Dirt? Taken. Mud? HmmM . Gravel? Bingo!
We’ve had some sensational racing sims over the past 12 months, but if you’re tired of learning braking points, tinkering with brake biases and spinning out on every corner,
Gravel’s no-nonsense racing will be right up your street. It’s inspired by old-school, pick-up-and-play racers, with nods to genre classics like Sega
Rally Championship and – of course – Codemasters’ Dirt series.
The action is presented as though you’re a participant in a TV show called ‘Offroad Masters’ which plays each week on the ‘Gravel Channel’. All that really means is that, in-between races, an announcer spouts some of the worst sentences ever committed to waveform. “If you didn’t faint during the last race, you’re used to strong emotions,” he says. Awful.
There are live-action boss introduction videos so you can see some of the drivers you’re supposed to be racing, EA-style, which is a nice touch. But with no commentary, driver dialogue or mid-race graphics to suggest you’re in said TV show, the racing itself feels characterless.
The cars all handle nicely, with a strong sense of inertia that lets you slide into and around turns, especially when you turn off traction control and spin the wheels. It’s a good blend of fun and realism, if a little lightweight.
The list of cars may be diminutive compared to most racers at a ‘mere’ 46, but there are some real classics in there, including all three from Sega
Rally Championship, which simply has to be deliberate. Unlike that game, however, bumps here will often send you into a full barrel roll. There is the now obligatory rewind button to undo such mishaps, but with only dropped skill combos as a penalty for using it, nothing feels like it has any real meaning or importance. Every mistake outside the stricter ‘Smash Up’ gate challenge events can just be rewound and corrected, even in time trials and the community challenges.
This isn’t the kind of racing game where you replay your favourite circuit to shave fractions from your time, primarily because there’s precious little opportunity for finesse. The outdoor tracks are mostly wide, bumpy and sprawling, with few turns to really get your teeth into. The mid-season finale against James Watanabe features the best tracks, with some great, ever-tightening hairpins and devilishly-placed jumps. It’s sad then to see the bespoke stadium circuits lacking killer track design, perhaps due to the small arenas.
The damage modelling is disappointingly subdued, too. The worst that will happen to your car is that some smoke will come from the engine, and the steering might pull off to one side a bit, but only after a huge crash. Compare that to the nowancient Grid 2 on Xbox 360, with its flapping doors and debris, and Gravel is miles behind. While there are some tyre walls that can be dislodged, and trackside barriers that can be toppled, such destruction is all incidental and underplayed, and never integral to the gameplay. When you see a rock formation way above you, held up with scaffolding that gets smashed away by the pack as it streams through, you want the rock to fall. It never does.
See the sights
Still, there are moments that really impress, most notably the gargantuan vistas before you as you swoop through Namibian deserts or Alaskan forests, all thanks to Milestone’s adoption of Unreal Engine 4.
When the game was first revealed, it was promoted as being a much more open world, where you could choose your routes. But that reportedly proved too confusing, so the end product is a more restricted, compromised-feeling experience with a few brief forks from time to time. It could have been so much more.
It was also planned to be a 50-hour game, but in reality, you can accrue enough stars to enter the final series and beat it in around 5-6 hours, if you’re good. And with only a single race, time attack and a community challenge mode that all reuse tracks you’ve already raced, there isn’t much reason to keep playing, unless you head online. If you do, there are some capture the flag and King mini-games in cordoned-off arenas, as well as the usual racing modes. And the excitement of racing human opponents highlights another shortcoming – there’s no split-screen multiplayer. It would have suited the game perfectly.
Gravel is a well-made racer, there’s no doubt of that, and it looks superb on Xbox One X. But it fails to elicit any real excitement, no matter how hard the announcer tries to convince you it’s the best thing ever.
“A well-made racer, there’s no doubt of that; it looks superb on Xbox One X”
Moments like this are reminiscent of old arcade games (where hot air balloons ruled), only with Unreal Engine 4’s draw distances.
The snow races look gorgeous, and sliding away through turns as you jostle for position with the pack feels great.If ever Xbox One X Enhanced needed an advert, it’sGravel. Just look at those step-free, slanted edges on everything. Yum.