There's something to be said for the dirtier side of motorsport mostly because those who partake in it, in reality, happily throw their cars around inches from trees and other obstacles at ludicrous speeds. Transferring this experience to gamers around the world is a tough ask but it can be done. From the ultra serious DiRT Rally to the more fun, arcade classic, that is SEGA Rally. Gravel is the latest off-road based racer from Italian developers Milestone who are no strangers to the genre having previously held the license for the official WRC games. Whilst they never really set the world alight then, could this new, license unattached off-roader add a welcome alternative on console and PC?
It almost seems like fate that at around the same time Gravel is released, Split/Second was part of February's Games with Gold. We mention this only because Gravel bases itself around being a TV show in its single-player campaign. Your aim is to become the most famous racer featured on the channel. The concept of framing your game around a show is nothing new and Split/Second, in our opinion, nailed it back when it was released in 2010. They managed to frame the game beautifully whilst not overstaying its welcome. Cut-scenes and intros bridged the game between each of the episodes nicely and made it almost seem believable that such a show could exist. Gravel's attempt at this concept is almost the complete antithesis of Split/Second. Every event has an intro, with our monotone presenter speaking to a non-existent following of Gravel TV viewers. Quips and comments are repeated all too frequently with only subtle changes should you be at a new venue or taking on the boss characters you need to defeat on your way to the top. The more we played the more we skipped past event intros just to avoid them.
Despite the rather disappointing presentation in regards to Gravel TV thankfully the actual racing itself is rather good. In typical fashion you start at the back of the grid and you must battle your way to the front. Races come in four major disciplines: Cross Country, Wild Rush, Stadium and Speed Cross which are further split into race types. There a straight up races, point-to-point checkpoint races, elimination races, time-trials and one called Smash-Up which involves you racing against the clock all the way making sure to hit through the correct sign noted by an arrow. They're all fun and whilst the AI isn't going to set the world alight they do provide a decent enough challenge. We feel they're slightly aided by some rubber-banding but it's not too heavy handed and if you nail enough twists and turns you can come out on top by a decent margin. The handling is pretty good and errs on the side of a more arcade handling model. It suits the game and makes it very accessible and fun for those who just want to race and not have to worry about things such as weight transfer.
As you progress through the single-player career you earn stars for reaching goals in each race to a maximum of three. These stars unlock cars, liveries and new race categories. Win enough stars and you can take then take on one of disciplines specialists. They are real life racers and give Gravel some credibility but in all seriousness they didn't have to be there and are solely there to fit the TV show theme. Anyway, beat them all and you become the best of the best and, well, that's pretty much it. One of the really disappointing things about Gravel is, post-completion there's very little else to do. There is multiplayer but this reviewer was completely unable to find a match and we've heard when there are fellow Gravel players around, the wait times are long. Weekly challenges take the form of beating a developers time for a particular race with global leaderboards to see where you stand. Strangely though, whilst there is a time-trial mode, as far as we could see, there's no leaderboards for that mode. It seems odd that there's no way of knowing whether you're the fastest on the planet or slower than Mr Magoo in this mode.
Gravel is quite the looker and makes maximum use of the Unreal 4 engine that powers it. On our 4K LG TV colours popped and despite much of the foliage and scenery passing us by in a blur as we raced we still very much appreciated some of the pretty scenery that surrounded us. It's perhaps not quite in the jaw dropping realm of say Forza Horizon 3 but it certainly holds its own on the platform. Car models look rather nice as well and while there's not hundreds of them, those who are really in to their off-road sports will undoubtedly spot a few classics. Our only real complaint graphically is that some of the camera angles when racing are actually a hindrance. Most racers have a view of choice whether its in the cockpit for the most realism or the chase-cam for those who want to take more in.
Everyone has a preference and it can be difficult to drive using anything else. With Gravel we found that, for some races, we just had to use the bonnet-cam, especially so for checkpoint races or the Smash-Up variant. When we tried these in chase-cam we often found ourselves driving blind hoping where we'd placed our car would result in a makable line to our next goal. Other times we missed checkpoints or barely made it through because we couldn't see it due to a large crest in the track or scenery obstructing our view. In the audio department things are okay. The cars do have some distinctive sounds about them but never really sound quite right and the soundtrack is mainly generic. It doesn't detract from the racing but it certainly doesn't immerse you in it either.
Overall Gravel is something of a mixed bag. Its entertaining enough when racing to be a genuinely fun game to play but its lack of post-completion content is worrying. With no leaderboards in time-trial to long matchmaking times in multiplayer makes us wonder whether they were just late bolt-ons to flesh things out. We'd feel much happier recommending Gravel if we felt it would be popular enough to fill up and reduce match making times but given we couldn't find a game during our review period we're not going to hold our breath. There's heaps of potential here and the history Milestone has in the racing genre shows through, especially in the fun and engaging handling model that Gravel has been blessed with. At the end of the day Gravel is a fun game to play and it certainly won't disappoint those of you who want to buy a fun, competent, off-road racer.