Content Type: Gaming Reviews
Date: March 7, 2018
Gravel is an arcade racing game available from retail stores and for download from the PlayStation Store for the PS4. Milestone has a great pedigree of not only developing great racing games, but priding themselves on the authenticity of the racing experience which is what has forged their history of exceptional sports racing games as the Italian passion of motorsports radiates from their games in the home of Ferrari. Despite being synonymous with multiple iterations of SBK, MotoGP and Motocross; Milestone also has their fair share of racing games centred on four wheels including Superstars V8 Racing and Superstars V8: Next Challenge and four entries into the WRC series before arcade spin-off WRC Powerslide and Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo, alongside earlier games such as the Screamer series, Alfa Romeo Racing Italiano and Super Pick-Ups. Can Milestone’s return to four wheels achieve the quality of their Superstars V8 and WRC motorsports franchises?
The game begins with some driver customisation which allows you to customise your driver licence from your driver’s personal data including their first name, surname and nationality. Following on from that; the player is briefly introduced to a handful of drivers and TV broadcast style programming before being able to participate in a 1 lap race wild rush event as part of the Off-Road Masters series at the long layout of the Blue Paradise Pacific Ocean track that essentially acts as a tutorial to inform the player of how to control the car, rewind after a crash and switching between camera angles.
Off-Road Masters is essentially a career mode featuring 15 episodes, 4 special episodes and a season finale with each episode containing multiple events. Initially, the player can only race in episode 1 with each subsequent episode being unlocked through earning a specific quantity of stars which are earned for achieving objectives in every race for a maximum of three stars per event; for instance one star is on offer for completing the race, while two stars are earned for finishing in at least 5th position and a maximum of three stars for racing onto the podium; totalling to 180 stars from the very beginning until the end of the Off-Road Masters.
Every race throughout the Off-Road Masters has a pre-set time of day, weather conditions and quantity of laps, alongside a specific quota of vehicles to select from the cars you have previously unlocked. Special episodes task the player to compete against a reigning champion in a series of 1 vs. 1 head-to-head races such as the three races in the Stadium Circuit Master against a champion named Scott Parker.
There are a multitude of event types including cross country in which checkpoint races are held as drivers have to make sure to be accurate in driving through each checkpoint due to a penalty of having your vehicle repositioned before the checkpoint if accidentally driving wide of the checkpoint, while speed cross consists of more technical racing through chicanes and appropriately landed jumps; stadium circuits are multi-lap races set within ovals and figure of 8 tracks; and wild rush offers multi-lap races in beautifully natural, vast flowing environments. However, the Off-Road Masters varies the gameplay further by introducing smash-up to cross country events which sees the player attempting to avoid all of the red boards in favour of driving through the green boards on the way to setting a fast lap time to compete with another 7 competitor’s lap times, while elimination is integrated into wild rush events as the driver in last place is eliminated every 30 seconds; time attack is included in multiple event types such as speed cross and wild rush as the player is tasked with setting the fastest lap time in competition with 7 drivers and only 3 laps to set the pace, alongside championships including differing event types.
Free Race mode provides the opportunity of racing on a single track with the ability to race against 7 opponents on the opening track layout from the first 8 locations followed by any of the further unlocked track layouts from racing at during Off-Road Masters, alongside choosing one of the unlocked vehicles and liveries. Further customisation comes in the form of adjusting the time of day and weather conditions, A.I. difficulty, race length for certain event types such as wild rush and driving assists including multiple elements of brake assistance, traction control system, steering stability, semi-automatic or manual gear shifting, racing line indicators throughout the entire track, only through the corners or not at all and cosmetic or mechanical damage modelling to your ideal preferences.
Time Attack mode provides you with the opportunity to set the best lap time around any of the unlocked tracks and their unique layouts in an attempt to climb the leaderboards of the fastest times as you compete against players from across the world to see who performs the best lap time in a one lap scenario, although you can complete as many laps as you wish with a full selection of unlocked cars and car liveries, while you can also customise weather conditions and driving aids to your ideal preferences.
An interesting form of XP and levelling up is referred to as show points which are earned in each mode by your driver’s finishing position during each race, alongside race show points that reflect upon how entertaining your driving style was during the race such as skidding, jumping, continuous high speed driving and more besides coupled with the difficulty of your chosen game options. Purposes for earning show points to level up include unlocking new cars and car liveries as a reward for attaining a certain level.
