Dirt? Taken. Mud? HmmM . Gravel? Bingo!

XBox: The Official Magazine - - START - Justin Tow­ell

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.

Wheely good

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.

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