Ubisoft’s Steep, while not wholly original in and of itself, is new in the context of extreme sports games. Essentially, it’s the snowboarding edition of Watch Dogs, The Crew, or Assassin’s Creed, complete with all those wonderful Ubisoft idiosyncrasies that you either love or loathe.
There’s a large open world to explore, with events and activities like skiing, wingsuit flying, snowboarding, and paragliding strewn about the Alpine environment, and presented in such a way that you’re free to tackle them in any order you see fit.
In a sense, Steep is heavily formulaic (or at least Ubisoft-formulaic). But seeing this familiar form applied to the world of extreme sports does make for an interesting game. Sadly, it doesn’t make for a good one.
Steep starts well. Despite what you might expect, there’s a refreshing lack of clichéd “dude-bro” language and frat boy sensibilities to accompany the extreme sports. Steep celebrates the daredevil nature of snowboarders and skiers, without the inane drivel that the media so frequently attaches to it. Combined with the wealth of options available thanks to the inclusion of numerous extreme sports and you’ve got a game that boasts an engaging attitude, along with the potential for experimentation.
You could concentrate on snowboarding, memorising favoured lines and mastering how the physics of the board cuts through the snow. Or you might decide to become the ultimate flying squirrel by leaping off the highest peaks, hurtling down in your wingsuit before landing safely on a pillowy pile of soft snow. Combining sports is another option, using the paraglider to slow your descent at the last second to seamlessly transition from wing suit to snowboard.
These moments of freedom are when Steep is at its very best. Unlike other games from the Ubisoft School of Open-World Design, simply navigating the world is a reward unto itself. The honeymoon doesn’t last forever, though. Once the initial meditative calm of discovery and feeling out of each sport has worn off, inevitably you begin to search for some sort of tangible reward to accompany your endeavours.
Predefined events fill the gap, tracking your progress as you play, and placing scores on leaderboards so you can see how quickly you’ve descended a mountain on a pair of skis versus friends. Unfortunately, these events are all too familiar. Time trials, races, and stunt exhibitions are nothing new and, if anything, undermine the potential for more complex challenges that the mountains offer.
Funnelling you into narrowly defined, heavily-structured tasks removes the sense of scale and promise that Steep projects early on. Where free exploration makes you feel as though you’re working with the mountains to define a new relationship between the sport and them, the events simply and boorishly ask you to conquer them.
Yes, unfettered exploration does wear thin and, yes, Steep needs some form of defined goals to challenge you, but presenting them in a way that refuses to consider individual tastes, styles, and approaches is a major opportunity missed.
Worst of all is that you need to level up to unlock new areas and content, which does more to artificially restrict the mountains than anything else. So many points are required to unlock all the peaks that you’ve no option but to attempt to finish almost every challenge on offer whether you like it or not. This is a very dated, very restrictive way to design a game, and because of it there’s no way to concentrate on a specific sport to master, or find new and interesting ways to combine them.
Everything from races, to wingsuit flights, to simply searching out new lines down a mountain has a multiplayer slant. But multiplayer events feel just as forced as the solo editions, and the presence of others fighting against you for glory does not make having to zip down the mountain against the clock for the umpteenth time any more exciting. With such a vast area to play around in, the cliché would be to say this is a game with a multiplayer focus—but it isn’t. Having other people around takes away from the magic that being alone and exploring the wilderness, snowboard and goggles at the ready, imparts.
The sense of opportunity lost is made worse by how good the raw sensation of gliding over the snow on your board or skis is. Steep pulls off that difficult trick of being both immediately intuitive, and sophisticated enough to give you something to master. To say it’s realistic is a stretch, though. You can get away with all kinds of awkward positioning and impossible feats of physics that you couldn’t possibly do like recovering from fatal landings, or skiing over rock faces—which is just how it should be. Too much realism would push Steep into simulation territory, limiting its audience to a small handful of masochists.
Mechanically, Steep fares just as well in that air as it does on the surface. The wingsuit, while performing very differently to snowboards and skis brings with it a similar sense of motion. Again, Steep doesn’t take the most realistic approach, but the uniformity between the disciplines means that Steep is easy to learn, allowing you to start conquering the mountains immediately. If only Ubisoft had combined the events with the terrain as well as it brought together the different sports.
As it stands, if you’re coming to Steep having been courted by those stunning films featuring snowboarders jumping from helicopters and carving their own paths down, seemingly, whichever mountain they please, then this is not the game for you. Steep wants to make you feel like one of these daring individuals, but the reality is that Ubisoft lacks the development savvy to make taming a digital mountain a good substitute for the real thing, and instead falls back on the tried and tested formula of predictable, simple, competition.
The more time you put into trying to get a sense of freedom in Steep, the more you see behind the curtain and the less free you are. When played in short, sharp bursts, Steep is a fun distraction. But the closer you get to the heart of the mountain, the less romantic and the less interesting it becomes.
- Huge area to explore
- Impressive, smooth visuals
- Good balance between realism and arcade handling
- Fresh take on extreme sports
- Predictable events
- Multiplayer does nothing to expand or diversify the game
- Doesn’t make the most of its setting or sports
- Microtransactions, while not too obvious, are there to squeeze more cash out of you
Verdict: Steep wants to impart a sense of freedom, but it lacks the courage to offer true openness and underwhelms as a result.
This post originated on Ars Technica UK