There are two things above all else in life that we crave. High speeds and dirt. For this reason alone it is easy to enjoy the latest arcade racer from the prolific Italian racing game factory that is Milestone.
The career mode in Gravel is a structured around a fictional TV series called "Off-Road Masters". The premise is utterly traditional in the sense that you collect stars to unlock new competitions and the better you perform, the more stars you earn per race. Every now and then it deviates off the beaten track with a bossfight against one of the game's big name profiles such as Scott Parker, for instance.
The "bossfights" (or "boss races") are introduced in the most extravagant way you can imagine, for example, Scott Parker is wearing semi-oily hair kept in check by a trucker cap while he is playing air guitar during a string of colourful explosions. This is the overall framing of the content in Gravel and besides the fact that it feels corny, it also feels a bit less than genuine to what the studio normally stands for and something that's there to cater to the whims of an intended audience slash focus group.
The career mode, apart from this flirtation with adolescence, well structured. Although it's a bit of a throwback to how racing games used to be, it feels refreshing to not have a gigantic open world where we need to cover distance in between competitions or break advertisement signs for experience points like in the Forza Horizon games. Gravel is divided into 15 episodes where different types of competition all takes place and it feels easy and logical without being boring or stale.
Among the different types of races or categories where the races are divided into there is not really anything that really sticks out but here you can find standard races, time trials, elimination races and something called "smash-ups" where you are alone on the track and you're asked to crash into certain objects at certain specific times. This mode requires reflexes and patience and is in our opinion perhaps the most fun the game has to offer and something we would not mind seeing recycled in other racing titles.
Another thing we really enjoyed with Gravel was that Milestone completely moved away from the structure where you need to buy new cars, new car parts, tune or build your car or unlock new tracks or other hidden stuff. Instead, it's all about the stars you collect and about getting enough experience points to be able to enter the next race.
When it comes to the car physics and the sheer feel of the cars in Gravel, there is absolutely nothing here that's remotely realistic. This is an arcade racer through and through and it comes with that bouncy, super-quick and responsive feel of the cars from Sega Rally or Motorstorm. It never matters if you are driving a pickup truck or a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution rally car, Gravel always feels a certain way and the amount of grip that the cars in the game are generating is close to zero. It's fun though. We enjoy it. Milestone should have given the cars a bit more weight, though.
Milestone has released racing titles such as Ride, Ride 2, Moto GP and WRC (up until WRC 4) and they have never been top of the class when it comes to graphics, at least not in comparison to competitors like Polyphony Digital, Playground Games or Ghost Games. The cars in Gravel lack detail and the lighting is sub-par all the way through. The gravel coming off the spinning tires look weird, too, and the presentation feels corny and weird, as stated earlier. Gravel runs very smooth and this is by far the best part of the visual package. We have tried it on all platforms and really like how it performs.
Music-wise, it's pretty darn horrible. It often sounds as if The Spice Girls started a metal-band and it didn't take long before we decided to turn off all the music in the game. We must say that on the whole we like Gravel, though. Even if the music is bad and the graphics are mediocre. It's a retro-style arcade racer focused on fun and with an easy-to-navigate structure that does away with a lot of the modern extras we've come to expect. It's a bit plain then, but sometimes that's just what you want. It needs polish though and could use some added weight to the cars.