For the last few years, the bar against which I’ve judged all racing games is the high one set by the Forza games. So you know it’s a good thing when I say that the arcade-style, off-road racing game GRAVEL (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC) is rather Forza-esque.
In GRAVEL, you race 4X4s, trucks, and other sturdy rides on dirt roads, sandy beaches and deserts, paved tracks, and muddy courses inside arenas that are akin to what they build for Supercross events. Its career and online modes also have the usual compliment of race types, including single and multi-lap races, point-to-point checkpoint events, and ones where the last driver to reach the checkpoint is eliminated until only one remains.
As I mentioned, GRAVEL shares a lot with the Forza series. For starters, it lets you adjust the sensitivity of the steering and handling. Along with changing the skill of our opponents (of course), you can set the brakes to activate automatically, adjust the grip of the tires, and decide whether crashing into the barrier will impede the functionality of your vehicle or just make it look bad. Granted, you can’t turn this arcade-esque racing game into a sim like you can by turning off all the assists in Forza Horizon 3 or Forza Motorsport 7, but it does change the feel of the steering and handling enough to be noticeable.
Further cribbing from Forza Horizon 3 or Forza Motorsport 7, GRAVEL lets you rewind time when playing the career mode, a free race, or a time attack race.
GRAVEL also has elements that are not unique to the Forza games. While, as I said, it’s an arcade-style racing game, it actually has much of the same mechanical minutiae as a lot of sims, including the ability to adjust such specs as the power of the rear differential, the stiffness of the springs in the suspension, and other things that, let’s be honest, most people won’t want to do in an arcade-style racing game.
Similarly, GRAVEL also rewards you for doing cool jumps or drifting around a corner; specifically, access to better vehicles as you level up. Though it’s through winning, doing well, or just completing events in the career mode that you unlock new races, including some one-on-one events against drivers who are supposed to be more skills and more aggressive, but really just come across and being more bitchy and arrogant.
While all of this makes GRAVEL seem rather Forza-esque, there are some notable differences. Though not all of them are bad.
For starters, the brakes in GRAVEL aren’t as responsive as those in the Forza games. Which makes sense when you’re driving on a track that’s a muddy mess or rain slicked. But when driving on dry roads it feels like you may need new brake pads. As a result, GRAVEL is not one of those arcade-ish racing games where you can just let up on the gas or tap the brakes and let inertia carry you around a curve. Which is neither good nor bad, just something worth noting before you go into a curve expecting you can just slide right through…only to slam into the barrier and flip over, killing a family of four.
Where GRAVEL really shows that it’s not a Forza game is in its depth and variety. Or lack thereof, as the case may be. First off, the kinds of events you race in GRAVEL aren’t as varied as they were in Forza Horizon 3 or Forza Motorsport 7, though it does have some variety. GRAVEL also has sixteen tracks, compared to thirty-two in Forza Motorsport 7, while its much shorter career mode has only twenty multi-race events events, compared to Forza Motorsport 7‘s seventy-seven. Though again, this isn’t all bad. Especially given that the career in Forza Motorsport 7 was so long that it was far more enjoyable if you took breaks and spread it out over a couple months.
Similarly, though least importantly, GRAVEL doesn’t have the deep car aesthetic customization options as a Forza game, which means you’re often stuck racing cars with ugly paint jobs.
But the biggest problem with GRAVEL that you don’t find in Forza Horizon 3 and Forza Motorsport 7 is that the trucks and other vehicles occasionally get caught on a barricade or a stack of tires that, in a Forza game — and real life — you’d bounce off of or knock over or just not get attached to. Which can get really annoying when you’re in the home stretch of a race you’ve been struggling to win for the last half an hour. And yes, I am speaking from experience.
There are, however, ways in which GRAVEL outdoes Forza Horizon 3 and Forza Motorsport 7. First off, the latter doesn’t have any races set in arenas, which is like driving a truck or 4X4 during a Supercross event. And yes, that is as much fun as you imagine it would be.
GRAVEL also makes it a lot easier to turn the music down or off than a Forza game, which is really important because the music in both games is truly terrible and often obnoxiously loud.
In the end, GRAVEL may not be on par with Forza Horizon 3 and Forza Motorsport 7. But it does have enough of that series’ best elements, and a few of its own, to make it a fun and engaging off-road racing game. Well, until the unannounced but we all know it’s coming Forza Horizon 4 comes out this fall.