It was just a few weeks ago that I had the chance to review Monster Energy Supercross from Milestone and here we are again, with a new game from the same developers only this time with four wheels rather than two. Gravel is the latest car-based racing game by the developers since Sébastien Loeb Rally Evo back in 2016. There are a lot of different gameplay styles which range from indoor track-based courses (which remind me a lot of Supercross) to A-B races which take you through some well-designed areas, yet it feels there is something missing when you compare the game to other arcade racers such as DIRT 4 or Driveclub. Let’s jump in and find out why.
The single-player portion of Gravel revolves around an ‘Off-Road Masters campaign’ storyline. As a rookie, you must work your way through 15 ‘episodes’ which each contain three or four races or events. After a few episodes you are also invited to participate in three events with a ‘master’ of a certain race style – you have a Circuit, Wild Run, Speed Cross, Cross Country a mysterious ‘Final League’ match. Each of the above styles is presented throughout the whole campaign and come with various game modes. In some you will be doing a basic indoor circuit, an outdoor A-B race, elimination rounds, time attacks, a smash the right block mode (I’m not a fan of this one), and more.
Progressing through the campaign is easy, each race/event you enter has up to three stars to earn. The criteria are low at first where being in the top five will get you all three stars and just finishing the track will bag you one – however, later on the requirements jump to the top three then you have to be placed first. Upon earning the stars and beating the ‘master’ of that segment, the next set of stages are opened up for you. Now, you may or may not be aware but I hate three-star games as they tend to lock people out of progressing if they are unable to obtain literally every single star – Gravel isn’t like that, it’s very generous with its requirements. For example, I was able to move onto new levels by only completing one or two episodes and the master, skipping some episodes completely.
The whole game is held together in a faux TV show called the Gravel Channel – it’s an interesting idea but one that wasn’t really expanded on much outside of a few cutscenes and intros. Considering you can jump back and forth in whatever race you want and re-take them made it feel this path might not have been the best. I’ve played games with this style before, like PGA and WWE, but they always had a timetable and a strict ‘you can’t go back’ method about it. I would have liked it if Gravel was set up more like a TV show with its times, maybe fans and viewers based on how well you were racing – similar to how they did the in-game twitter feeds in Supercross. Actually, the twitter feeds in Supercross would have fit this game perfectly so I’m surprised they didn’t use them.
I’m happy to say that the most important part of a racing game is solid in my opinion – the controls. Depending on the weather conditions, you will either be locked to the track, drifting around corners, sliding on the water/ice or trying to maintain control on the mud. The various tracks have you driving across beaches, forests, muddy indoor arenas, smooth tarmac and even snowy outdoor events. Just like with Supercross, you can adjust all of the car’s settings like front/rear suspension, Brakes, alignment and the transmission and differentials to make the track you are racing on easier. You can also save these settings so you can easily load them up on future races if you have found the perfect setup for yourself. But don’t worry, if all of this overwhelms you (as it did with me a little) you can still race and do just fine with the default options.
Also, the ‘rewind’ mechanism for other popular games (as well as their Monster Energy Supercross game) is back – so you can rewind up to five seconds which is required in a game with real physics like this as one wrong move and you can be sliding all over the place on the wet mud or ice.
So, not only do you have to look out for the different environments and the hazards they bring but you also have to watch out for the AI – who are actually pretty hard! On medium you will have a hard time, using the initial cars, to get into the top three due to the AI not being perfect but adapting well to the environment. You can always lower the difficulty if you wish as it goes from very easy to very hard in five steps. You aren’t penalised for doing this, again just like supercross, you will lose a few percentages of a bonus at the end but you don’t get anything taken away from the base reward. I would recommend you play on medium and see how you go through, then adjust it accordingly one step at a time until you find your sweet spot – you want it challenging enough that you feel satisfaction when you manage to overtake the opponents and beat them.
Another thing you can do, which you would expect in all new races to be fair, is the ability to not only tweak the car but also the race itself to an extent (certain things can’t be altered in the campaign but they can all be changed in free play). Once again, they are almost identical to Supercross – you can change the time of day, weather, the number of laps, braking help, auto brakes, TCS, stability help, transmission a/m/sa, ideal trajectory, and if the damage is cosmetic or if it affects you. The majority of these options increase the bonus percentage you will receive upon completing a race. Again, it’s all down to experimenting and seeing what your sweet spot is – personally I have any braking help or trajectory lines turned off which helps bump up my final score.
