Sorry to aggravate the aggregate heads, but Gravel isn’t actually about everyone’s favourite loose collection of rock fragments – sadly, it’s only a fun arcade racer. Coming from the motorheads at racing game specialists Milestone, Gravel focuses less on raw simulation and more on down-and-dirty off-road action, delivering an enjoyable – albeit somewhat unpolished – experience.
What’s most striking about Gravel is how immediately accessible it is. Apart from some pre-race options that allow gearheads to tweak their car’s tuning – suspension and transmission included – the controls you’ll need to know are right trigger for acceleration and left trigger for braking. It’s pleasantly simple, and ensures that both casual fans and experts can get in on the action, with difficulty settings that can be tweaked from race to race.
Don’t let the simplicity of the control scheme throw you off, though: a typical race in Gravel can get pretty intense. The sound is fantastic, with angry motors roaring around you on all sides, and the mucky nature of most of the game’s 65 (!) tracks means that you’ll often have mud and dirt flying everywhere before you speed through a lake.
Couple that with some aggressive mistake-prone AI and you’ll often be playing dirty, T-boning other cars in desperate hope of snatching the lead as they corner. Milestone’s destruction engine is wonderful in these moments: cars crumple and reel away from the many violent collisions you’ll experience.
Though the above is the average experience in Gravel, gameplay does vary depending on which of the four disciplines you play. Cross Country is easily the most enjoyable: racing on point-to-point tracks littered with checkpoints, these races push your car to the limit with long straights through wild locations and numerous jumps that can lead to racers colliding.
Wild Rush courses are a little more conservative, keeping the natural setting but opting for shorter circular tracks with laps, while Stadium circuits are arguably the most unique, their claustrophobic routes clogging up with racers’ trucks and resulting in crashes. The only real miss is the Speed Cross discipline, as its half-asphalt, half-dirt tracks are the least spectacular in the game and feel like an odd fit with Gravel’s off-road aesthetic.
With there being a huge amount of tracks, it’s to be expected that the quality of them is inconsistent in Gravel. The Cross Country tracks are usually the best: there are fun journeys in Alaska, Namibia, and Polynesia that are made up of multiple components and look excellent – unlike the crowds and some of the game’s liveries. But only a few races are truly memorable, and even then they pale in comparison to those produced by others in the genre. That isn’t to say that the majority of Gravel’s tracks aren’t fun – not at all – but there is a sense that Milestone is holding back a bit here.
Thanks to the many different disciplines and tracks, there’s also a nice variety of vehicle types in the game’s 70-strong lineup. Porsche, Toyota, Ford, and many others all feature here in the form of trucks, clapped-out bangers, and speedsters dating back to the 1970s, which will appeal to car nuts as well as those who just want to pick a car and race. Vehicles and liveries are unlocked by levelling up through Style Points, which are accumulated through both winning races and pulling off stunts during them. Don’t get too excited about the latter, though: stunts in Gravel are pretty tame, with jumps and drifts about the wildest things get.
This huge amount of content that Gravel contains culminates in the game’s main mode, Off-Road Masters, a fictional championship that takes you on a world tour of the game’s tracks as you work to defeat the Off-Road Master himself, Sean Walker – no relation to Paul. It’s a mode from which you’ll get plenty of gameplay hours, and it provides the best way to experience the game’s sheer variety, taking from one track to another in quick succession to ensure that you get to experience everything there is to offer.
Arguably the best thing about Off-Road Masters, though, is its willingness to embrace schlock. The various masters of racing that you’ll face, as well as Walker himself, all have their own exaggerated, stereotypical personas that are expressed through overly-dramatic promos on the Gravel Channel. It perfectly fits with the game’s casual tone, and the cagey one-on-one clashes that you have with each champion are a particular highlight.
Online multiplayer is the only other significant mode, offering both the usual Gravel fare as well as King’s Rush (a King of the Hill-style mode in which players vie to stay King the longest without getting hit) and Capture the Flag, which is pretty self-explanatory. These are both fun ideas, which makes it disappointing that Gravel doesn’t have local multiplayer; Capture the Flag especially would be a fantastic couch experience with friends.
Milestone's latest is a fun romp through a variety of off-road locations, offering both quantity and variety in terms of tracks, cards, and modes. It's not the most ambitious racer ever, but the non-serious style of the flagship Off-Road Masters mode will be very appealing to those wanting an enjoyable arcade experience.