Steep is one of the most confused messes of a game I’ve laid hands on in a long time. It feels as if Ubisoft wasn’t quite sure whether to aim headlong for the rap-metal leanings of 90’s extreme sports or take the sim approach. Instead it sits awkwardly in between, like the bloke on the train who decides to sit at your table and loudly eat a packet of crisps, even though there’s plenty of other seats. One moment I’m being asked to crush my skull against a rock as painfully as possible, the next a spirit of the mountain is telling me about the serenity of the wild and bigging up her pristine powdered white slopes. At one point I had to find a talking tree. It’s weird. Really weird.
It’s as if Ubisoft couldn’t find a personality of its own so began pulling disparate element together willy nilly. Somehow though, it just about works. You’ll be cringing as much as you’re smiling but there’s enough going on behind the scenes to pull snow sports fans in.
The undoubted star of the show has to be the mountain range itself. I mean wow, hats off Ubisoft Annecy. Based on the alps, it’s definitely one of my favourite open-worlds I’ve messed around in, in a long, long time. It’s absolutely ruddy huge. You’ve got next to no hope of learning the whole damn thing, yet over the dozens of hours you begin to recognise key areas and memorable runs. It ranges from the realistic to the crazy, including a run down Rabbids Valley with the giant faces of icy Rabbits looming over you. Wherever you choose to go however, it looks absolutely gorgeous, with impeccable draw distance, dynamic time of day and shifting weather patterns. The overwhelming whiteness surely helps here. The actual slopes are probably fairly low on detail but it’s not something you’re going to notice.
All of this and there’s not a single loading screen in sight. Not even on consoles. It’s frankly insane. You can view a map of the entire mountain range and zoom right into any point at maximum detail. With the press of a button you can ride from that position. Crash and you can restart a run instantly. It’s absurdly impressive, and I really hope it’s the sort of tech that rolls over to Ghost Recon Wildlands’ open-world Bolivia. In fact, having extensively played Steep and then taken another look at Wildlands footage, it’s clear Ubisoft is sharing bits between teams. You can see this in Ghost Recon’s paragliding and the massive, mountainous landscape.
Where Steep goes one step further than your typical sports game is that there are a total of four sports to choose from.Each of them are distinct from one another. Snowboarding and skiing are naturally quite similar, however you do begin to detect the differences between the two as you use them more. Skiing is a stronger choice anytime you potentially need to go slightly uphill, and it also feels faster. Turning can also be done much more on a dime. The benefit of snowboarding is it’s much easier to keep your balance and carve out wide angles.
Wingsuiting is wholly unique. You can strap it on at any time but you need a decently high jump off point to avoid crashing into the snow. Once you’re off though you can achieve some absolutely nail biting speed. Points are often rewarded for flying as close to the ground as possible. In true pick up and play style if you hold upwards you can generally grab enough lift to fly the entire way down the mountain, all of your crashes are going to be from your temptation for push lower. It says a lot that even now, with dozens upon dozens of trials completed, I still crack a smile when I discover a new one with the wingsuit icon. As you progress the wingsuit challenges get ever more ridiculous to match as well, forcing you through narrow holes in cliff faces or flying dangerously close to electricity pylons.
As for the paragliding, I mean, the less said the better. I’ve got a lot of time for the other three dear sports but dear god is paragliding awful. How this made it through the prototyping phase I will never know. It’s slow-paced, repetitive, and it rewards you for doing nothing. Literally. The less you mess around with the controls, the faster you go. It’s only real benefit is for casual exploration. Not only does the height provide a great vantage point, it’s also the only sport which can send you up the mountain rather than down.
Steep’s trick system lies somewhere in between sim and arcade. I’ve seen Steep touted as the Skate of snow sports, but it’s admittedly a far more basic system with less finesse than that groundbreaking game. Pretty much all the trick systems are based around snowboarding and skiing. Holding R2 queues you up for a jump at the cost of restricting your sideways moving. You then release it on the apex of a jump to get air, using the left and right sticks to achieve a combination of flips, rolls and spins. Another press of R2 gives you a grab which can be tweaked by moving the right stick. There’s potential there for decent trickery but it lacks a bit of finesse. The feedback for what tricks you’ve done isn’t great so for the most part I was just mashing buttons in different direction. It would have perhaps been nice to see some challenges where you had to perform specific tricks to help master the controls, much like Tony Hawk’s and Skate.
