It’s time to hit the virtual slopes with the release of Ubisoft’s Steep. The game impressed us in our time with it at E3, but is the full launch worth gearing up for? Come inside to check out our full review!
Extreme Winter sports games aren’t necessarily new and there’ve been plenty of excellent titles out there, from SSX to Amped and more. Ubisoft is trying something different with Steep, taking a more realistic approach to tackling the mountain, rather than the arcadey style most are used to in these kind of sports games.
From the get go, Steep immerses you in the world they’ve created and gives you free roam. The tutorial gives you a quick run around the general ideas of the game, letting you play around with all four of the available sporting options (snowboard, skis, paraglider, and wingsuit) and understanding how they work. The tutorial introduces you to various events you can find around the mountains, which come in the form of challenges (points or timed) or even invitational style competitions. Finding and completing these tasks become your primary goal and after the tutorial section is over, you’re cut loose to roam the mountain as you see fit.
As you traverse the slopes you’re goal becomes finding new paths and points of interest from which to try out new challenges and test your skills on wicked ‘lines’. As I mentioned, the primary purpose of Steep from the outset is to give players an immense amount of freedom and it succeeds completely. There's never a feeling that I have to take on a line in a specific way.
Aside from a few at the beginning, a majority of the challenges you encounter don't have a bunch of checkpoints, meaning you can get to the finish line however you want. Even if you fail a challenge, there's not really a punishment (no rewards either, obviously) as you can quickly try again at the press of a button. Restarting a challenge (or any run) is incredibly simple and almost instantaneous. This gives you a lot of freedom to plan ahead and pick the best route for the course, allowing you to put up the best score possible. It’s a neat feature that encourages you to improve yourself without heavy punishment or slogging through loading times.
Impressive In Scope
Have I mentioned how gorgeous Steep is? If not, allow me to correct that problem: Steep is ridiculously good looking. Seriously, this is one of the best looking games I've played this year, and they've done an excellent job of bringing the mountain to life. It was seriously cathartic to ski down the slopes, even at a leisurely pace, and take in the site around me. While many of the villages and resorts you encounter have a similar look about them (obviously reused assets), everything else is brought to life in great detail.
The snow moves appropriately, even to the point of if you're following another skier/snowboarder, you can literally follow the snow trail they've already paved. Get close enough to the trees and you can knock snow off the branches. The various rock outcroppings offer variety for tricks, as well as obstacles, all while managing to generally feel different from other craggy areas you can find. Just about anywhere I went, I was amazed at the landscape on display in the game; I truly felt transported.
This comes into focus where the gameplay is concerned as well. Like I said, the game is more about realism as opposed to the balls to the wall insanity of arcade sports titles. Each sport you can play brings a layer of realism to them. If you're not going very fast, or hit a jump wrong, you won't be able to pull off flips and 720 spins. You have to actually work to make tricks happen, timing the jumps just right, making sure you're building speed and reading the trails. The controls themselves aren't difficult and are easy to pick up/understand, but mastery can take some time.
Once I got the controls down, it was a lot of fun to zigzag through trees, get tricks in off of smaller jumps, and generally cut loose. I still always felt like I was working for it, though, and grew frustrated at myself (through no fault of the gameplay system) when I missed a jump. The sense of speed you get while flying down the hills is palpable, so too is the sense of being out of control at times.
The wingsuit is particularly fun for trying out new things and getting a rush. It's well handled in the game, can often be unforgiving, but when you nail a particularly tough line it's equally satisfying. Skiing and snowboarding feel similar, but the subtle differences in how I went down the mountain, "felt" the snow, and pulled off tricks made me appreciate the design much more. Stop long enough and you can whip out your binoculars and scout the area, potentially unlocking new starting points for you to try out.
This is one of the neater elements of the game, as you're faced with a MASSIVE mountain to explore. The game alerts you when you're nearby points of interest so you can scout out new drop points. Once you do, the location opens up on the map and you can quick travel to that spot.
