Gravel has its issues but never forgets what makes a great racing game.
Gravel is, on paper and in practice, exactly the type of raving game that a lot of gamers want right now. With so many racing game franchises having moved over to open-worlds, always-online functionality, and the ones that do have a focus on individual tracks mostly focusing on hyper-realism, it’s a real breath of fresh air to see an arcade-style racing game that gets back to basics. Gravel certainly isn’t quite as arcade-y as, say, Mario Kart or Burnout though. But it does seem to gracefully straddle the line between arcade and simulation-style sensibilities and reminded me of the excellent Motorstorm franchise in terms of its feel. Gravel embraces this spot on the difficulty spectrum and because of this it does strike its own feel in a very organic way.
In the spirit of capturing the attention of as many racer fans as possible, Gravel has a plethora of gameplay options for you to tweak your experience that few games can match in terms of amount. many ways to make various aspects of gameplay easier or harder are here, and if you tweak these race options enough, on top of being able to manipulate your rear and front suspension, you can truly make your Gravel experience feel very different than mine. This degree of freedom could make the game feel like it misses an opportunity to maintain an identity to others, but either way, these options are weaved into the gameplay very nicely by having the progression system tied into them. If you make the race harder by turning down the assist options, you can earn a higher score at the end of the race. So while Gravel is still plenty of fun on default or easier settings, as you progress you will be tempted to test yourself to earn a higher score and progress faster.
"The racing feels good, the different styles of tracks and vehicles all offer a good variety of gamplay without becoming a directionless mess, and the presentation, while perhaps a little cheesy, is consistent and doesn’t take itself too seriously. This is what a good arcade racing game needs to be."
Not only does this add much-appreciated replay value to the game but it also adds more depth, and it is part of what takes Gravel from the realm of an average game to an above-average game. One gameplay element that I had mixed feelings on however, is the rewind function that lets you retry an instance of the last few seconds. This made me feel like the skill I’ve acquired accounted for less, as I can just retry a moment every time I wreck and never really pay for my mistakes. This, on top of the near-instant resetting of your vehicle to the track once you veer too far off of it, does provide a certain degree of hand-holding that some players might not prefer.
Continuing the something-for-everybody feel; Gravel has a nice variety of tracks that look and play differently enough that nearly anybody will have a favorite, although I couldn’t help but feel like if only one or two of these types had been focused on for the entire game, maybe that would have been explored more thoroughly and given the game a little more personality. Instead though, what you have are several different types of tracks that are done well enough to feel good, although never amazing. What is here is done well enough, as wet dirt and mud certainly feels different than sand and concrete. You will notice these differences the more you play and as you develop a better feel for how the vehicles handle in the different terrains, a natural urge to explore the ways you can tweak the vehicles will emerge as you progress, and that pacing couldn’t be any more spot on.
Gravel’s graphics, like several of the elements of the game, are just fine. The vehicles look pretty good, but this is no Forza or Gran Turismo. These are certainly not the best assets in the genre by any means, and it is noticeable. Whether or not that really matters is up to you, but I personally didn’t mind the average amount of fidelity. There are some nice effects present here too, with some water that splashes on your screen, dust getting kicked back behind your vehicle depending on your environment, and some very nice looking time-of-day differences that certainly add a nice touch to tracks that are already pretty good. There are a few assets on the tracks like walls, rocks, and trees that are perhaps a little more fuzzy than gamers might expect in 2018, but you rarely notice them as you’re driving by and focusing on the racing, which is Gravel’s most finely-tuned characteristic.
"Gravel might not take first place in your racing game collection, but it certainly does use it’s strengths to go far beyond the finish line."
Some pop-in of vegetation on the horizon of the track as you barrel down the roads can be distracting, but it isn’t huge. Rarely did I encounter any bugs of that nature that misled my concentration. Sound is also quite serviceable and never missed a beat for me. The gear shifting, the dirt under your tires, and the satisfying auditory feedback of nailing a nice long drift while maintaining your place in the race is spot on. All of the sound effects felt right and I never felt like I would have preferred something else to what was there. The music selections gave me very 2004 radio rock vibes, and for some that might be fine, I recommend turning it off.
Gravel is ultimately an above average racing game. The elements that really matter are the ones that are done best. The racing feels good, the different styles of tracks and vehicles all offer a good variety of gamplay without becoming a directionless mess, and the presentation, while perhaps a little cheesy, is consistent and doesn’t take itself too seriously. This is what a good arcade racing game needs to be. The feeling of winning a race that you lost just before is as exhilarating as any racing game could hope to give you in Gravel, and your persistence will be rewarded consistently. There aren’t many racing games that occupy this particular space in the genre these days and its nice to be reminded that the spirit of fun, challenge, and freedom to play your own way can all be married together this well.
Somewhat mediocre and generic presentation elements are more than balanced out by excellent gameplay and a near-perfect progression system that gets its hooks into you early on and doesn’t let go. It’s not a perfect game, and could very well fall under the radar of some racing fans as a result, but to completely pass this game up would be a mistake. Gravel might not take first place in your racing game collection, but it certainly does use it’s strengths to go far beyond the finish line.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
The fundamentals of Gravel are great with fun controls that hit the sweet spot between realism and accessibility and an excellent progression system that rewards players for mixing things up.
The overall presentation is somewhat generic at best and dips below average in the graphics and performance department from time to time.
Gravel isn't perfect but it nails enough of the essentials and brings just enough style to the table to make it a great racing game overall.