Milestone has over 20 years of experience making racing games of all different kinds. Their last off-road title was 2016’s Sébastien Loeb Rally Evo, which, as the name implies, focused solely on rally racing. Their next venture off the beaten path is Gravel, the very name of which evokes imagery of rugged terrain and leaping vehicles. Time to find out if this racer is a worthy trip, or if Milestone should stick to motorcycles.
The Unreal Engine runs under the hood for Gravel. This results in a smooth experience, though some slight stuttering can occasionally be noticed as races begin. Generally speaking, though, Gravel scales well enough to 4K resolution on the PlayStation 4 Pro, with crisp lines and no real aliasing of edges to speak of. Vehicles get dirtier and more banged up as races progress, which can either be strictly cosmetic damage or actually affect handling, depending on player preference.
There’s a bit of every type of environment and race setup in Gravel, which will appeal to many racing fans. Whether darting in and out of dunes in Namibia, drifting around the snowy peaks of Alaska, or spewing dirt in a stadium in Los Angeles, if it’s raceable, it’ll be in here. Environments are just detailed enough to not slow the game down, though as a result the PS4 has a lot of headroom left over and isn’t taxed too much.
The handling in Gravel is somewhere between arcade and simulation, leaning heavily towards the arcade side of the spectrum. Most vehicles within the same class drive similarly. This is a shame because the point of unlocking newer vehicles is the added speed that comes with a bigger and badder machine. There are some tweaks available for tuning vehicles, consisting of a handful of sliders which grant the ability to tweak a vehicle’s suspension, transmission, differentials, brakes, and alignment (including toe and camber). There’s a surprising amount of depth to these settings for an arcade-type game, and up to 200 custom settings can be saved.
More Arcade Than Simulation
For simulation racing games, capturing the sounds of each individual vehicle model is of utmost importance. Gravel isn’t going for straight simulation, however, and doesn’t appear to follow the simulation paradigm. So it is hard to tell most vehicles apart from one another in the same class. Gravel’s soundtrack is fairly generic, featuring guitar-heavy, lyric-free, rock-like songs, playing just a bit too softly at default levels.
A word that could indeed describe Gravel’s presentation is “soft.” As mentioned, the driving is fun enough; there’s a sizable stable of vehicles to choose from, and enough difficulty sliders and options to cater to racers of all types. But something called the Gravel Channel within the game feels sort of phoned-in. This serves as Gravel’s career mode, dubbed Off-Road Masters. The player is tasked with running through different episodes of a season of a fake show, collecting stars based on preset conditions shown before the race, usually boiling down to one star for finishing the race, two stars for finishing in a top spot, and three stars for winning or nearly winning, depending on the event. At certain points in the season, a real-life professional racer must be beaten at their own event, which is usually a fairly easy task. A lone announcer occasionally pops in before and after a race, with a delivery so dry it’s baffling. Furthermore, this unexcited-sounding commentator is nowhere to be found during any actual race. If Milestone had gone the extra mile and recorded just a handful of phrases to say during events, it would have made the game sound much more lively. As it stands now, the announcer feels half-baked.
Online Ghost Town
As of this writing, we were unable to get into a match of multiplayer. Just as well, as the options on offer were exceedingly bare bones. There’s no ranked racing, though there are leaderboards for each track and layout. A weekly challenge also appears to be ready for launch, tasking the player with meeting certain criteria within a week, and be rewarded with a shower of show points, the in-game (non-premium) currency. That’s it for online connectivity options in Gravel.
Gravel is a nice change of pace from the simulation-heavy racing games available elsewhere in the industry. While decidedly light on content outside of the main campaign and devoid of any real multiplayer options to speak of, the most important part of any racing game, the driving, is consistently fun. Soaring through the skies in multi-ton behemoths or nimble boxer engine Porsches is always a good time, and for capturing that, Milestone deserves praise. But a half-hearted career mode should’ve stuck with a traditional setup, as opposed to the phoned-in fake television series that we ended up playing. Still, for those aching to race on open courses or jump around in dirt tracks around the world, Gravel is right up your alley, and for slightly less than some of the competition ($49.99 USD) to boot.