Challenges are split up into six different categories and among four sports. Ultimately the categories don’t mean all that much because every event boils down to a time trial, trick run, or, rarely, how much damage you can do to yourself. That’s not really a knock though because just messing around and looking for the best routes to complete these challenges is all part of the fun. Some of the best challenges are where you’re given a starting position and an end point. How you get there is entirely up to you. These can stretch on as long as 10 minutes and it feels awesome pulling up a map at the end of your run, looking at your route and zooming right in to plan how you’re going to it faster next time.
I realised one of my absolute favourite things about Steep when I spent a good few minutes looking for my character stats screen so I could see how I upgrade my abilities or gear. There is none. This is as pure as you can get. The only difference between you and a gold medal is your ability. You’re never in doubt that you can’t make that jump because your board’s not good enough or your character can’t jump high enough. It’s refreshing, particularly in a Ubisoft game, which are typically all about filling up bars and unlocking new skills. The dopamine fix comes from going down the mountain at extreme speeds rather than watching bars go up.
Not that Steep is devoid of bars, of course. Ubisoft has crowbarred in six seperate bars representing experience in the six different disciplines (freestyle, bonebreaker, time trial etc). Experience in these contributes to your overall level, which in turn unlocks more events up to the maximum level of 25. Unless you focus on a single skill however, all of these bars go up at pretty the same time, rendering them pointless. At the end of the day, if you want to complete Steep you have to fill them all up anyway.
All in all the campaign is a decent length. There’s well over 100 challenges to complete, drop points to find and places of interest to uncover. I’d estimate doing all of that is going to easily take you to 30-40 hours and Ubisoft Annecy is effectively doubling the size with a free new Alaskan mountain range soon. Once you’ve blasted through the campaign you can really get creative though. You get unlimited access to a helicopter to drop wherever you want. From here you can ski/board/fly anywhere you want and save your route to play in multiplayer. It’s a bit like Super Mario Maker in that it’s great fun to try to fly an almost impossible route and then share it out with your mates to see if they can even finish it.
Steep is by no means perfect, and one major grip I have is with the UI clutter. Ubisoft absolutely loves to throw icons at you, and there were numerous times I said “just fuck off” to my TV as I levelled up and it splashed congratulations and icons all over the screen, mid-race. Give me all that at the end of a race Ubisoft, not right in the middle. The event icons also detract from what are otherwise some mighty fine vistas. It would be nice to be able to just select your runs from the menu rather than finding them on the map, it would clear things up nicely. In truth there’s no reason for any UI during a run at all, aside from a timer and a score counter.
A special shout out to the audio work. Ubisoft Annecy has worked some magic here. Snow crunches satisfyingly underfoot. You can hear it spray across the mountain as you screech to a halt. Pull to a stop and it’s just eerily quiet, save perhaps for the distant noise of a nearby skier. The soundtrack isn’t the greatest so occasionally it’s great just to switch it off and soak in the ambience.
Steep is one of the downright weirdest games Ubisoft has made in years, and for that I love it. During the opening three or four hours I was a bit disappointed. It lacked personality and seemed a bit by the numbers. As I pressed on however it truly did transform into what can often be a magical experience. It’s at its best when it’s just you and then mountain stretching before. Full of possibilities and practically without limits.
That’s when it works and everything just clicks. At that moment it’s a fantastic extreme sports game. But I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it because it’s got an unusually high number of flaws that are glaringly obvious. I could easily overcome them, others may find them to difficult to forgive. Basically nothing in Steep is ever quite perfect, but what’s here can potentially be a real joy and the potential for a sequel, with these issues ironed out, is absolutely mouthwatering. See you on the slopes.