Despite Gravel being an arcade racer; Milestone Italy has officially licensed some of the most famous car manufacturers including Abarth, Alpine, BMW, Chevrolet, Ford, Hyundai, Lancia, Mini, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Porsche, Renault, Subaru, Suzuki, Toyota, Vauxhall and Volkswagen comprising of their best off-road vehicles from classic rally cars to trucks and land rovers. There are a total of 8 vehicle classes including speed cross, trophy trucks, extreme racing A, B, C and D and cross country A and B, while there is a multitude of alternative liveries for each vehicle.
Players can change the setup of their car prior to the start of an event which can potentially provide a significant performance advantage if you experiment enough in an attempt to absolutely perfect your car setup for each track. The car setup is spread across five categories including front and rear suspension, transmission and differentials, brakes and alignment. Each category contains various settings such as the ability to change the spring stiffness, car height, slow and fast bump and rebound dampers and anti-roll bar stiffness for the front and rear suspension; selecting a final gear ratio in addition to a coast, power and preload front, central and rear differential and traction balance; adjusting brake bias, brake intensity and handbrake intensity; and fine-tuning front and rear camber angle and toe angle. There are also options to save, load or delete your preferred car setups and to return your car setup to the default factory settings.
Gravel’s track design is incredible as it offers entirely diverse environments and track surfaces such as mud, sand, snow, tarmac and more besides throughout over 50 tracks including 10 layouts set in Alaska, 10 layouts located in Nambia, 4 layouts situated in the Blue Paradise of the Pacific Ocean, 4 layouts located in the Iron Mine of the Outback, 4 layouts set in the Frozen Peak of Mont Blanc, 5 layouts in both the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Florida Stadium, while there is also the official track layout for Loheac, Autodromo Di Franicacorta, Bikernieku Trase Riga, Las Vegas, Helle, GP3R Grand Prix Trois-Rivieres, Rally San Luis, Circuito Internacional De Montalegre and Estering Buxtehude.
Gravel’s off-road terrain certainly factors into the damage modelling as crashing into large trees, rocks, immovable structures, barriers and misjudged jumps will result in a reduction in the engine’s power and erratic steering as the vehicle pulls to one side rather than remaining in a straight line which means the player will have to fight against the car when damage modelling is switched to active. However, the alternative of cosmetic damage will show signs of collisions through crumpled bodywork on the corresponding areas of the car without any differences in the handling traits and acceleration of the car.
Handling is unique to each type of vehicle such as cars, rally cars, trucks, land rovers and more besides as a truck or land rover feels heavier and takes longer to steer into or brake for corners in comparison to 4 wheel drive or rear wheel drive cars that are lighter or have a better horsepower, engine size and more cylinders in the engine that individually and collectively affects the handling of every car to such an extent in which it becomes a necessary measure to experiment in finding the appropriate car or vehicle for each track and respective track layout.
Weather conditions includes sunny and dry, heavy rain and thunder in storm conditions and a wet track from when the rain had fallen before the start of the race, alongside snow that is specific to the Frozen Peak in Mont Blanc in which every weather condition changes the behaviour of your car such as how it handles at high speeds and through corners. Weather conditions are accompanied by four times of day including dawn, day, dusk and night which also plays a huge factor by increasing visibility during daytime events or reducing visibility throughout night-time events by preventing the player from seeing into the distance; therefore having to rely on your headlights for any visibility of your imminent surroundings.
There are six excellently positioned camera angles including a first-person camera angle positioned on the bumper at the bottom front looking ahead without showing any bodywork, while the second camera angle is positioned directly behind the car with another third-person camera angle positioned further back to provide two separate views of the car, opposing cars and the track surface up ahead amongst the surrounding environments which certainly caters for the appropriate distances of third-person perspectives. Three further first-person perspectives include a cockpit view positioned from the driver’s line of sight as the hands are on the steering wheel with the dashboard and anti-roll bar surrounding the limited visibility of the windscreen, while an onboard camera is positioned directly above the dashboard towards the bottom of the windscreen, alongside a bonnet camera looking ahead from the centre of the bonnet just behind any headlights.
The free camera available from the pause menu allows you to observe the closer details of the racing in the foreground and trackside environments. Free camera really is a great feature; allowing the camera to be positioned with freedom within the vicinity of the racing action including extensive customisation of images such as panning, camera height, zooming in or out, anywhere from a minor tilt to a full sideways tilt and nine image filter presets or a custom image filter comprising aperture, exposure, contrast, saturation, brightness, sepia, vignetting and dirt on lens, alongside the choice of displaying a mask and the game logo. What makes the free camera work so well is that it provides players with the opportunity of producing customisable action shots in a fully immersive environment which works in perfect harmony with the PS4’s share feature.
