Whilst playing Ubisoft’s new extreme sports game, Steep, I realised something: I’m having the best skiing holiday I’ve never had. I’ve never been one for snowboarding or paragliding, or winter for that matter, give me the sun and blessed warmth any day, I’d probably be wrapped up in an oversized anorak with my arms folded in the fetal position rather than pulling off tricks and flips. Steep grants access by opening up the slopes to those like me. People who see during TV or films sunny snow-topped villages on mountainsides, cable cars and ski goggles but would never take it up.
Steep shares a lot of its structure from one of Ubisoft’s previous titles, The Crew. A fully accessible open world, loads of events of different types that can be undertaken at your leisure, and an always online environment which allows other players to share the same world as you. You can play as you want, with Steep‘s four playing styles – snowboarding, skiing, wingsuit flying or paragliding – all providing completely different gameplay experiences. But how does it manage it?
Steep is set in the Alps, which has been translated into an open-world map, a fully rendered mountain range split into several districts, as such. Each district has areas to explore which unlocks events and fast-travel starting points called ‘Drop Zones’. Within ‘Mountain View’, the world map overview screen which can be activated anytime, the entire mountain can be seen from an aerial point of view. From here you are able to freely select any drop zone that you have unlocked and start from it immediately. This was the first thing that impressed me about Steep. There were no loading screens, instead I simply zipped to that starting position in the blink of an eye. Unlocking these drop zones, however, requires the use of your binoculars to scope them out.
Outside of events, you are completely free to explore the beautiful mountains at your leisure and unlock events as you whizz past them, an approach perfect for sightseers. It is in these events that Steep, of course, comes into its own, but although they are the meat on the game’s open-world skeletal framework, the experiences they provide vary according to which discipline you choose.
Snowboarding and skiing share the same event types as the playstyles are very similar. It’s here Steep really excels and becomes exactly what I expected it to become. Hurtling down the mountain at break-neck speeds is truly exhilarating stuff. Responsive controls and a solid frame-rate help Steep shine as you weave left and right, dodging rocks, houses, trees and fences as you race to the finish line. Events are pretty much what you would expect from a sports game: time trials, straight-up races or trick challenges. It’s this last type that often provides the sternest test of your skills as the game’s trick system is tough to learn and master. It’s all about your timing as you approach a ramp and therefore requires quick thinking and sharp reflexes. Master it though, and you can pull off some spectacular stunts that would make Travis Rice cry. Steep is a fantastic skiing and snowboarding game, but that’s not all it has to offer.
Wingsuit events offer similar break-neck thrills but from a different perspective. They require you to glide down the mountain as quickly as possible. The harder the event, the more imaginative the courses become. Easy events may just be a straight drop to the finish line, dodging the odd hill and a couple of trees, whereas hard courses will squeeze you through death-defying gaps in pylons or between rocks. Flying is easy, especially if you’ve played Just Cause 3, as you use the left thumbstick to control your descent. The wingsuit is also the best way to get around if you’re looking for new drop zones.
Paragliding is where Steep feels unbalanced. It doesn’t fit in with the adrenaline-fuelled formula exhibited by the other three playstyles, with paragliding events instead significantly slowing the pace down. Gently floating from one checkpoint to the next is far from fun, and I quickly found myself trying to avoid this event type. You can perform tricks, but they aren’t very exciting as your characters just throw themselves from left to right. Steep also disappoints in its player progression, with the experience points you earn through winning events and exploring only used to buy cosmetic items for your rider. I felt like I was doing a lot of hard work for nothing more than a new helmet or flashy wingsuit which may look great but don’t carry any advantages or rewards. Although it was fun playing dress up, I wanted more. For players to truly get invested, more tangible prizes are required such as attribute boosts, more trick abilities or better equipment. Without these, Steep feels like it lacks any sort of meaningful progression, a definite downside for the title.
Steep is an always online game where other players share your game world, giving it a slight MMO feel. As you tour the Alps, you’ll see players doing exactly the same as you, exploring or competing across the game’s vast open world. However, their performances won’t affect you unless you choose to join up with them, something that just takes a simple button press when you’re close by. Online play is great fun. There’s nothing better, and funnier, than going neck and neck down the slopes and seeing your opponent fluff up a jump that sends them ragdoll flipping into oblivion. Both online and off, Steep has a lot of incredible moments like these with your rider defying death as you launch down the many treacherous declines at ridiculous speeds, jump through holes, zip through ravines, leap over chasms and survive deadly drops. All this can make Steep a true marvel, even if half the time you’ll simply end up floating down to earth and landing in a crumpled heap.
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: 2nd December 2016