Milestone has been making racing games for 20 years now, and whether the genre is motocross, daredevil-centric motocross, or rally racing, they have shown that they can craft it. However, their results have been mixed most of the time, with the bulk of their products being well-made, but lacking soul and charm. Gravel is their latest entry in the racing genre and their most diverse racing offering yet. Gravel brings together rallycross, off-road truck racing on short circuits, off-road truck races, and SUV racing. It’s essentially a salad bar of off-road racing that evokes many classic games while actually forging memories of its own – a rarity for Milestone’s games. An ever-present narrative structure guides the events, but doesn’t overstay its welcome by trying to be a plot. The goal is to simply become the best racer featured on the Gravel TV show – a similar conceit to Split/Second many years ago, and one that allows the focus to still be on racing while allowing you to forge ahead with new challenges.
Variety is the spice of life and it’s a godsend in Gravel as well, since you have so many different types of tracks and challenges ahead of you. Each racing type offers up something new, with some bringing you a wide array of opponents to best and others just challenging yourself to do better. Time trial-esque races aim to force you to do better through sheer track positioning, while short outdoor circuit races force you in real-time to learn how to better navigate tight corners and manage to overcome foes cleanly. While you can be as rough as you want to on the track, being too rough is going to bite you more often than not as AI rivals will do the same to you and won’t hesitate to hit you in mid-air to send you flying. Each vehicle type has its own quirks to it – so racing with a truck feels different than an SUV, and both feel far different from a rally vehicle. Similarly, each course type has its own tricks too.
Racing on a paved road gives you more traction, while off-road racing is more frantic and arguably more fun. The off-road truck racing sections with tight corners are some of the game’s most memorable because they are the closest thing to a modern-day version of the Super Off-Road racing games we’re ever likely going to see. It’s amazing how many memories of the past were evoked while still creating new ones because the very nature of having a jump-heavy truck racing game is exciting – and here, while it’s just part of a larger overall package, it still goes to show that the concept has a timeless quality to it that still works well today. Having large trucks bully you around on tight corners is surprisingly fun – and it’s thrilling to be able to turn them around in the heat of battle and forge ahead.
The more open off-road rallycross events are the game’s best – with a variety of terrain to worry about from basic dirt to fairly large bodies of water. There, you have to be even more careful than usual with your car positioning since handling in the water is harder and every movement could put you on a path into an obstacle when you hit land again. Gravel on Xbox One features some of the best rumble effects from a third-party game in the genre. While Microsoft usually goes all-out with rumble on the Forza games, off-road games rarely have the rumble change based on terrain – but Milestone did just that here and it makes every race seem more intense as it goes on. This is even more true if you get into a lot of collisions, as each one offers up a different level of intensity for the rumble.
The game’s track designs vary depending on each kind of race you’re in – and that gives the game a far more polished feel than most of Milestone’s efforts. As a whole, they vary and go from short tracks requiring far more precise driving to wider tracks that give you more room – but carry with them their own challenges. Shorter truck tracks are feast or famine when it comes to a mistake, as spinning out is much easier there and having so many vehicles around you means you can be hit from just about anywhere. The wider rallycross tracks take you to far more areas and through water, but do require you to be careful in a different way. While you have more room to move, you can also take a wrong turn and wind up out of luck quickly due to that. Fortunately, you can just rewind time without a penalty and that will save you from having to redo entire portions of a track if you aren’t bull-headed and accept that mistakes can happen.
Visually, Gravel looks pretty solid overall. The tracks all deform a bit when cars and trucks are on them – so the in-game world seems far more real than many games where there should be deformation and isn’t any. Fortunately, it doesn’t affect handling in any way so you can easily predict movements lap to lap without having to worry about the terrain shifting on you and messing up your timing. The vehicles themselves look great in either third or first-person camera views – with the in-cockpit views showing off accurate gauges and better-looking water splashes when driving through small bodies of water. The environments are a mixed bag, as the tracks themselves look great but trackside details are a bit sparse.
Gravel’s sound design is strong, and the rock-heavy soundtrack gets your blood pumping in races. None of it sticks with you afterwards, but that’s fine – the goal is to amp you up and it does that. The vehicle-on-vehicle contact effects are powerful, with a strong boom if you hit at a faster rate of speed and a nice, consistent grinding if you don’t separate quickly. No matter what kind of race type you’re in, you can look forward to the game’s sound effects carrying things and having the sound compliment the visual action very well.
Overall, Gravel is Milestone’s finest game to date. It combines a surprisingly high amount of racing types together and does an exceptional job with all of them. The handling is far better than most of their prior work, and the level of on-screen excitement is at its highest point yet as well. There are some rough edges when it comes to the overall presentation, and the FMV-laden story mode of sorts is somewhat of a groaner, but it doesn’t take away from how fun the core racing action is. It uses rumble better than most games on the market today as well – at least for Xbox One controller users, and is a solid pickup for anyone craving some off-road racing.
Reviewed By: Jeremy Peeples
Publisher: Square Enix
This review is based on a digital copy of Gravel for the Xbox One provided by Square Enix.