You can watch a full race replay with the ability to watch in slow motion, pause, fast forward, rewind, change the camera angles for a different view of the action or enter the free camera feature. You can view the replay from ten camera angles including all six gameplay camera angles, while a dynamic camera angle positioned away from the car with the TV camera angle changing from camera to camera in the style of Gran Turismo, alongside a rear camera looking back from the rear bodywork of your car at scenery you have passed by and overtaken cars in addition to a roof camera looking ahead from slightly above the windscreen and a fixed camera situated next to the driver within the car. It would have been amazing for the gameplay and replay camera angles to include a helicopter camera angle from high above the circuit following the action with the sound effect of the helicopter in the audio mix.
There are multiple downloadable content packs available including free downloadable content packs such as new cars, alongside five premium downloadable content including 12 new cars, 10 checkpoint tracks, 4 wild rush circuits and even 2 off-road career events, while also being available as part of a season pass to effectively pre-order each of the content packs at a cheaper bundled price of £19.99.
It is disappointing not to see a Vita release of Gravel after the excellent retail releases for WRC 3 and WRC 4 on Vita, although the consolation is remote play. Gravel’s remote play performance is excellent as the graphics, audio and general performance is of the same quality as the PS4 version. There is only a minimal amount of remote play control scheme optimisation resulting in holding the bottom right of the touch screen to accelerate and holding the bottom left of the touch screen to brake which is most certainly not ideal and does not lend itself to the racing genre as you are steering with the left analogue stick while simultaneously braking in the build up to or through corners. I had the best remote play experience with Gravel after customising the control scheme in which acceleration was re-mapped to R1 with braking moving to L1, alongside changing the rewind button to the bottom left of the touch screen and mapping the look behind view to the top and bottom right of the rear touch pad; therefore providing a comfortable control scheme much better suited to the racing genre on Vita.
The controls are well mapped to the DualShock 4 controller and are almost fully customisable. The default control scheme consists of holding R2 to accelerate; pressing L2 to brake or reverse; pressing L1 to rewind the action following a collision or a general loss of track time; pressing triangle to respawn; pressing X to manually shift up a gear; pressing square to manually shift down a gear; pressing O to apply the handbrake; moving the direction of the left analogue stick to the left or right to steer your vehicle accordingly; moving the direction of the right analogue stick forwards, backwards, left or right to appropriately manoeuvre the camera angle to look in that direction; holding R3 to look behind your vehicle; pressing the share button takes you to the share feature menu; and pressing the options button to display the pause menu.
Despite the customisable control scheme; there is no way of mapping the steering to the gyroscopic motion sensing functionality and the touch pad can only be mapped to once instead of the left and right sides having their own purpose. It is surprising as the gyroscopic motion sensing functionality could have provided an alternative steering method to the left analogue stick, while the touch pad implementation is under utilised as it only changes the camera angle, whereas an optional control scheme from MotoGP 13 on Vita included tapping the appropriate side of the rear touch pad to shift up or down a gear. There is a lot of vibration from the DualShock 4 controller which certainly adds to the immersion of driving over the terrain as the controller will vibrate during crashes with other cars or awkward landings after jumps. The light bar produces white for a neutral gear on the starting grid, while green ensures the driver is safely within gear at a low gear ratio, yellow represents a medium gear ratio to show the driver should start preparing to shift up a gear and light to dark orange fading into red signifies that it is time to shift up a gear at the end of the gear ratio.
Graphically, Gravel is Milestone Italy’s best looking game up to the date of its release with amazing vehicle models that crumple when colliding with other cars or trackside objects complimented by realistic track surfaces such as sand, mud, foliage and rocks in numerous environments, alongside superb weather conditions as well as lighting and shadow effects that adapt to the time of day or night the race is taking place at, while there are outstanding subtle details such as water effects from water splashes and rain, mud splashing onto the car throughout the race, sparks flying as vehicles trade paint and pyrotechnics throughout each lap particularly during stadium races. PS4 Pro support offers a range of visual enhancements including improved textures and 4K resolution at 30 frames per second, while HDR is supported on both PS4 and PS4 Pro.
The presentation of the game is solid due to its stylistic TV broadcast inspirations with a mostly great user interface across various menus such as the main menu, off-road masters menus, free race menus, online multiplayer menus, time attack menus, online leaderboards, weekly challenges menus, options menus, add-ons menus and various gameplay menus with support for navigation via the left analogue stick, directional pad and face buttons, although it does not include support for navigation via the right analogue stick and touch pad. Menu backgrounds focus on the most recently driven vehicle from your previous race on the majority of menus and the views of each track during track selection; however a real misstep in menu backgrounds is the insistence on panning the camera in a circular motion and while that has been a staple of presentation in racing games since Dirt 3, it moves too fast.