Other than the campaign, you can play the game in either Free Play mode, Time Attack mode, Multiplayer and Weekly Challenges. I’m sure you know what all of these are so I won’t go into them too much – the Free Play tracks are unlocked as you progress through the main campaign and win various races and masters as they aren’t all available from the beginning. Time Attack is simply beating the in-game timer. Multiplayer I’ve yet to try as I couldn’t find a match pre-launch but today it seems pretty healthy in there. The Weekly Challenge is the interesting one – each week you will be given a car and a track and you have to see what the best time is you can get – in competition with the worldwide community of the game. I’m not sure if you win anything but it’s a thing.
Going back to the race types that I touched on above, other than your standard racing types, there was one I said that really annoyed me – the block smashing one. I’ve seen similar in games like DiRT many years ago but not recently – you are driving from A to B and every so often a set of video screens appear and they change to either a green arrow or red cross. If you hit the green one then you carry on at your own speed. If you hit the red one then your car comes to a halt, costing you precious seconds. If you miss them all then you respawn in front of the boards and again, lose seconds. No matter how many times I tried these levels, even on the easiest difficulty, I can’t win! I’m guessing it’s just me as someone has already platinumed the game, but still – I’m not a fan of this game mode. If you’re having trouble picturing it, it’s like Takeshi’s Challenge where they run into a door and hope they go through it rather than fall flat on their face – only with a few seconds notice as to what’s behind the door.
The track design is generally really good. I prefer the A-B tracks as they offered the most variety in terms of scenery and the environmental visuals, but the circuits are cool as well. Some of these have you jumping over your opponents and some even have alternative routes you can take which eventually end up back in the same part but offer a different direction to go in. I wasn’t a massive fan of the indoor smaller circuits though, especially when you had a load of CPU opponents as it can get a bit crowded as you fight your way to the front.
Graphically, the game looks great (in photo mode) as you can see by the pictures I’ve put in this review, which are all from my own gameplay. The jump to Unreal Engine 4 really helped the game out and it has allowed them to deliver a much more polished game than previously. However, everything has its flaws – you’ll notice I said ‘In photo mode’ – that’s because in actual gameplay mode the game feels softer. It feels like either the depth of field is off or they have lowered the resolution whilst the game is in motion for some reason. I’m not saying the game looks bad because it doesn’t, it just looks a lot clearer and crisper when you jump into the photo-mode, that’s all. Plus, when you’re racing around early evening in the heavy rain with fog and your headlights on – the game is gorgeous and runs perfectly on the PS4 Pro (I can’t speak for the base PS4). On all consoles, the game is only 30fps – but I didn’t notice any dips and I would say it’s a rock solid 30fps (again, on the Pro).
Sound-wise, you have a generic Rock soundtrack which actually works really well. It would have been nice if they would have licensed some actual artists and put their music in the game but you see less and less of that these days which I imagine is down to keeping the game on shelves longer without having licencing issues later on. All-in-all though, the sound effects are spot on, the music is great and my only criticism was that the sound of the cars was overpowering the music too much so I had to turn their volume down a bit. Having that as the only criticism is good in my books!
Trophies – I know some of you out there like to know about the trophies. They aren’t that bad in Gravel – it’s more time consuming than hard as you have to play through and get three stars in every event, level up to level 50, beat all of the masters and perform a few feats like jumping for three seconds and drifting for seven seconds etc… If you are having trouble with the game then you can reduce the difficulty to ‘very easy’ for no penalty in regards to trophies – you just won’t get as many points at the end – although the points aren’t used to buy anything so you’re not really missing out unless you want to aim to be #1 on the leaderboards.
Gravel is a fun arcade racer – something I’ve not seen many of in the last few years. It looks and plays great on the Ps4 Pro and offers a tonne of content that will keep you going for a long time. There are plenty of licenced cars which you can use to race through some well-designed areas either against the CPU, other players or solo via Time-Attack; however, the setup of the game (the TV show) feels a little ‘basic’. It’s great if you love the old-school ‘pick a race and go’ style, but if you are looking for more depth in the campaign then you may be disappointed.
- Great photo-mode
- Soundtrack fits perfectly and the car sound effects are great
- Weather and lighting effects are done really well
- Lots of tracks, events and races to take on for hours of gameplay
- The control are solid
- The TV show aspect feels a little empty
- The block breaking races require you to be perfect or else...
- The loading times aren't as long as Supercross but they are still fairly long
- In-game racing graphics seem very soft - like the DoF or resolution is being altered between photo-mode and gameplay