I love Sega Rally. The classic arcade game combines a larger-than-life handling engine with crisp, clean graphics to deliver a really accessible racer that's easy and fun to drive. I'm very much reminded of it as I play Gravel at Milestone's booth at GDC.
Apparently this is intentional – Milestone's upcoming off-road racer is designed to be a cross between Sega Rally and Screamer, a classic PC arcade racer that the company created back in 1995 under its prior guise of Graffiti.
The Gravel demo is a simple one, and starts with a selection of off-road vehicles, including a 90s Celica WRC car – the same one that appeared in Sega Rally funnily enough – and a variety of buggies and trucks. I choose the Celica to start with, and select the demo's only track – a circuit around a lush tropical island.
As the timer counts down, I quickly flick through the viewpoints. There are a couple of third-person perspectives from behind the car, a view across the hood, and a first-person bumper cam. I choose the latter, since the hood takes up a large portion of the screen. The race starts, and I take off. Almost immediately, I find myself bumping and jostling other cars as we jockey for position, and I eventually find a safe spot in amongst the pack as we take the first corner. Unlike my experience driving on dirt in Gran Turismo Sport, I go flying around the bend with ease. The car seems to have tremendous grip, and I exit the corner under full acceleration, slingshotting me down the subsequent straight and past several opposing vehicles.
I then enter a complex series of bends, and slide through them spectacularly, setting off a Drift Meter that scores my efforts as I maintain my sideways stance. Drifting is easy – just a whiff of opposite lock to set it up, and then leave the steering alone as the car goes sideways, and then steer back into the skid to put the car back on course. It's intuitive and easy, and very arcadey.
As the race progresses, I continue to work my way through the field until I'm leading. That gives me the chance to explore the outer limits of the handling, and I try to get as sideways as possible. Even when I'm being ham-fisted, the game is very forgiving, and it's only when I enter a corner at full tilt and really aggressively try to drift do I finally spin – and even then, it's because I hit a trackside object. I quickly reverse back onto the track and continue on my way.
After completing the race, I try again in a Ford Raptor off-road truck to check out whether it feels any different. It does: The truck's suspension is much softer, and it bounces over jumps that I barely felt in the car. It's heavy too, and is slower to steer as I try to hustle it through a series of bends. I have to be a little more judicious with my throttle modulations, and enter corners more slowly, lest I understeer off the track.
Even though it's a tad more tricky to drive, I still don't really have any problems working my way through the field until I'm eventually leading the pack. Once again, I try pushing the truck to its limits, and have difficulty getting it truly unsettled – The Ford handles really well, despite its heft. It's just a breeze to drive, and getting it sideways is quite easy once you get used to braking hard, tipping it into a corner and then stepping on the gas to swing out the back end. Fun times!
Where Gravel feels a little weak at the moment is its graphics. Even though it's still early days for the game, the cars lack crispness and detail, and the game's particle effects don't feel very convincing at all. At the start of a race, when I was stuck behind cars, they created rooster tails of sand that looked more like mist than particles. Maybe the problem is that I've been too spoiled by the likes of Forza Horizon 3, and playing Gran Turismo Sport on PS4 Pro, but Gravel just looks a little last generation. It even has overly aggressive lens flare, which further contributes to its oldschool vibe.
Hopefully Milestone will be able to improve Gravel's graphics, as it's pretty good fun to drive. The game doesn't quite yet feature the same larger-than-life handling physics as Sega Rally, but it's close. With a little tweaking and finessing, I'm sure it could get there. At least I hope it does. It's been ages since we've had a really entertaining arcade racer, and Gravel certainly has the potential to be such a beast.