After 2017’s sim racer renaissance, 2018 looks like it’s more about the arcade racer. Gravel is the first out of the gate, as Milestone look to take advantage of their Unreal Engine 4 license and broaden their horizons with a new type of racing game for their portfolio. There’s a little bit of everything here, from point to point racing through idyllic scenery through to track racing, but this is a game that feels like it’s searching for its own identity.
Gravel’s biggest problem is just that it feels a bit bland. The Off-Road Masters competition that runs as a faux TV show on the game’s made up Gravel Channel wouldn’t be out of place stuck on ITV4’s schedule on a Sunday afternoon. It’s got some knowingly cheesy race introductions, there’s a generic Rock/Metal soundtrack, and the Scrapyard Challenge-esque boss characters that you’ll have to race against through the career mode.
There’s plenty to do in the career, with the loose theme of a TV show splitting races up into episodes. Each episode has a handful of races, hopping back and forth between disciplines and different race types, but really you’re just working through one race at a time, trying to complete the goals to earn three stars. The only roadblock to your progress comes with the five Masters, each with a different specialty discipline. Blandly named Scott Parker, for example, is the Stadium Circuit Master, and you’ll have to beat him in three one on one races in order to progress to the next set of episodes and eventually face the Wild Rush Master, the equally bland Ryan Carter.
As you’d expect from an arcade racer, there’s plenty of driver assists in the game to smooth things out and the ability to rewind time around 5 seconds, which is a boon when off road racing is inherently bouncy and can be difficult to control. You can turn those assists down or off to get at the core handling model, and you can even tweak a car’s ride height, camber, and so on, if you want to mess around with the simulation. It’s an enjoyable handling model if a bit too loose and floaty, though you would expect this when off-roading, and without much distinction between contrasting surfaces. Turn assists down and you can find a tricky racer here if you want one.
Some of that is down to the AI as well, which seems to play quite fairly without much, if any rubber banding. I found my happy middle ground at the Medium AI difficulty setting, and I could generally get through to the front after a lap or two, depending on how they perform on a given track – one Stadium race I crashed and then came from behind a good four or five times, but then I’d have to fight tooth and nail to make up a single position after the first few corners in other races. On Hard difficulty, I’d always have to scrap to stay in the middle of the pack and meet the two star goal.
Alongside this single player career is the standard Free Play mode and time attacks, multiplayer that’s unpopulated prior to launch, and a weekly challenge that will drop you into a particular car and set you loose to try and beat a set time. In addition to the expected races on circuits and point to point, elimination and time attacks, there’s also a new ideas in the form of Smash-Up, where you crash through symbol coded boards as you set a time, with the red crosses slowing you down if you crash through them. It’s a minor addition, certainly, but it’s something a bit different, and a shame that you can’t seemingly switch up the game modes in custom online and offline games.
The game does look great, though, and Milestone’s jump to Unreal Engine 4 has led to something a damn sight better looking than what they’ve had to peddle over the last few years. There’s a wide variety of licensed vehicles and a bunch of environments to race through, from gorgeous, sun drenched tropical islands to the Alaskan wilderness, a clutch of stadiums and a string of RallyCross… uh, I mean SpeedCross tracks that shift from tarmac to gravel or dirt and back again – the one difference to RallyCross is not having a joker lap to take.
It’s a little unpolished in places, with shadows guilty of popping into view quite suddenly, and while standing water reflects light gorgeously, rain effects ignore the fact that you’re doing 80mph and just look a bit half-hearted. I also feel that the chase camera is set a bit too low, so you sometimes can’t see the next checkpoint in cross country races. Some might be disappointed that the game only aims for 30fps, but it’s a rock solid frame rate.
There’s some fun layouts, with stadium dirt tracks that cross over themselves or split and have mirrored paths to choose between, but some lazy design creeps in with oddly placed blockades to crash through, a rock creeping into the track that feels out of place, and trips through ramshackle, decaying industrial buildings. It feels like Milestone experimented with making more dynamic tracks a la Split/Second or Motorstorm: Apocalypse, but then backed away and these are the remains.
New arcade racers have been few and far between over the last half decade, and Gravel is just one attempt to reignite the genre. There’s some good racing to be found here, with plenty of licensed cars to take through some lovely scenery, but it doesn’t get your heart pounding with excitement. Gravel might be a fairly decent racer, but its biggest sin is that, despite the fireworks and exotic locations, it’s just a bit boring.
Version tested: PlayStation 4 Pro