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  • Gravel Tries to Steal the Show at NYCC

    October 7th, 2017GamespotUncategorized

    Tucked away at Square Enix’s booth at this year's New York Comic-Con was an off-road racing game called Gravel, developed by Milestone S.r.l., which is also listed as the game's publisher. It was my first time hearing of the game and it seemed a tad out of place surrounded by Square Enix's RPG-centric line-up. Nevertheless, I decided to take the game for a spin to see if it brought anything new and exciting to the genre.

    Upon booting up the demo the main menu displayed options for Free Race, Multiplayer, Time Attack, Weekly Challenges, and Downloadable Content.  Of these, Free Race was the only selectable mode. There were five courses to choose from including a railroad in Alaska, a stadium in Florida, and an Australian mine. The courses are divided into four categories (Cross Country, Wild Rush, Speed Cross, and Stadium) and are set in locations all over the world, some real and others fictional, which goes to show that the game is unrestrained in its ambitions. Cars available to race with in the demo included a Toyota T100, Chevrolet Silverado CK1500, and Ford Raptor Truck.

    My first race took place in Alaska. A disembodied voice provides commentary before and after the race; he is presented as the announcer for something called The Gravel Channel, a network dedicated to showing professional off-road racing competitions that provide the structural backbone of the game's aesthetic. 

    Most of the racing and car options that you would normally be able to toggle in-game were restricted in the demo but I could change variables such as the time of day and the weather. The cross-country style terrain of the Alaskan course varied from grasslands, to shallow riverbeds, to a railroad track that you used ramps to jump over.  It was a checkpoint race. Rather than circle the course in laps you had to pass through special red gates that served as checkpoint markers to advance. If you missed a checkpoint the game would reset your position on the track until you drove through it correctly, which doesn't prove to be too difficult - the next checkpoint is usually in view from several yards away and if you stay aligned with the course you should encounter little trouble. 

    The controls are fairly standard for a racing game. You can rewind the last few seconds of a race in order to improve your performance and you accumulate points for things like drifting and reaching a top speed. The races come down more to good steering and handling of corners rather than pure velocity. This dynamic is more apparent on the closed circuit courses where you have to jockey for first place by avoiding collisions and nailing sharp turns. In certain races, collisions not only led to damage to my vehicle but also caused the screen to momentarily fade to black and white. 

    Gravel does a good job of conveying changes in terrain as you drive thanks to a combination of sound effects and the tactile feedback of the (Xbox One) controller’s rumble. And despite being accessible it's tricky to master, at least it seemed to be from the short window of playtime I had with the demo. The AI kept things competitive. I played on medium difficulty and at my best I was only able to muster up a 2nd place finish, losing the checkpoint race by split seconds. 

    There is a general glossiness to the visuals that is reminiscent of the look of arcade racers from yesteryear. Ancillary details like the copy and pasted crowd animations and the foliage also fail to impress. Additionally the game's framerate was noticeably inconsistent during races. There are upsides to the visual presentation, however. The lighting effects left quite an impression during my brief hands-on time with the game. The way the sun glinted off the side of the screen as I raced through the muddy outback made the game feel more dynamic and alive. The mud, dust, and dirt are pretty to look at as well and will sully up your car and the camera as you battle your way into the pole position. 

    As the text written on the top of the screen reminded, Gravel is still a work in progress, so there is time before its release to work out the kinks and show off more enticing features. Funnily enough the game's slogan, which displays after the demo, is "#Steal the Show" (#included), and while Gravel certainly seemed fun and functional as I played it, there was a certain spark missing; a lack of something that would help it stand apart from other off-road racers, such as the similarly titled DiRT series. 

    Gravel will release in early 2018 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

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