Welcome to Gravel, an off-road racing game with a lot of cars, miles of mud and big spaces to drift. It has fireworks, it has fine-tuning of cars, a rewind feature to get that slide just right and… well, gravel I guess. You know, road substrate? Kinda made of a lot of broken bits but it does a similar job to a road. There might be a metaphor I am reaching for here.
Gravel is all about the off-road experience. From muddy stadiums to ripping up sandy beaches or riding along the heavy vehicle routes around an iron mine, you will be travelling in the dirt. Which makes it really odd that everything is so clean. Your car leaves tracks in some places but you will never see a spray of mud, a puff of dust anywhere and this is just one place where the experience of Gravel looks good at first but misses just too many things that rip that illusion apart. Between the fireworks in the stadium and the roaring engines, the lack of mud spray and a dead crowd leaves the experience in a weird dissonance thanks to things not adding up.
You’re watching Gravel Channel
Gravel’s Achilles heel lies in the presentation of the single-player experience. While nobody plays racing games for a story, Gravel runs the entire game as if you are watching a TV show on something called Gravel Channel and it is probably the worst thing that they could have done. The presenter of the show is the only character with any lines in the entire game and the wooden delivery of most of his lines just saps all joy out of pre and post race screens. The presenter has several lines about how exciting a particular race was or the channel being marvellous and they are delivered with the vocal equivalent of Kristen Stewart’s facial expressions. If that isn’t bad enough he repeats certain lines about the action in Alaska or the heat in Florida and I just can’t hit the start race button quickly enough, even if I wanted to adjust some settings on my ride (not that you actually need to).
The presenter has several lines […] delivered with the vocal equivalent of Kristen Stewart’s facial expressions.
Hunting for stars
To enter the various leagues of the Off-Road Masters you need to have enough stars from previous events. You can earn up to three stars per race, generally for coming first but some of the early races are a lot more lenient. Once you have enough stars you can challenge the current title holder of a specific discipline like cross country or wild rush. To take the title you need to beat that person in three different races, with none of those races giving you any stars towards the next goal. It doesn’t really matter because the number of stars you need to reach the final boss is only 66% of all stars, but it makes those races feel pretty pointless. To further that feeling a league of three races and a single race will both net you a max of three stars, making the leagues something to avoid if you are just hunting for a star or two to unlock a new location.
Getting new vehicles follows a fairly boring system too. For every level up you get a new car or new livery for a car, or both. These unlocks are predetermined, so you can’t unlock, say, a new cross-country car because you have to do a bunch of cross-country events. Nope, you will unlock whatever car is tied to that level and a livery for some car or other. Eventually, you will have so many cars available, but every race is limited to a half-dozen of them for reasons not apparent when you enter the racing event, making it feel like you only ever have two or three cars. I quickly amassed so many cars that I didn’t know which one was the latest unlock or I hadn’t tested out yet and quite frankly it didn’t matter because the game is far too easy. It didn’t really matter that I had more than 30 cars by the end because I often just drove the same five around.
With a few outlying exceptions, the AI opponents are just far too passive in their racing. If you nudge them they just try to course correct or yield to you and they are all too happy to be used as a mobile cushion when going around a tight corner. Even the title champions are far too easy to beat and more often than not the only way you will lose is using a lower end vehicle or messing up a corner. This is taken away because the game features a rewind option that seems to be unlimited in use, so you can rewind a tiny bit if you missed a checkpoint or flipped your car by hitting a rock. There is only one race type where you can’t rewind and that is smash up, otherwise, you have such a powerful tool in your arsenal with zero penalties or consequences for using it. The AI might bump into you going around a corner or a midair collision, but generally, it is too well-behaved and nice for its own good.
It isn’t all bad though and once you get beyond the terrible presenter and the lacklustre start, things start getting more exciting as you unlock faster cars.
It isn’t all bad though and once you get beyond the terrible presenter and the lacklustre start, things start getting more exciting as you unlock faster cars. The starting races are less about drifting and more about going around a loop or a figure 8 track as fast as you can on slippery mud, but as things open up into other modes, that is where the game shines. The cross-country discipline opens things up and as long as you don’t miss a checkpoint you can tear up the countryside as you please, flying over hills and ramps in wide open sections.
Another race type, Smash-up, is probably my favourite because it takes the rewind mechanic away completely and forces fast decision making. This time trial race is just you vs the track as fast as possible, with a bit of a twist: along the way, there are big blocks floating in a line across the road. As you get closer the blocks light up and spin through red crosses and green arrows, stopping when you get close enough. Going through a green arrow is great, but if you touch or clip a red cross you will lose speed as you hit into something with a lot more substance. Besides trying to find a good racing line you need to make quick changes in direction and speed to hit the right blocks or you will lose too much speed.
The game’s single-player mode takes around five hours to beat and you can then do free riding or time attacks on the tracks you unlock at the 16 locations in the game. There is also a multiplayer option but I was never able to find a game via the matchmaking system.
Gravel has in it a lot of pieces that really work and show attention to detail. Heavier vehicles keep sideways momentum around corners for ages and lighter vehicles will pop on two wheels if the ground isn’t even and will dart out of a slow corner towards max speed. Handling changes as you move across substrates and the weather will affect everything too, with heavy rains and snow causing some of the worst handling conditions as you drift all over the track. But too much of the game comes across as soulless thanks to music being drowned out by droning engines, a lack of mud or dust and that TV show presenter is going to haunt me forever. This presentation isn’t helped by the game not being able to decide if it is an arcade game or a simulator.