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Gravel Review: Slow And Steady Doesn't Win The Race

Game Spot Reviews - Wed, 03/07/2018 - 18:04

Arcade racing games have been few and far between during this console generation, which makes Gravel's straightforward approach feel almost like a throwback. On its surface, Milestone's latest appears to toe the line between being an authentic simulation of off-road racing, and a rough-and-tumble arcade experience. There are myriad driver assists that let you tune the difficulty to your liking, and the option to tweak each vehicle's ride height, differentials, and so on, gives you some degree of performance-based customisation. Yet the effect these options have on Gravel's driving model are negligible at best. This is an unpretentious arcade racer that's incredibly easy to pick up and play, but this simplicity also contributes to a lack of heart-pounding excitement.

Gravel's single player career mode, dubbed "Off-road masters", has you globetrotting between events that mix up different race types and disciplines, with each one loosely connected by the concept of a Gravel TV show. There's not much of substance to this structure beyond the inclusion of an unenthusiastic commentator imparting a few tired lines before and after every race, and a few quasi boss fights that bookend each block of episodes. The latter do at least come locked and loaded with some corny FMV introductions, where fictional racing drivers strike poses in what can only be described as a flaming hellscape. For as amusing as I often found these brief interludes, the mano-e-mano races that follow suffer from the same prevalent problem Gravel does as a whole: they're just kind of boring.

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That's not to say Gravel's driving model is especially flawed. There's an inherent burst of dopamine that comes from careening around a corner with your car sideways, and the breakneck sense of speed that's achieved when hurtling through the verdurous forests of Alaska is certainly thrilling. But moments like this are disappointingly fleeting. You'll drive on tracks in thunderstorms and in blizzards, and on tarmac, dirt, mud, and grass; yet with the exception of some tyre-spinning snow, there isn't a discernible difference in feel between these contrasting road surfaces. The same can be said of Gravel's vehicles, too, with a handling model that feels loose and floaty across the board, offering no clear distinction from vehicle to vehicle; while the physics engine is consistently bizarre. I encountered numerous instances where a stray bush was enough to send my car soaring through the air in a vomit-inducing spin, and a slight nudge from a rival driver is often all it takes to halt your vehicle's momentum.

All of this speaks to a lack of depth to Gravel's off-road racing. This wouldn't be an issue on its own, but the simplicity of its action craves an exciting assortment of tracks to really coalesce its various systems into something approaching an engaging racing game, and Gravel falls short of the mark. There are outliers, of course: the point-to-point cross country races through Alaska and the sun-drenched beaches of Namibia are highlights due to their white-knuckle nature and environmental variety. However, the rest fail to get the blood pumping with any sort of regularity. There are a few real world Rallycross tracks, but most of the courses on offer are fictional, and it's a shame they're not more imaginative. The majority of the time I felt like I was simply going through the motions, even after bumping the difficulty up to hard for a more substantial challenge. And this feeling is only exacerbated by the limited number of environments on offer, with multiple tracks taking place in the same locations.

Meanwhile, multiplayer options are confined to creating your own lobby to invite friends, or jumping into a quick match in the hopes of finding others to race against--but this is easier said than done. After numerous attempts I’ve only managed to find a solitary match, which was populated with three other people (the rest of the grid was made up of AI drivers). Other than this I’ve had no luck finding another race, even a week after launch.

Visually, weather and lighting effects are occasionally impressive, but otherwise Gravel's tracks mostly look flat, and a short draw distance leads to shadows and foliage frequently popping into view. There's also a lack of detail to each vehicle's body, and a smoothness to each one that gives the illusion they're coated in a sheen of vaseline. They look more like toy cars than the high-powered mud-churners they should be.

In my mind's eye, Gravel's bland visuals contribute to a game that doesn't look too dissimilar from the seven year old titles it most closely resembles. There's something appreciable about its no-nonsense style, and there's definitely some intermittent fun to be had with its arcade style racing. But it doesn't do anything that its contemporaries haven't done better before, and it fails to stand out as an enjoyable alternative, which is unfortunately reflected by its barren multiplayer component. Like the fireworks that occasionally ignite throughout select races, Gravel's attempts at excitement don't quite dazzle.

