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Gravel or Accessible Arcade Action – Light

Posted in Hands On, Played & Explained with tags , , , , on March 13, 2018 by Rabidgames

What exactly is Gravel? In short, it’s an extremely accessible arcade racer with an okay-ish selection of cars and tracks (you need to unlock basically everything) by Italian developer Milestone who’s mostly focused on racing games with 2 and 4 wheels. Gravel features cars that mostly go off-road (including gravel, of course), and the career mode “Off-Road Masters” is presented as a TV show.

When you first boot up Gravel and have a look at the options, you’ll notice quite a few settings. You can set your braking and stability helps, brakes, whether you want the ideal trajectory (aka the racing line) to be shown, and more. The thing is – the more help you turn off, the more bonus points you get! The same system applies to difficulty – the harder the more points. Sadly, the whole system gets offset by how very easy the game is on, well, very easy, so a victory there nets you by far more points than the +5% for 4th place on Medium.

But Gravel doesn’t stop there – you can also play around with your front and rear suspensions, transmission, differential, brakes and alignment (in a completely different menu just before the start of a race that you might actually overlook). If you’re into that kind of thing, you can get a bit of time out of it, but unless you’re really struggling with your chosen car on a course, it’s not really needed to be honest. Besides, there are only minor differences with the handling, or the speed, of the cars anyway.

Then again, the problem is you need to unlock virtually everything in Gravel, so feel free to win races (unlocking cars, liveries and tracks) to earn points (to unlock more cars and liveries). You do that via career which is presented as a couple of races and championships, followed by a face-off with the allegedly best driver in a category you then have to beat a few times. Each race won/finished in a set position/finished nets you a certain number of stars, and a certain amount of stars unlocks more races. It’s a neat little system where it’s alright to jump into the game once in a while to get in a few laps even when you don’t have the time to simulate an entire one hour race. The highlight of Gravel’s career mode are the races against the “masters” of a discipline (and you also get a promo clip introducing their personality). In reality, it is just 3 more or less difficult 1-on-1 races – but you have to win all of them!

Now, for the arcade-ness of Gravel, most races only take 2 to 4 minutes, and the A.I. is pretty foreseeable. On higher difficulties, your opponents are just a bit quicker and tend to be more in our face, but don’t expect tactics or team play. Rubber-banding is also there, although if you’re quick, you can have a comfortable lead anyway, it’s more the case that the A.I. doesn’t get away when you’re behind.

But then again, the game gets considerably hard sometimes out of the blue (because you won’t expect it); time-trials have times that are not that easy to beat in Gravel, and the outright idiotic “Smash-up” events where you have to hit the correct signs in your way are pretty hard and, most crucially, the opposite of fun. You have to get out of your way to hit some of them, and the whole joke is a chore to be best ignored.

The discrepancies in Gravel are stark – with A.I. on easy, you can easily win with 20 or more seconds to spare in races against cars, but the same result gets you 3rd in Time-Attacks and last in Smash-Ups … something absolutely doesn’t add up there. Furthermore, it is a bit too arcadey that the weather and surface hardly have any effect – asphalt, mud or grass don’t make much difference in terms of handling, and rain and snow should feel way more different.

But at its heart, that only emphasises the fun factor of Gravel’s arcade approach – everyone can jump in for a quick race – sadly, there is no split-screen, which is a massive oversight for this kind of game. There are a few online multiplayer modes, some of them probably fun for those who are into multiplayer – Capture the Flag with cars is certainly more Destruction Derby than racing. And while crashes might not see the cars falling apart, at least you can have some car-flipping fun:

But for all the fun, there isn’t too much substance in Gravel. Mind you, it is a full-price game, and when you compare it to DiRT or GRID, Gravel falls flat on its bumper. Yes, it is accessible, but the main target groups, arcade-racing fans and casuals, probably don’t care too much about a racing game like Gravel where you get instant fun for a premium price. Besides, the graphics aren’t too great either (sometimes it feels like a late PS3 game) so you can clearly see the AA charm of the game. Couple that with the fact that most stadium or race tracks are samey, and you only have a few shining tracks like the wilderness of Alaska, the coast and desert of Namibia and the snow-covered Mont-Blanc, and the at times contradicting design decisions, and you end up with cheap popcorn fun for the price of a full-on experience.

Rabidgames parks the car: For half the price, Gravel would be a nice and smooth ride. For full price, it’s the equivalent of buying tickets to a Formula 1 race but then seeing Formula E instead – it might still be enjoyable, but a bit of pace, quality and glamour is amiss. But if you’re actually looking for a racing game to just jump in for 10 or 20 minutes after a labouring day, this might be your pick. For those who prefer to sink their teeth into a game, Gravel doesn’t offer enough substance for a hearty meal though.

 

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