Ikea is possibly Sweden’s most recognisable export alongside Abba and football megastar Zlatan Ibrahimović. From the simple yellow and blue logo to the mass-produced, flat packed furniture and other household items you can purchase from their stores, you know what you are getting and paying for. Yes, you can buy better quality furnishings elsewhere, but you know it will do the job albeit with the odd screw missing or unaligned pre-prepared hole. Milestone Srl, arguably Italy’s biggest exporter to the gaming industry, specialising in racing games of all codes for over twenty years. With titles ranging from the recently released Monster Energy Supercross to big-name licenced games including the WRC series, Moto GP and Valentino Rossi: The Game; Milestone, in my opinion at least are the Ikea of racing titles throughout the rise of gaming over the last twenty years or so.
As you load in for the first time, you are asked to create your driver and choose his country; there is no customising at all here to uniform or appearance and this is ultimately just for what is displayed on the post-race screens. Your first race kicks straight off in the classic Toyota Celica WRC on the Blue Paradise off-road circuit and acts as a nice introduction to what is to come and introduces you to the Off-Road Master’s career which will provide you with the bulk of your racing time in Gravel. Now before I get into the meat and gravy of the game, Gravel is first and foremost an arcade racer, with loud guitar riffs as you race, the very unrealistic physics and get to the line in as quick a time as possible whilst also scoring as many points as you can. Gravel pays homage to classic racing titles like Sega Rally and to a degree, outrun and other arcade titles of that era.
As a career mode, Off-Road Masters is, well it’s actually quite weird but wonderful at the same time. Presented to you as the “Gravel Channel,” you have an announcer who introduces each and every race in the most bizarre way, he never seems to get too excited and sounds like he has possibly had a little too much coffee (even not enough in some cases.) It doesn’t take too long before you will be skipping him before he even has the chance to open his mouth, if anything just so you don’t have to listen to him talk about how exciting every single race is and how sorry he is that its over, oh well.
The rest of the Off-Road Masters is set out in primarily, short single races that last for an average of 2-3 minutes depending on the race type, with the odd multi-race championship added in to try and add to the excitement (or lack thereof) of the aforementioned Gravel Channel. Your aim is to collect stars to unlock future events and to beat the boss battle race events that pit you against off-roading Gravel Channel Alumni like James Watanabe and Scott Carter who you must beat to progress, and what do you get for beating these greats? Some liveries with “their name” on it. You must continue to play through this mode to unlock cars and new tracks through a selection of point to point events, circuit racing, elimination and the rage inducing, luck based Smash-Up events which randomise which gates you must hit at the last second or your car comes to an abrupt stop from hitting the wrong one. All in all, the career mode is bizarre but fun, even though it follows the same setup you have seen time and time again from previous Milestone games.
Adding on to the career and free modes, Gravel also has a very limited Xbox Live experience with the expected basic matchmaking in a variety of online modes like King and point to point races, but finding a race took me an average of ten minutes, even just a few days after launch. When I did eventually find an opponent, it was only one opponent. Hard to pin down if this is due to lack of people actually playing online or just poor matchmaking algorithms, but something I have experienced with all previously played titles by the Italian developers. There is also a weekly challenge with one event to set your best time but once that’s done its done, why not multiple events like Forza Motorsports Rivals, its almost like they don’t want you spending too much time on their game so you can get ready for the next release which is just around the corner.
Going back to previous titles from the devs, Milestone games have been released at an average of one new title every four months over the last five years or so and this is a big problem for me. Gravel has the same issues as Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo, which was the last title I fully played from Milestone about two and a half years ago. Frame rate issues are far too often, textures and other terrain details only pop in about five car lengths ahead of you, and the level of detail on the actual cars is comical at best with each interior and exterior really lacking in detail, not forgetting to mention the game lock-ups that happen far too often to just be a random bug. Gravel also has a weird dark and grey filter over it which you can’t help but think is hiding issues elsewhere, also playing on the Xbox One X, the game is meant to be enhanced but I really struggled to see where. Milestone said the game was in 4K, but it certainly does not feel it, maybe this has to do with the poor-quality vehicle models and textures, mixed with a lack of HDR (which is available on other platforms) but overall the presentation leaves very little to be admired which is such a shame considering the gameplay is really fun.
Milestone does not have the mega-budgets of Turn10, Playground games or EA, but you can’t help feeling that if they were to slow down their production cycle and support a game for longer than a month, then Italy’s biggest export to gaming might actually be a respectable developer with some great quality releases instead of just throwing out games every few months that are merely just a reskin of their previous title. At the time of writing this Monster Energy Supercross has just released a few weeks previous and Moto GP18 is just around the corner. Just slow down guys, take your time and you could be challenging these bigger studios instead of being a quick stop-gap for racing fans between major racing releases.
Despite its issues, Gravel can still be a lot of fun, fun that will only last a week or two at best. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and you shouldn’t either. It is really good to see some tracks return from previous titles and the introduction of plenty new settings from Namibia to Latvia, Mt Blanc to the Alaskan wood yards, so there is plenty of variety to be had both in track selection to the number of vehicles available in the game to race.