Arcade racing games have been few and far between during this console generation, which makes Gravel‘s straightforward approach feel almost like a throwback. On its surface, Milestone’s latest appears to toe the line between being an authentic simulation of off-road racing, and a rough-and-tumble arcade experience. There are myriad driver assists that let you tune the difficulty to your liking, and the option to tweak each vehicle’s ride height, differentials, and so on, gives you some degree of performance-based customisation. Yet the effect these options have on Gravel’s driving model are negligible at best. This is an unpretentious arcade racer that’s incredibly easy to pick up and play, but this simplicity also contributes to a lack of heart-pounding excitement.
Gravel’s single player career mode, dubbed “Off-road masters”, has you globetrotting between events that mix up different race types and disciplines, with each one loosely connected by the concept of a Gravel TV show. There’s not much of substance to this structure beyond the inclusion of an unenthusiastic commentator imparting a few tired lines before and after every race, and a few quasi boss fights that bookend each block of episodes. The latter do at least come locked and loaded with some corny FMV introductions, where fictional racing drivers strike poses in what can only be described as a flaming hellscape. For as amusing as I often found these brief interludes, the mano-e-mano races that follow suffer from the same prevalent problem Gravel does as a whole: they’re just kind of boring.
That’s not to say Gravel’s driving model is especially flawed. There’s an inherent burst of dopamine that comes from careening around a corner with your car sideways, and the breakneck sense of speed that’s achieved when hurtling through the verdurous forests of Alaska is certainly thrilling. But moments like this are disappointingly fleeting. You’ll drive on tracks in thunderstorms and in blizzards, and on tarmac, dirt, mud, and grass; yet with the exception of some tyre-spinning snow, there isn’t a discernible difference in feel between these contrasting road surfaces. The same can be said of Gravel’s vehicles, too, with a handling model that feels loose and floaty across the board, offering no clear distinction from vehicle to vehicle; while the physics engine is consistently bizarre. I encountered numerous instances where a stray bush was enough to send my car soaring through the air in a vomit-inducing spin, and a slight nudge from a rival driver is often all it takes to halt your vehicle’s momentum.
All of this speaks to a lack of depth to Gravel’s off-road racing. This wouldn’t be an issue on its own, but the simplicity of its action craves an exciting assortment of tracks to really coalesce its various systems into something approaching an engaging racing game, and Gravel falls short of the mark. There are outliers, of course: the point-to-point cross country races through Alaska and the sun-drenched beaches of Namibia are highlights due to their white-knuckle nature and environmental variety. However, the rest fail to get the blood pumping with any sort of regularity. There are a few real world Rallycross tracks, but most of the courses on offer are fictional, and it’s a shame they’re not more imaginative. The majority of the time I felt like I was simply going through the motions, even after bumping the difficulty up to hard for a more substantial challenge. And this feeling is only exacerbated by the limited number of environments on offer, with multiple tracks taking place in the same locations.
Meanwhile, multiplayer options are confined to creating your own lobby to invite friends, or jumping into a quick match in the hopes of finding others to race against–but this is easier said than done. After numerous attempts I’ve only managed to find a solitary match, which was populated with three other people (the rest of the grid was made up of AI drivers). Other than this I’ve had no luck finding another race, even a week after launch.
Visually, weather and lighting effects are occasionally impressive, but otherwise Gravel’s tracks mostly look flat, and a short draw distance leads to shadows and foliage frequently popping into view. There’s also a lack of detail to each vehicle’s body, and a smoothness to each one that gives the illusion they’re coated in a sheen of vaseline. They look more like toy cars than the high-powered mud-churners they should be.
In my mind’s eye, Gravel’s bland visuals contribute to a game that doesn’t look too dissimilar from the seven year old titles it most closely resembles. There’s something appreciable about its no-nonsense style, and there’s definitely some intermittent fun to be had with its arcade style racing. But it doesn’t do anything that its contemporaries haven’t done better before, and it fails to stand out as an enjoyable alternative, which is unfortunately reflected by its barren multiplayer component. Like the fireworks that occasionally ignite throughout select races, Gravel’s attempts at excitement don’t quite dazzle.