Gravel is a new off-road racer from Italian developer, Milestone, that brings together ideas you might have seen in other titles like Forza Horizon and DiRT.
It's a racing game that doesn't take itself too seriously and is easy to get used to. The issues with Gravel aren't anything to do with the meat of the game but rather how long you might be playing it.
Single-player fun with questionable longevity
The core of the Gravel experience is the single-player career mode, the Off-Road Masters. You play through a series of challenges across different environments and race types, in pursuit of the final showdown with the best driver in the world. Progression is based on stars, and unlocking the new events is straightforward. You won't have to ace every race with three stars to carry on, which is excellent.
It's extra excellent because in some races there's a questionable difficulty level. In the Smash It races, you have to drive through a series of green boards as fast as possible. Missing one resets you to the track with a time penalty, and hitting a red board slows you down. But even on a clean run, hitting every green board, I cannot finish above last. So I gave up.
Mostly though the difficulty and the AI drivers are pretty well balanced. It's supposed to be an arcade-style racer, so expect wild driving and bumps galore. It's not as realistic feeling as DiRT or the WRC games, but it isn't meant to be. Here you've got ludicrous jumps and really engaging environments to race in that also include some pretty spectacular looking stadiums.
Controls are straightforward and the differing environments don't make much impact on how the cars handle. Again, it's an arcade-style game, so that's completely fine. The races aren't too long, either, so if you just want to pick it up for a quick blast you can. And there are plenty of casual player-friendly features, like car indicators and a rewind button for the times you get it completely wrong.
There's no grind in Gravel, and I like that a lot.
The single-player mode has plenty to keep you entertained, but how long for is the biggest question. The only roadblocks to progressing are the special episodes where you need to win a series of head-to-head races to unlock the next areas of the game. But even then you won't need long to beat them. And once the single-player is over there's not a great deal to do.
There is a season pass for Gravel with a promise of five additional packs with new circuits and races. But if you were hoping the multiplayer would prolong the life of this fun racer, you'll be disappointed.
Almost non-existent online multiplayer
On Xbox, multiplayer is seemingly non-existent. Every time I tried to go into matchmaking I was left waiting for what feels like an eternity before quitting and going back to single-player. And if the lobbies aren't very full right now, the chances of multiplayer competition in weeks, or months doesn't look too good. And that's a shame, because Gravel is a lot of fun.
Besides the Off-Road Masters, there are weekly challenges put into the game by the developers. There's only been a couple so far but they're challenging enough.
Well presented and Xbox One X Enhanced
Gravel is a decent looking game throughout, and while it's not as good looking as Forza Horizon, it's not bad. There are tons of licensed vehicles, and while some of the overall detail is a little lacking, it makes up for it in places such as seeing the drivers hand move to change gear through the back window.
The environments are the standout part of Gravel's visuals. They're engaging, atmospheric and the weather effects are really well done. When it's raining, your entire screen mists over a little, just as it would in real life, for example.
Gravel is also Xbox One X Enhanced which delivers 4K resolution, albeit only at 30 frames per second (FPS). There are other "visual enhancements," too, but one thing that is lacking is HDR. In an interview with WCCFTech the developers confirmed that HDR is exclusive to PlayStation 4 and PC versions of the game (hint: Blame Unreal Engine 4).
What's less impressive are the occasional performance issues. Sure, there are a few frame rate skips here and there, but I can mostly ignore those. What's less pleasing is when the auto drive message that's shown on a rolling start doesn't go away, so you don't know you're now driving and you crash into a wall. The game has also frozen up completely a couple of times.
Gravel for Xbox One review: The bottom line
Gravel is a lot of fun, offering an enjoyable arcade-racing experience with oodles of sideways flare. It's well presented and has plenty of appeal for fans of single-player games that just want something they can pick up and play without much of a learning curve.
The lack of HDR is disappointing, but at least the Xbox One X has been considered, though personally I'd trade 4K support for 60 FPS every day.
- No learning curve, arcade-style racer.
- Fun gameplay.
- Decent visuals and soundtrack.
- Questionable longevity.
- Basically non-existent multiplayer.
- Occasional performance issues.
The only real cloud over Gravel is how long the single player will be enjoyable for. I also don't know how the developers could encourage more people to play the online multiplayer.
But if you like fun racing games, especially ones that never try to be too serious, Gravel will scratch your itch. The driving part of it is consistently enjoyable. It's available now for $49.99.
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