Reviews// Gravel

Posted 20 Mar 2018 15:51 by
Gravel is a weird one.

At first I saw the gap in the market that I thought it was trying to fill. The current generation of games consoles are crying out for an arcade, off road racer. Something along the lines of Motorstorm. A game that can take the idea of cross country racing and play around with it.

That's what I thought Gravel was as I loaded it up for the first time. Although it looked like Dirt 4 in many ways it seemed to want to try and add a bit of personality into racing on mud. The menus were filled with cheesy metal music, the framing of each race was a fake TV show with a presenter who seemed to enjoy watching racing far too much and as the lights indicated the start of a race I noticed helicopters buzzing in the air.

Gravel certainly tried to add a bit more glamour to the sport than Dirt did, but soon after you get behind the wheel you'll realise that it doesn't go the full mile to set itself apart.

At the heart of Gravel is a serious racing game. Controls are tight and force you to use your brakes more than you would if you were down your local bowling alley, opponent AI are disciplined and rarely deviate from the pre-determined racing line and the previously mentioned choppers are the only things away from the track that attempt to try and add some dressing to the visual experience.

Saddened by the initial letdown, I pushed on through the main career mode. There's nothing special about the set-up here. You'll mainly be going through races one by one, without finding it much trouble to finish in the top three. Occasionally the game mode mixes things up a bit with elimination challenges and time attacks, but it doesn't manage to offer much that we haven't seen before.

The one new mode on offer are the checkpoint races. As usual you'll have to make sure you hit each checkpoint as you drive around a track but the twist here is that each checkpoint is made up of several signs that spin like a fruit machine until you're close before revealing red crosses or green arrows.

Hit a red sign and your car will slow down, hit a green one and it'll explode as though it was never there. It's a neat enough idea but I can't see what it adds to make it worthwhile. I found myself just slinging the car about too much in a panic as the reaction time seems too short on the approach. If anything, it made my driving worse and I'd dread the mode every time it showed up on the current batch of races I had to work through in order to progress.

Once you get a few races under your belt you then face a professional driver 1 on 1. This is where I learned how to play Gravel. These special event races come with a massive difficulty spike. However much I focused on improving my driving I wasn't able to come close to winning. After about 20 attempts I was ready to give up, that was until I slipped back into old habits.

In recent years most driving games seem to focus on teaching you to actually drive better. Racing lines were projected onto the floor and punishments were dished out for crashing into an opponent, but it wasn't always this way. The game I always refer back to for this sort of thing is Project Gotham Racing. That was the last racing game where it felt like in order to win you had to drive like a bad guy from a Cars film.

At times it felt more like a beat-em-up than it did a racing game. If you were hurtling at a corner as someone was taking it, you'd ignore your brakes and smash into the side of them, wiping them out and slowing you down enough to continue on your way. If the back of their car happened to line up with the front of your bumper you would never acknowledge it, ignore it then try and pass safely. That bellend was getting spun out.

I applied the Chick Hicks technique to Gravel and instantly found success. I blitzed through a large proportion of the game and, dare I say it, was having fun. If this was real racing I'd have been in prison before the first lap was over.

I fantasised about the other drivers cursing my name on their way to hospital, the fans booing and the local garage having to work overtime. Turns out that being a dick can be a lot of fun.

That then leads me back to my original point. If Gravel is happy for you to suspend reality and enjoy driving like a maniac, why does it hold back in so many different areas? Why are the race modes so straightforward and why is there not more of a spectacle going on around you?

In truth this feels like a project that wants its own identity but is too worried about creating something so different from what's already out there that it won't find an audience. Because of that if falls through a gap rather than filling it and everything starts to emerge as a bit average.

Visually Gravel is a mixed bag too. Taking advantage of the Unreal 4 engine, the lighting is as good as you'd expect. Reflections, sunsets and neon glow from signage look incredible, but everything else is flat and dull. The combination of both good and sub-par creates a pretty odd-looking game at times.

The selection of cars on offer is ok but I failed to find something I was truly happy with and nothing felt like it was much different from the other class of cars available for the race you were going into, other than them being slightly faster.

If you were hoping that the fun elements of the single-player could carry over to online aspect of the game then you'll be even more disappointed. Online races are laggy and, even so soon after launch, unpopulated. Initially I was surprised at how quickly I found a full room but as I eased to 1st place I soon realised something was up. My fears were confirmed as I went to check out the gamertags of my fellow drivers only to find the vast majority of them were bots.

It's frustrating because if you dig deep into Gravel there's something below the average haze that sticks out. Something deep at the core is a game that revels in giving you chance to be an arsehole behind the wheel. It takes you back to the early 360 era of racing games that didn't treat you like you were learning to drive again and that arcadey feeling glimmered through the dirt.

Maybe this is the first in a series that could go somewhere. There'd be a lot of work but it's been done before. Gravel could be the Saints Row of an eventually wacky and entertainingly fun franchise, but in order for this
to succeed developer Milestone will need to lean harder on the arcade side of the racer and take a few steps back from Dirt 4. Because as it stands, I find it hard to recommend this to anyone that only has time for a few racing games in their life.

Pros:
+ Lighting is good
+ Allows you to race like a punk

Cons:
- Far too average to recommend
- Difficulty spikes might be too hard for some

SPOnG Score: 5/10
Companies:
Games: Gravel

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