STAFF REVIEW of Gravel (Xbox One)

Monday, March 19, 2018.
by Kirby Yablonski

Gravel Box art I had the chance to preview Milestone’s latest racing game, Gravel, at PAX West last year, and back then I was intrigued, and kind of impressed for what it was. Fast forward to the present day and Gravel has finally been released into the hands of gamers. What is evident from my time with the final version is that It strays from the whole ‘simulation’ aspect that a lot of racing games stick to. It’s basically a pick up and play racer that many video game owners of all skill levels can enjoy, as long as they keep their expectations in check.

There is a quasi-story mode to be found in Gravel called Off-Road Masters. It is based on a fictional TV show called Gravel TV. You’ll be going through the campaign via a series of episodes (a total of 19 of them). As you progress you get a flashy TV oriented introduction as to what you’ll be doing, and of course upon completing the race(s) you’ll get a TV like send-off too. In the first few episodes you are introduced to the types of racing modes you will be engaged in. There are 4 different racing disciplines including Cross Country (race from point A to point B), Wild Rush (fantasy tracks), Stadium Circuit (like motocross racing for cars/trucks), and Speed Cross (traditional, but small, asphalt/dirt tracks). Within these disciplines you’ll find different types of race modes too. For example, in the Cross Country discipline there is a mode called Smash Up. This is a point to point race; however, as you race on the track, there are signs that display green or red arrows at the last second. These signs are the check points, and you must hit the green arrows to continue uninterrupted. If you hit any of the red arrows your speed and momentum are slowed down as if you hit a random object.

As you play you earn stars during each episode in the career (via in-race challenges) that unlocks the next episode, or more, further down the career path. There are quite a few episodes too (a total of 19), and they are sectioned into 2/3/4-episode segments, with the last episode of each section being a ‘championship’ involving a few races. Once this is completed you will come across a character that equates to a ‘boss’, who is basically a race ‘master’ in a specific discipline, and you will need to beat them too.

You’ll also earn EXP points as you progress. These are based on your placing in a race as well as such things as air time, drifting (called skidding in Gravel), high speeds, and other racing related actions. As you accumulate a specific number of points, and level up, new vehicles unlock, as well as new liveries for all the vehicles. In regards to the number of vehicles, it’s not as large as the ‘bigger’ racing games out there, but there is a nice selection. There are 19 licensed manufacturers in Gravel, with a total of over 70 cars. You’ll find various manufacturers including Mini, Toyota, VW, Mitsubishi, Porsche, Ford and Chevy racing vehicles to name a few. It’s a nice variety to choose from and each vehicle is geared for the discipline it’s found in.

When I first saw Gravel at PAX West 2017, I was told that sim-aspects, such as tuning, were not a necessary aspect of a game, as the options for such would be very few as the focus was on just racing. Well, low and behold, there are indeed tuning options in the game and they are more in-depth than I had expected. Sure, they are not deep simulation options, but you can ‘tinker’. The neat thing though is that you don’t need to hit up these ‘tuning’ menus to be successful in the game. Should you wish, you can just pick your vehicle and head on straight into a race, and win. I see the tuning aspect more for the gearheads who might be finicky on how their car handles and who are the type that find it fun dialing in a vehicle’s setting.

In terms of Gravel’s control, it is more arcade focused in this area. The vehicles control quite nicely. They feel quite similar; however, you will notice slight nuances, such as how the racing trucks and bigger vehicles are not as ‘snappy’ feeling in terms of turning in tight corners. I found that the level of adjusting my vehicle when trying to keep it on the track, or in its racing line, has to do with what type of surface you are on. From grassy fields and sandy beaches to the hard, or muddy, dirt in a stadium track or the snowy road on a mountain course, you do have to adjust accordingly. I found it fun to have to focus on navigating the tight corners in a stadium race then next race I’d kick out the back end of my car on a wide, sweeping snowy track in the mountains. Bottomline, the control in this game is not bad at all, and many people will enjoy driving the vehicles that are offered.

In terms of the game’s AI, it really does depend on what skill level you race on. When I review racing games, I tend to put the game on the middle difficulty. In Gravel, the default skill level is ‘medium’, which I left it on. The AI would prove to be formidable in the first lap or two, or in terms of point to point races, right at the start, but later in a race I could find my way into the lead. I found I was able to win more races than not, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t times that the AI pushed me now and then. I did not notice any rubber banding either. Overall, the ‘medium’ setting is not overly difficult, and should you want more of a challenge, you will want to push up the skill level of the AI racers.

