Trophy Trucks, Dune Buggies, and miscellaneous rally cars? Check. Wide-open, brightly-colored, easy-going circuits surrounded by colorful banners and some sort of fictional automotive festival sharing the name of the software itself? Check. An emphasis on a simcade driving model to try and reel in the largest number of customers possible? Check. If this sounds like Turn 10’s Forza Horizon 3, you’re unfortunately mistaken – it’s actually Milestone’s new intellectual property, operating under a name that’s just as much of a knock-off of superior titles as the gameplay itself – Gravel.
The Italian developer, known for their officially licensed MotoGP and MXGP releases, as well as Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo and a string of WRC games on the Xbox 360, have now basically taken a portion of Forza Horizon 3 without changing much of anything – most notably the trackside objects indicating a large, fictional automotive festival is taking place & the random array of off-road vehicles competing on semi-closed circuits and point to point events in an open world – and shamelessly built an entire game around it. Don’t get me wrong, I love trophy truck racing, and I definitely miss those late 90’s off-road titles such as Monster Truck Madness 2, which turned you loose on these elaborate fictional courses that were unlike anything the world of sim racing has to offer, but I also like variety. Initial footage of Milestone’s Gravel is almost indistinguishable from Forza Horizon 3, to the point where I genuinely wouldn’t be surprised if the team ran into legal problems, and the game fails to see the light of day when all is said and done.
There’s a difference between many sim developers all including the Nurburgring Nordschleife and the McLaren 650s in their flagship racing titles, versus what Milestone have done with Gravel – creating a new franchise with the exact same style, theme, and content of a product already on the market, and just sort of hoping people don’t notice. Even the skill points have been carried over from Forza Horizon 3, which rewards drivers for power-sliding around corners and destroying trackside objects. It’s really absurd the title got this far in development without a single person at Milestone’s studios saying “hey boss, what we’ve been making kind of looks identical to this other game… so what would make people buy our game over theirs?”
Gravel will boast around fifty vehicles and a number of diverse environments, offering a simplistic approach to off-road racing, reminiscent of old-school arcade racers such as RallyCross for Sony’s first PlayStation console. There won’t be a lot of thinking or practicing required with this one; it’s designed to be a game you can jump into and have fun when you’re tired of trying to extract that extra tenth out of your favorite car in Assetto Corsa. I obviously dig a good simcade title, as evidenced by recent articles on PRC.net, but here’s the thing – out of the box, Gravel simply looks boring. There’s nothing to this game that sets it aside from the aforementioned Forza Horizon 3, the Motorstorm series, or its most direct rival: BAJA: Edge of Control HD, which was announced yesterday by THQ Nordic.
The biggest problem I’ve found after examining some of the YouTube videos depicting Gravel in a semi-completed state, is that as a cohesive game, it appears to be extremely bland. Nothing about the reveal makes me excited for the game – it’s like a half-assed attempt was made to bring back something with the depth of Sega Rally Revo, when the market has already voted by and large with their wallets that it simply doesn’t work, and you need significantly more than just “cars on a track.” Not to mention, the AI are ridiculously slow and reduce their speed to a crawl for gentle bends in the racing surface, while the track layout previewed in the above footage doesn’t appear to be challenging in the slightest – any semi-competent driver would be wide open for the entire duration of the lap, and that’s not a compelling experience for anybody who likes racing games. Vehicle selection screens on display near the end of the video promise a diverse array of trucks, sport utility vehicles, and rally cars, though customization options are most likely related to just alternate liveries according to options listed on the menu.
Milestone also don’t have the greatest track record when it comes to pushing out competent pieces of software, so it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Gravel runs well. Though the team have acquired the rights to MotoGP and MXGP, and pushed out officially licensed WRC titles for several years, none of them were all that stable. Most recently, the PlayStation 4 version of Sebastien Loeb Rally Evo has a framerate issue on certain stages that renders the game completely unplayable, where you can physically feel the force feedback de-sync from the picture on screen. All of their games are traditionally left in this state, receiving only a single patch before the team moves on to the next project. It’s pissed a lot of customers off, to put it bluntly.
So like many others who have purchased their products and been burned by the lack of polish, I would prefer Milestone to get their current stable of games right, before expanding to new ones – and a blatant rip-off such as Gravel doesn’t give me hope that there are many creative minds left in the studio.