This week the lovely folks at Square Enix allowed me to head into their office and gets my hands on a couple of their upcoming games. One of the titles I tried was GRAVEL, an off-road racing simulator from a well known developer in the genre, Milestone.
The focus of my demo was testing the various game types available. When grinding your way through career mode, you’ll face four separate disciplines: Cross Country, Wild Rush, Stadium Circuit, and Speed Cross.
I got a chance to try maps focused on each of these disciplines and was surprised with how different they all felt. Cross Country took me into the Alaskan wilderness, where the track felt windy and forced me to make a lot of tight turns and try not to slide off into the woods. Wild Rush was wider and more open, which allowed for more speed, more jumps, and more strategic take downs of fellow racers.
Stadium Circuit, which drops players into famous stadiums like the Los Angeles Coliseum, was the opposite. It was tight and crowded and I was jockeying for position and barley squeezing between the other cars on the track to get ahead the whole time. The final discipline, Speed Cross, was a different handling challenge, as it was the only type that put me on asphalt instead of off-road.
All four modes presented some different challenges. They felt similar enough that I was getting better as I played, but different enough that it didn’t just feel like clever names. Different terrains affected the handling of the car, and different cars (I tried four) had their own strengths and weaknesses.
Though it was just a preview build, I was impressed with how clean the graphics looked. The game runs in Unreal 4 at 60fps. The cars got dented and scratched as I drove around the track, and the screen even splattered with mud when I had the camera settled behind the dash.
There was a lot of customization on display. Every technical feature of your car is adjustable in the menu, and even the tracks you’re racing on can be curated for your needs. Each track has multiple different layouts, and you can adjust the weather and time of day of your race. There is even a photo mode with a free floating camera and tons of filters and settings to allow you to grab some very cool photos during the replay.
But perhaps my favorite feature was the ability to rewind the race and try again. Anytime I spun off the track, or crashed into a tree a few button presses had me back on the road, none of my progress lost. Racing games often suffer from feeling punishing and almost too difficult if you don’t sink a lot of hours into learning them. Rewind allowed me to spend my time jumping and racing instead of recovering from my mistakes.
In all honesty, I haven’t been really into a racing game since I had Cruisin’ USA on my N64. But GRAVEL was accessible, easy to pick up, and it was a lot of fun to fling cars around the track. So whether you’re facing off against the off-road masters in career mode, dabbling in the various online multiplayer modes, or just free racing around the many tracks, it has a lot to offer.
GRAVEL will be out on February 27 for Xbox One, PS4 and PC. For a look at the game and more information about the various disciplines, check out the video below.