The game is great about letting you get right to the action, as you can jump around any point of interest on the map with a quick button press. If you’re close enough to discover a new area, you can always hop onto a helicopter (tickets can be bought with your in game earnings) and have it drop you on peaks you think are worthwhile. You can walk around in order to find better vantage points to discover new trails, but it’s not exactly great for general travel. As such, the quick travel feature is nice.
The paragliding sport is much more low key and laid back, sometimes to the point of feeling out of place with the rest of the extreme sports available. That said, it's a great way to explore a larger area in a shorter amount of time. As I mentioned, the scale of Steep is pretty large, with the explorable/playable map encompassing kilometers of square footage. Finding all the cool spots on skis with binoculars is understandably an arduous task, so the paragliding makes it a little easier.
One of the key aspects to Steep is its online community. The game is designed to be always online, meaning you're exploring the slopes along with plenty of other real-world gamers. It's a neat idea, especially as Winter sports are generally more exciting when done in a group. Steep allows for this, where you can pair up with pretty much any other rider you come across to tackle trails together.
Better yet (and perhaps the game's coolest feature) if you plow through a particularly cool path you've found, the game automatically "records" the trail you took. You can then go back through your map and set it as a challenge for other players to find and tackle. If you're playing with friends, this is a great way to see who's the best, by crafting your own unique challenges. It's a feature that encourages connectivity and having fun with your friends, reminding me a lot of the times I played the early Tony Hawk games with my friends/brother. We'd do different tricks and try to one-up each other. Steep allows for the same thing, but on a much larger scale, with a vast open world in which to do it.
Sadly, however, the online nature of Steep is also where I had the most problems with it. I'm not saying the online aspect is bad, it made for a lot of fun, but the lack of any sort of offline option, is going to limit its replay value for me. The fun part about the arcade-style extreme sports games, is that they're designed to pop in, play a quick course and go on with your day. It's an ideal format for gamers without a lot of time, but want to have some quick fun in the spare moments available (with three kids, and a fourth on the way, it's my constant state of gaming).
Steep's constant connectivity, however, makes this more difficult as having to connect to the server every single time I fire up the game is something of a pain. I mean, it takes some time to load up because of the server and there were a few occasions where the server disconnected while I was playing, meaning I had to go through the process all over again. Once you're in the main game and playing, there's virtually no loading or lag time to speak of, but initial connection feels like a chore.
It wasn't easy for me to jump into the game quickly and it made me wish for some sort of offline "arcade mode". Nothing too special, just a mode you don't have to connect for, but jump into a handful of challenges you've already unlocked, and that's it. Something along those lines would give me more reason to come back to it frequently for my "gaming on a time limit" needs.
My other issue with Steep is a general lack of things I WANT to unlock. I understand, this is a purely personal gripe and likely won't affect other gamers as there are plenty of things to shop for in the game. As with all extreme sports games, improving your reputation and completing challenges will allow you to unlock/buy new outfits and gear to make your character stand out. My problem is none of that appealed to me. I enjoyed discovering and unlocking new challenges around the mountain, but the other unlockables held nothing for me.
The trippy Mountain Stories that serve as Steep's somewhat story-mode are also a little off. I say somewhat, because the Mountain Stories aren't essential to completing the game and can be ignored entirely. They play out in a variety of ways, but with narration that stems from "the mountain" itself. Seriously, it's weird and a little off-putting. The first time I stumbled across one, I was thrown for a loop. In a game that prides itself on bringing in realism to the extreme sports genre, that mystical Mountain Stories seem like an odd choice to throw in.
Perhaps the biggest, and most worrying, issue I have, however, is the longevity factor. Again, this might not be true for everyone, but I wonder how often I’m going to come back to this game. I mean, it feels like the kind of game that you’ll play the crap out of for a weekend (I know I did), but the minute you pop in the next game, there’s not much to bring you back.