While we’re flush with sim racers at the moment, there’s been a dearth of more arcade oriented games that emphasise simple but fun racing over anything else. That’s the audience Milestone are looking to court with Gravel, with a racing game that spans the world, taking you from Alaska to Polynesia, from rally cars to trucks, from racing along the beaches of a gorgeous tropical island to the cauldron of noise in a stadium.
It’s certainly an attractive proposition, after so many studios have veered off toward more authentic sim racing, and the wide variety of environments make for a game that feels ambitious in scope and scale. Milestone actually created a number of huge and open environments, as they explored the possibilities that they could realise with their shift earlier this year to Unreal Engine 4, and have used this work to lay the foundations for many of the tracks and point to point races in the game with a grand total of 65 races spread across 18 locations.
You won’t be starved of vehicles to drive, either, as 19 manufacturers have been licensed and over 70 cars recreated to race around in. They’re spread across three different types, with straight-up rally cars like the classic Ford RS200 or Toyota Celica, large cross country raid-style vehicles from Volkswagen and then the larger trophy trucks that emphasise sheer muscle. Naturally they’re each better suited to different types of racing. You wouldn’t want a trophy truck for the tight and twisty races, just as a rally car is better at those stadium races and the RallyCross-like Speed Cross events.
Depending on the setting, the racing can really feel very different, with the wide open spaces of a point to point race through the Alaska countryside, albeit with some ramshackle looking buildings and a train track to leap across, and this contrasts strongly with racing on the mixed surfaces of Speed Cross tracks. There’s some really strong choices of location, as you race over lush and grassy hills in one event, down through a the reddish-browns of a quarry in another, and spot plenty of hot air balloons flying overhead. It can look really gorgeous, thanks in large part to the lighting of Unreal Engine 4 and the changeable weather and time of day settings. Switch it to a night race and you’ll be completely dependent on your headlights to see the route you need to follow as you speed through the wilderness.
The handling is nice and accommodating whatever it is that you drive, which is exactly what you’d expect from an arcade racer. You’ll be bumping over uneven terrain, sliding through corners on loose surfaces, and trying to boss around the AI drivers and you bump into each other. Throw it on Hard and the AI can offer up a good amount of challenge. At the very least it’ll be there waiting for you to make a mistake and miss a checkpoint, while you’ll have to fight your way through to the front in stadium races.
All of this is wrapped up in single player as a kind of reality TV show, quite simply called Gravel TV. It’s from here that the game receives its “Steal the show” tagline, as you compete for glory and fame across the contest. There’s an episodic theme to the way that the single player will be organised, taking you through different races and disciplines as you head toward the four episode ending boss races. The final challenge, however, is the winner of the last season of the show. It’s an interesting idea, and certainly reminiscent of real TV show contests, but it’s also one that I feel needs to be presented in just the right way to actually pull it off.
I think there’s definitely a feeling that Milestone need to prove themselves over the next year, as they fully realise this jump to Unreal Engine 4. The last few years have seen them struggle to really improve their established MotoGP and MXGP series, shackled as they were by their ageing game engine, but now they have an opportunity to really take a step forward. Gravel sees them really trying to do just that, as they go for a gap in the market and try to do something new and interesting in the process.