Sometimes you’ll play a video game hoping to rekindle a flame for an older one long since completed and forgotten by many. I’m a bit of a nostalgia geek at the best of times but Sega Rally has always held a soft spot in my heart. From the humble arcade origins to the Sega Saturn and the fantastic 360 reboot, it’s always been a fun splash in the mud that was unashamed of its arcade origin. I’ll always be diving into rally games with that fire for arcade fun burning brightly. Although when I first saw Gravel I originally thought the game had a link in some way to Spintires (with a similar look and focus on the dirt) but developer Milestone are better known for the officially licensed WRC rally games, Motorcross and MotoGP Games. With that information a lot of this game falls into place.
Gravel is a sort of hybrid rally game that feels like Driveclub got mixed with Dirt3 and had a dash of realism thrown in. The gameplay across all of the various vehicles reflects this with the differences between a large Toyota Celica and a Mini being relatively skin deep. The handling is a little too light in places and heavy in others, there are plenty of settings for tweaking this but the hybrid of realism and arcade just isn’t quite realised. The core driving feels like a serious rally trying to muck around in the arcades and the inclusion of a quick rewind system (where if you crash you can rewind the last few seconds with little to no consequence) just lends to less arcade action and more a start stop repetition.
Revolving around a fake LIVE TV sports channel in games is always going to be hit and miss, sometimes it’s delightfully on the nose but most of the time it comes off as a cheap way to ramp up the ‘extreme’ and Gravel is unfortunately one of the later. The idea that your tuned into Gravel Channel and all these races are live broadcasts never really pays off with the fast gameplay that has to be paused because you’ve missed a tree or miss-timed a bend. It’s not really fleshed out enough either to reflect the animated extreme it’s going for. Half the time it feels like a serious off-road racing game and your mostly being reminded of ‘Gravel Channel LIVE’ through the dialogue between races. It feels like this is the reasoning for an episodic approach to the events but all it results in a feeling of a serious game wrapped up in neon writing saying, “COOL EFFECT”.
The reason Gravel reminds me so much of Driveclub though is the system that gives players bonus XP in a MSR system (yes I’m old) While racing your drifting, jumping and top speed is given bonus XP points that are lost if you collide with a hazard or use the rewind ability and collected up and dished out at the end of the event. Simply bomb in for some skids and nailing the tight turns is rewarding and seeing a big number pop up adds to this feeling of accomplishment but this is a one time high that wears down the more you play, the end result being a slightly light racer which can’t quite get its grip going for long enough to sustain its pacing forever sacrificing the points because the AI just happened to nip you on the last corner.
Visually Gravel is sporadic. At times stunning and clocking in gorgeous framerates and speed that just feel fantastic, Then at other times the camera can glitch and warp around your car especially if you hit a wall sideways particularly hard. The scenery can be bland and when at very high speeds there can be some noticeable pop up of grass and plants. Gravel does have at least two visual tricks it nails with gusto and that’s the dirt and lighting. There are some extremely dark tracks in this game where your flying along with little to no light to guide your way and the dirt that is successfully baked into what remains of your car at the end of any event is impressive. It’s a shame then that the black, white and red UI just doesn’t seem to mesh with anything and feels more serious than the design of the game overall was going for. Is it EXTREME racing or is it another WRC title but without the licences? It seems to flip-flop on this issue more than a few times and comes off worse for the lack of focus.
Gravel is a rally game by a serious developer so it’s engine sounds are fantastic. When your flooring it down a massive sand dune towards a sharp corner it really sounds like your there and when you slam into the walls the crunch is pretty tasty. It’s the rest of the audio design where again Gravel is just not up to muster. The music is your typical rocky upbeat affair but nothing unique enough to remember and the biggest problem with the sound is the commentary throughout the menus, with that artificial “get hype” sort of nonsense that comes through before and after each event. It’s fine if you’re a 12-year-old who could buy into it but personally it felt a touch to Motors TV trying to be “cool”.
The multiplayer (at the time of writing) is pretty quiet but there is still enough people to play with. There’s always one or two humans to race against with the AI bots filling the pack at any given time of day. It’s just a shame your limited to random events, tracks and setups with “quick play” or “private match” the only two options. Each quick play event is a lottery of existing content which throws up three options and players have to vote (there’s no option for “none of the above”) on the event they want. Also I realise this is a graphically demanding game but the lack of a split-screen local multiplayer mode is disappointing given other titles have thrived on the coach rally silliness by simply lowering the resolution and textures to make it function. The rewind option is disabled in online multiplayer and given my experience it seems people aren’t aware of this going into some corners. There is a weekly challenge with leadership boards to post your scores but this just ties you back into the progression system and doesn’t make up for a lack of local multiplayer options.
There’s plenty to unlock in Gravel but it’s all tied into a fixed progression system where you earn XP, level up and unlock new cars, tracks and colours. ‘Events’ is definitely a better description for Gravels stages rather than ‘races’ as there is a lot of variety on offer from standard racing loops to classic rally single direction tracks, elimination, super-stage and time trials. These are all judged by 3 stars with different objectives but the challenges are rarely more than 1st, 3rd and finish race. Progressing does feel fair and you do unlock a lot through just completing one or two events at the start it’s just another levelling system for liveries that feels stingy. It all feels like just another grindy system to unlock stuff in a cynical way to get you invested in playing.
Let’s get to the crux of the matter, Gravel is fun. In the same way that Driveclub was fun. It’s just a shame the push for DLC clutters the episodic interface given that this is a full price game, the attempted channel aesthetic wears thin fast and the whole affair just doesn’t have enough weight to it. There are great moments to be had it’s just dampened by irritating issues. I think it’s best summarised by a great moment where I hit a jump at an unsafe speed, flew into an opponent, got my battered car round the corner and for the next two laps fell into a dull momentum that won the race. Then had to spend far too long fiddling with the limited replay system and never getting a decent image or video of the event killing any feeling of excited joy from the first crunch.
5/10 – Less rally master more dirty first run.