For those looking to customize their racing experience, features wise, you will find that you can turn on/off such things as braking help, auto brakes, TCS, stability assists, automatic/manual transmission, a racing line, and how damage affects the game (e.g. cosmetic vs active). Personally, I find that options like this make the game more accessible to those who don’t usually play racing games, like my 11-year-old son, whose passion is for Fortnite and Overwatch. Being able to turn assists like these on or off allow the racing to be tailored for many different levels of gamers.

Should you just wish to check out the tracks offered and/or the different racing disciplines, you can hit the Free Race option found in the game’s menu. Here you’re able to do what you want, how you want, and you can change the types of weather, the cars on track, and the time of day, to name a few things. It’s a great place to just check out the game content and practice a new track or try out a new car that you unlocked. There is also a Time Attack mode, which is self-explanatory. Finally, there is also a Weekly Challenge. Here you are assigned a car, and you try to complete a random challenge. The first challenge available at the game launch was beating a certain time in a VW Beetle Speed Cross Car in Las Vegas.

Gravel also has the requisite multiplayer mode. You can go online and race up to 11 other players over Xbox Live. What is interesting about this is two things. The first is that you aren’t locked into one single mode, as each time you are in the lobby you are given a choice of multiple locations and game modes to choose from, and those in the lobby vote on what to race. The other thing that is somewhat interesting is that when the lobby does not fill, the game fills the remaining racers with AI bots. There are standard racing modes to those that are a little ‘non-standard’, like a king of the hill mode (called King Rush) and a capture the flag mode. Where the problem lies with the online multiplayer is that I went online on a couple of different days, and only found people online on one day. What we raced was fairly smooth and lag-free, and I managed to enjoy a few games. It’s disappointing that there are not a lot of people online, as I think there could be a good online community with this game.

The visuals in Gravel are fairly well done. The game utilizes the Unreal Engine 4 (UE4) and manages to produce some consistent, and eye pleasing graphics. You'll see reflections off the cars paint and there are some nice lighting effects. You'll find a wide variety of environments too, From snow covered mountains or the rough terrain of Alaska to the stadium tracks in LA Memorial Coliseum and the speed cross track in Las Vegas, the environments are pretty good looking. There is a nice selection of racing views too, including behind the car, two cockpit views (one farther back and one right up against the front windshield), a hood view, and a bumper cam. I preferred the close-up cockpit view or the hood cam, as the sense of speed was quite good.

You’ll race at different times of day, as well as in varying weather, and these manage to look somewhat convincing too. Why do I say “somewhat” you ask? Well, there are a few gripes, such as the rain not falling convincingly on your window in the cockpit mode, and some minor draw-in now and then. I also ran into a bit of ‘slowdown’, where the framerate slowed quite considerably, when racing at night in Las Vegas. All in all, I would say the game looked better more often than the times you will find something to nitpick at. As a side note, Gravel is enhanced for the Xbox One X, but how the game is indeed enhanced is another question. That being said, maybe that is why I didn’t see many technical issues when I was playing, but we will follow up and try to find out how it is Xbox One X enhanced.

Finally, as for the sound, it was good enough to pass on what action was taking place on the screen. From the different sounds of vehicle engines, environmental effects (e.g. cars bumping, rain falling, water flowing in a waterfall) to the sounds of tires squealing as they struggled to maintain grip on the pavement, it was done well enough, just not Forza or DiRT quality (you knew the inevitable comparison would be mentioned somewhere…right?). In regard to the game’s music, I tend to like to hear my vehicle’s engine, but what in-game music I let play was not annoying at all, and I didn’t mind it playing in the background at a low volume as I raced. You’ll find three separate settings for sound too, including stereo, home theatre, and TV speakers. I kept it on the home theatre setting as I was playing through a soundbar/subwoofer combo, and it managed to sound pretty good through this setup.

Gravel was a pleasant surprise, although it’s not as exciting as some may like. I enjoyed the various racing environments, and the different racing disciplines, that are offered and I think many other racing fans of all levels will too. What is disappointing is that there seems to be very few to no gamers racing online, which is a shame. I found that my time with Gravel was enjoyable, and without many issues. Sure, it’s doesn’t do anything to make it a must have racing title, but what it does it does fairly well, and it’s a pretty decent racing game that starts of the genre in 2018 with more of a bang than a whimper.

Overall: 7.8 / 10
Gameplay: 7.9 / 10
Visuals: 7.9 / 10
Sound: 7.5 / 10


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