Mulaka Review: Of Myth And Monsters

Game Spot Reviews - Mon, 03/05/2018 - 16:30

Every part of the world has its own history and legends that are ripe for examination, yet games typically stick to a narrow range of familiar cultures. It's why games like Mulaka stand out; they can open your eyes to concepts and themes that you otherwise might never encounter. Mulaka is a 3D action-adventure game that looks to the Sierra Tarahumara region of northern Mexico and channels its cultural heritage into a fascinating adventure steeped in mythology.

You play the role of the Sukurúame, a spear-wielding warrior shaman who can see both the physical and spirit world, and eventually transform into various animals. From the open desert to a thriving human city, Mulaka's landscapes have a magical quality that make it feel like an interactive trip inside a children's book. Your goal in each area is typically to find three magical stones that will unlock a giant door leading to a boss. Bottomless drops, deadly quicksand, water hazards, and precarious climbs are combined in entertaining and challenging ways to keep the action moving and diverse, as are the simple yet enjoyable puzzles throughout.

It can be fascinating to take in as you convene with animal spirits or battle fantastical monsters. The game utilizes its fairly primitive graphics style to give the game a classic look that fits its mythical themes, and the landscapes have a beautiful contoured quality. All the while the soundtrack uses native instruments to create an ambient soundtrack that fits the action, but stays mostly in the background.

The aforementioned civilization you engage with offers a slightly human touch to the mystical landscape, but Mulaka’s NPCs are disappointing conversationalists. They’re static characters who don’t do much except passively add to the atmosphere. And much like NPCs in classic RPGs, they only have one line of dialogue a piece.

Mulaka's detailed use of Sierra Tarahumaran mythology is the main here, since it provides a setting we haven't really seen before. Much like God of War used Greek myths to add compelling, otherworldly drama to its saga, Mulaka's setting adds a unique flavor to every aspect of the game. The presence of animal spirits leads to a set of monsters that are mostly grounded in the real world, but magnified to menacing proportions.

The themes of animal transformation lend themselves naturally to gaming. So moving from human to bird to bear forms in quick succession later in the game is a fast-paced thrill. Your character's spirit vision lets you see where objectives and key items (such as keystones) are, in addition to invisible platforms that are required to access specific parts of the world. The magic energy you expend to see these things extends to other abilities, such as flight. The multi-use resource forces you to balance your abilities on the fly, which can be a thrilling challenge during the game's more intense and chaotic battles.

Combat is near ever-present, and figuring out the best way to deal with the various enemies is part of the fun. Normal enemies, like giant frogs and basic mantis men, can just be wailed on, but many, including a creepy skull-armored spider, are shielded and must first be opened up to attack with a heavy strike. Other enemies are only vulnerable if you can successfully dodge their opening attacks.

Somewhat frustratingly, airborne enemies--from flying bolo-throwing mantises to balls of fire--can be especially hard to hit, especially in the midst of a full-blown battle between several distinct kinds of monsters. The issue stems from controlling your spear, which is especially problematic on Switch. There, the game insists on using motion controls, which don't behave as accurately as you'd hope. The target lock is also nearly useless, making it incredibly frustrating to hit moving targets, which can be further complicated by the lack of camera inversion settings.

Where things are at their are best are in the terrifically designed and imaginative boss encounters that range from straightforward battles to devious and clever platforming tests. So, in one fight you might be taunting a giant bug to run into towering rock sculptures and another requires you to use the wind generated by the boss itself to fly up to higher points so you can attack the boss's weak points. Seeing what surprises the next boss offers is one of the great joys of the game.

Mulaka is a simple game at heart with a lot of familiar traits. The open, low-poly landscapes and characters are reminiscent of Journey. The combat and puzzle elements are similar to Breath of the Wild and Okami. But thanks to the specific Tarahumara setting and characters, Mulaka still manages to have a personality and feel all its own. It offers an appealingly unique setting that makes it something more than a typical adventure game.


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