Voice-overs include an enthusiastic delivery during pre-race build-up and post-race analysis presented as dedicated motorsports TV coverage referred to as Gravel Channel which is reminiscent in delivery to a genuine motorsports TV show such as Mobil 1: The Grid. Sound effects include all manner of off-road vehicles shifting through the gears, braking, landing a long distance jump, weather conditions such as thunder within a rainy storm, trackside pyrotechnics, your car’s engine sounding down on power following collisions and colliding with other vehicles and trackside objects; accompanied by a soundtrack of rock riffs. There is no DualShock 4 speaker implementation which could have produced pre-race and post-race commentary and stormy weather conditions.
The trophy list includes 31 trophies with 14 bronze trophies, 10 silver trophies, 6 gold trophies and 1 platinum trophy. Easier trophies include the Top of the Class, Winner, Survivor, The Fans Are Warming Up and In Front of Everyone bronze trophies for winning a race in the speed cross, cross country, elimination, stadium circuit and wild rush event types respectively as each event type can be participated in during free race mode on very easy difficulty level. Harder trophies include the Showman gold trophy for obtaining all stars in the Off-Road Masters career mode and the I Believe I Can Fly gold trophy for completing any track with a total of 6 seconds air time from jumps. There are two online multiplayer trophies including the Hello World and Online Champion bronze trophies for completing 1 and 10 online multiplayer races respectively. It is estimated that depending upon skill and a good trophy guide to provide some helpful tips that it would take between 20 to 30 hours to platinum the trophy list.
There are five difficulty levels including very easy, easy, medium, hard and very hard with the major differences between each difficulty level being faster and more aggressive A.I. controlled opponents that are efficiently clinical when an overtaking opportunity presents itself; therefore players will really have to hone their race craft to be able to beat the A.I. controlled drivers on very hard difficulty. The rewind mechanic can reduce the difficulty by having numerous opportunities to rewind back to before a crash actually occurred. Between the five difficulty levels, plenty of driving assists which can be turned on or off and rewinds; players have full customisation over the degree of challenge they wish to encounter in any single player mode as well as the difficulty for A.I. controlled vehicles, gear shifts and driving assists during online multiplayer.
There is no split-screen multiplayer which is disappointing as implementation of all online multiplayer content into a comprehensive split-screen multiplayer feature for two players locally would have genuinely excelled Gravel, although it is important to take note that it is not an unrealistic addition given that Milestone Italy’s MotoGP series features split-screen multiplayer for two players.
Gravel’s online multiplayer performance is just as good as single player with the same sense of speed, graphics, up to 8 players and the capability of A.I. fleshing out the field. Create match allows the player to host their own race events privately through invitation only or publicly, while quick match mode attempts to find a populated online lobby as quickly as possible before voting on a preferred track, weather and mode, selecting and customising your preferred car and livery within the shortlisted vehicles available for each race from the cars and liveries you have unlocked via single player progression.
Weekly challenges set a specific time for players to beat with pre-set weather conditions and time of day, alongside a pre-chosen vehicle in which a prize of 100,000 show points for completing the track in under the given time limit.
Time Attack online leaderboards focus on fastest times from each player with rankings covering every track and track layout with each leaderboard containing each player’s rank; name (PSN ID); car manufacturer and model; the best time set by each player; and the time difference for each player’s time in comparison to the leader of that particular track and track layout’s online leaderboard, while players can compare their positioning on the leaderboards with players that occupy the top positions, globally, from your friends list and to immediately find and display your position within any given leaderboard.
Gravel’s replayability stems from the unpredictability of racing events on off-road terrain when competing against 7 A.I. controlled opponents in an extensive Off-Road Masters career mode or free race mode; accompanied by over 50 tracks, multiple event types and dozens of officially licensed vehicles that are gradually unlocked via a well integrated XP and levelling up gameplay mechanic, alongside online competitive multiplayer for up to 8 players that will collectively have players returning for dozens of hours. It is unfortunately just lacking split-screen multiplayer.
- Title: Gravel
- Developer: Milestone
- Publisher: Koch Media (Europe)/Square Enix (US and Canada)
- System: PS4
- Format: PS4 Blu-Ray Disc/PSN Download
- Cross-Buy: No
- Cross-Play: No
- Players: 1/2-8 (Online Multiplayer)/Online Leaderboards
- Hard Drive Space Required: 18.88GB (Version 1.04 – PS4 Blu-Ray Disc/PSN Download)