is a single player blast to get the fastest time possible, Smash-Up is a single player lap or checkpoint race where you have to knock down targets as you race around, and Elimination is a survival race where the player in last position is eliminated every 30 seconds. All of these are fun except Smash-Up which I didn’t like at all. The targets you need to hit either have red crosses or green arrows, and if you hit the crosses it causes your car to slow down. Even if you hit the green first but then the back of your car brushes the red cross afterwards it still slows you down. I found these levels the most tedious to play as the fun factor was removed.
Unfortunately I did encounter some gameplay bugs. These ranged from slight graphical glitches, especially on maps which feature a large amount of water, as the shadows and reflections seemed to take a while to load in. On one occasion I finished a Time Attack race in first position but when I proceeded to the scoreboard I had finished in third. I also witnessed the opposition cars go missing from the minimap, and on one Special Event the opponents car disappeared from right next to me and suddenly was ten seconds back. Again these are not game breaking but did put a slight dampener on my enjoyment. I played Gravel on an Xbox One X and so far it is the only game to cause my console to become very loud, just like the in-game car revving. I also tested it on the One S, and it did appear to have a few more technical issues, including the race starting with my driver sitting in mid-air!
Despite the occasional bug I absolutely loved my time with Gravel. Overall, it took around 13 hours of gameplay to finish the Off Road Masters on medium difficulty, and I still have around 60 stars to go back and collect, which I plan to do. There is also an achievement for reaching Level 50, and I’m currently at 37, so there is still content left to do, including the multiplayer. The Forza Horizon games are notable for their vast amount of content, and at a recent game event, their studio head discussed whether or not there is too much content, and Gravel is much shorter, and at full price you may need to question the game’s value for money. But the major reason to go and buy this right now is that it is really, incredibly good fun. As you are sliding around corners or bombing down a beach you will be smiling, and that’s a good enough reason as any to make this purchase. If you only have room in your life for one off-road racing game then Forza Horizon 3 is probably the one to go for, but this is a very credible second place for me.
Thanks to Xbox and Milestone for supporting TiX