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Gravel Review - A flawed yet exhilarating off-road experience

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When I think about off-road racing games, I think about simulations that take hours to learn and weeks to master, pushing the player to their limits in their quest reach a podium finish. Gravel, developed and published by Milestone, isn’t that type of game. In fact, the game is probably the most arcade-like racer released in the last few years when you play on default settings and that’s not just okay, that’s brilliant.

Gravel is fun, addictive and doesn’t get bogged down by too many unnecessary systems. Best of all, it has a unique single-player mode that is without a doubt the star of the whole experience.  

Off-road Masters

The game’s single-player campaign is presented in the form of a Gravel Channel Web TV Series with a presenter talking about the latest episode (the current race you are undertaking). After quickly typing in my name and telling the game my driver is from South Africa, Gravel wastes no time with lengthy tutorials or customization. Instead, you get thrown into your first race and you are on your way to the ultimate goal, to become the new off-road master.

The voice acting from the commentator is very limited and only happens at the start of each race, but when it does happen there are some real gems. For example, when I was racing in Lohéac, France, the commentator opened with this little gem: “Take one of the best locations and add some of the world’s best drivers, shake well and you get excitement guaranteed.”

I loved the whole single-player experience, not just because of the 16 diverse and beautiful environments or the plethora of vehicles to race with, but because of what I like to call “boss battles”. The boss battles come in the form of “special episodes” where the game pits you against the digital versions of real off-road stars in a series of events where of which they are the masters.

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My first “boss battle” was against Scott Parker, a stadium master in a 4-lap muddy battle and it was fantastic, exhilarating and a tonne of fun. Then, I faced off against Ryan Carter in an intense Wild Rush battle. These boss battles deliver such an intense experience that I felt my hands sweating up as the finish line neared because the game creates such tension throughout the driving experience and this idea that my performance here really mattered.

As I progressed through the 12-hour single-player (depending on what difficulty you choose), I battled it out against various off-road stars in my quest to become the off-road master. Every single one of the boss battles and even the races in-between felt great and I simply couldn’t stop drifting around corners in the four game modes.

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The four modes did feel a little limited. You have Cross Country, where you drive through awesome landscapes from the Namibian desert to the Alaskan mountains going through checkpoints along the way. Then you have Wild Rush, which forces you to sometimes go off the beaten track in a lap format as you try to avoid rocks and other obstacles all while trying to avoid driving into your opponents.

The Speed Cross mode is then set on famous tracks from across the globe that are perfect for making some incredible jumps happen. Lastly, there is a Stadium mode that sees you battle it out in close quarters against several other vehicles in glorious, muddy races. These modes and a few more interesting additions like where you have to hit specific boards in time attack are all complimented by 16 unique locations, ranging from Alaska to Las Vegas.

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Depending on the mode you are racing in, these environments will have different layouts. Not once did I get bored driving through some snowy mountain peaks or even old mines. Add weather and time-of-day systems into the mix and the game, in my opinion, does have enough diversity to keep things fresh.

Showboating for the win

So how do you progress in Gravel you might ask? Well, that’s another thing I love about the game, as showboating, pulling off crazy jumps and drifts, actually rewards you with progressing faster. Let me explain: You need to earn a certain number of stars to progress through each episode of the Off-road Masters campaign by completing objectives, form finishing the race to ending in the top 3.

However, completing these races and earning stars isn’t the only thing you to progress. You need Showpoints to level up, which you get by completing races, pulling off some stunts, skidding around the track and just about everything else. The more you progress, the more things you unlock, from cars to tracks.

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You get points for just about everything, from drifting to making a jump or even for every second you only have two wheels on the ground. The game literally rewards showboating and it's awesome. If you don’t make the landing when attempting a jump, for example, then you won’t get any points. There are weekly challenges where you need to beat a certain time and get even more Showpoints, to level up and unlock more cosmetic items as well as new vehicles.

My personal favourite vehicle you can unlock is the glorious Porsche 911 RSR Rallye sporting 300 horsepower and a Boxer 6-cylinder engine being my absolute favourite, even above the beautiful 1995 Subaru Impreza. There are just so many amazing vehicles to unlock and play around with not to mention several liveries (cosmetic skins) for each of them. You don’t even have to level up to unlock new liveries, as I found that throughout the short journey to the next level, I was also always unlocking things after each race.

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There is are no pay-to-win mechanics or even the slightest hint of loot boxes, you just unlock things as you play and that is extremely welcome. You can unlock everything by just playing the game.

Fasten those seatbelts

There is no doubt in my mind that Gravel delivers a fantastic arcade-like off-road racing experience, but not everything about the game is great. First and foremost, the “artificial intelligence across all difficulty levels feel lacking. Basically, the AI just follows their one set path in each environment and don’t even seem to react at all when you bump into them. This makes for a frustrating experience, especially on the cramped Stadium tracks.

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The game runs without any frame-rate issues on the PS4 Pro and the environments do look beautiful using the Unreal Engine 4. However, vehicle detail leaves a lot to be desired, so much so that I have seen better vehicle detail in a couple of mobile games. Then, there is also an issue of texture pop-ins and the faster you drive, the more this becomes visible.

Textures pop up from afar on the ground, especially when vegetation is present. On some maps, especially during night-time, shadows also seem to pop up as well. Basically, Gravel won’t win any awards for best graphics, but the trade-off here is some fast loading times and a stable frame-rate.

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Multiplayer is a hit or a miss experience, as sometimes it was smooth from South Africa, while other times it wasn't. I couldn't really pinpoint the issue and did experience some latency problems throughout. Joining a multiplayer match is easy and you can select a variety of settings, from types of vehicles to the assists available to everyone in the race and, of course, the game mode as well as the track. This all happens in a lobby where players can vote for a variety of options and it only took me about 4 minutes to find a match. 

Lastly, I’ve spoken a lot about how the game feels and how fun it is with the arcade-like racing, but if you want a more simulation-like experience, you can turn off the default settings including things like breaking assist and you can go with manual gear changes as well. It’s not exactly a simulation experience, but it definitely ups the difficulty quite a lot. The more assists you decide to turn off, the more Showpoints you will earn in the process, so adds another exciting dynamic during progression.

The Verdict

Gravel isn’t a simulation racer, nor does it have a particularly robust set of modes to play. However, what Gravel does include is the excellent Off-road Masters single-player experience and “boss” type encounters that really put a lot of personality into the game. Gravel doesn’t feature loot boxes and it always felt like I was unlocking something cool as I progressed and levelled up.

The game runs well and is simply put, a whole lot of fun to just pick up and play. There are some texture pop-ins on certain maps and the vehicles don’t look all that good when compared to racing games released in the past year, but I would rather have a smooth experience than a pretty one. The game’s AI leaves something to be desired as well, so it is definitely not a perfect experience. However, I do recommend Gravel for anyone who loves off-road racing and wants an awesome, exhilarating arcade experience without loot boxes, a great campaign and a whole lot of drifting.

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It is definitely a game to consider if you are tired of all the simulation racers out there and even with its flaws there is a lot of fun to be had. Best of all, the price for a physical copy of the game is roughly R300 less than other AAA titles.

This review was based off a review copy of the game provided to us by Milestone

Available On: PS4, Xbox One and PC | Reviewed On: PS4 Pro | Release Date: 27 February 2018 | RRP: R615  

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