So large does the shadow of SSX loom over its contemporaries that no winter sports title can escape from it. If it has snow, a mountain and a range of vaguely board shaped things to slide down it on, chances are it will get compared to EA’s seminal SSX series of games. So it is then that Steep finds itself measured against such an indomitable forbear, and yet in spite of such comparisons which many thought it may not survive, Ubisoft’s latest title comes out shining; bringing forth a larger open-world experience to the genre that feels like a glorious melting pot of Jackass, Burnout Paradise and of course, SSX.
Masses of challenge
As soon as Steep has been fully installed and control is passed to the player, the Burnout Paradise comparisons hit like a 100 foot face plant into the snow. From the beginning, a birdseye view of the mountain ranges that you have access to are riddled with activities and challenges to get stuck into (this is a Ubisoft game after all), with your trusty binoculars being used to single out points of interest that can yield new missions and tasks. This is no linear snowboarding title then, and much like Criterion Games superb racer, these missions and challenges take place in the open world itself rather than in some other isolated play space.
Such challenges are broken down into various activities that tap into one or more of the quartet of winter sports disciplines available in Steep; skiing, snowboarding, wingsuit and paragliding. Once you’ve switched to the discipline that each specific challenge requires, you are then tasked with careening down or around certain parts of the mountain, where score is awarded for performing stunts or pulling off near misses of the scenery. The better you do and the more of these challenges you complete, the more experience you gain which in turn levels you up and permits access to more difficult missions and activities. Doing this is easily achieved too, as the player can fast travel to any event or challenge of interest, or, use easily accrued Helicopter Tokens to begin from any other point on the map.
Despite being adorned in the usual Ubisoft mechanical regalia, Steep reassuringly gives a formidable account of itself where it counts; chiefly, carving through the snow feels fantastic. Whether by ski or snowboard, each twist and turn through the powder has the palpable feel of friction; with each contour and imperfect surface in the snow requiring the player to adjust on the fly to ensure optimum speed as your slope bound apparatus follows the mountain downward.
Attempting to pull off tricks however, proves to be a much more difficult endeavour simply because of the number of variables involved. Eschewing the more accessible devil may care approach to tricks that EA’s SSX titles embraced, Steep will only let perform tricks if they are at a sufficient height to do so, and if the analogue stick to twist the board/skis has been pressed in the desired the direction a split-second after the jump has been made.
Having such variables is no bad thing of course so long as they’re executed both properly and fairly, in Steep however, it can sometimes prove frustrating to nail any type of trick because you were a smidgen too low to pull it off, or, a microsecond out of being allowed to pull said manoeuvre off. As one can probably imagine, such an unyielding approach can irk early and often; though a reprieve comes in the form of an instant restart which assuages what would otherwise be fits of joypad hurling rage.
Controller inputs aside, Steep also lacks much of the exaggerated acrobatic spectacle of the SSX games, with rail grinding and a whole host of other, more extravagant tricks seemingly absent from the game’s arsenal of high-flying stunts. Still, perhaps it’s churlish to chastise the developers for not going down such a route since Steep, for all intents of purposes, feels much more like it’s striving to be a simulation rather than the next in a long line of furiously accessible arcade efforts (even if Steep itself remains reassuringly rich in white-knuckle spectacle).
Away from the trials and tribulations of the slope, the wingsuit is enthralling; requiring a deceptive amount of skill on the part of the player as they dive and soar through tightly knit caves and negotiate quick turns around the mountainside. Much more pedestrian and frustrating is the paragliding however, which turns out to be annoyingly difficult to control on account of you having to take advantage of wind pockets in order to keep yourself propped up in the sky, not to mention it’s all just a little dull when compared to the other sports.
Find your own fun
Rather than just having a bunch of linear objectives continually rammed down your throat, Steep instead subtly suggests that the player seeks out and makes their own fun; encouraging a playful kind of discovery that taps into our imagination for snow sport shenanigans. Whether you’re just off exploring its wintery mountain playground or switching between skiing and snowboarding for a given challenge, Steep never tells the player what they can’t do, but instead hints at what they could do and leaves them to fill in the blanks; something which is true of certain challenges which provide a score to aim for, but permit you to reach it anyway you like. You can of course just choose to navigate the mountain entirely separate from any mission or activity, discovering the wealth of secrets and opportunity for yourself, reinforcing the fact that going off the beaten track is something you will want to do, rather than feeling pressured to do.
What’s also surprising is the remarkable sense of place that Ubisoft Annecy have managed to engineer here, since all the mountain ranges that make up the open world of Steep feel like real places with organic and believable histories that have been borne out by the scarred and unique features of their geography. To that end, the developers have also tapped into this sense of place by introducing a number of story challenges which allow players to chart some of the most treacherous and unexplored areas of these mountain ranges; adding yet further value to package that is already bursting at the seams with it.
If it isn’t already obvious from the screenshots and video that have been released for the game, Steep is quite the looker. With its sparkly frosted slopes, gorgeous lighting, smooth framerate and wonderfully deformable snow, Steep is sumptuous looking title that makes the most of its attractive snowbound setting. As an added bonus, players can also tweak the time of day at any given point allows you to see its gorgeous, mountainside vistas in a variety of daytime and night-time hues.
Something else which is woven deep into the fabric of Steep is its focus on social gaming. Whether you’re beating each other’s high scores on the leaderboards, sharing new discoveries you’ve made with one another, or, taking part in some mixed sport Jackassery (sabotaging your ski and snowboard using mates with a well-timed wingsuit crash is a particular favourite), Steep is invariably a game that benefits greatly from having a bunch of mates along for the ride. Oh and also, Steep has a button dedicated for throwing insults at your friends, so there’s that too.
Frustrating trick system and relatively dull paragliding activities aside, Steep embraces the free spirited cornerstone of its design to thrust the winter extreme sports genre into enticingly new territory, entwining open-world, social aspects and emergent player moments in a way that just hasn’t been done to this extent before.
Looking to the future, if a hypothetical Steep 2 follows in the trajectories of other Ubisoft franchise sequels, such as Assassin’s Creed 2 and Watch Dogs 2 then maybe, just maybe, this series will cast a lengthy, generation-spanning shadow of its own. As it is, Ubisoft’s Annecy’s snowbound effort is one that reaffirms the belief that it’s better to be the first Steep, rather than the next SSX.