Ubisoft and its conclave of studios have a knack for taking corners of the world and turning them into these vast virtual playgrounds where gamers can lose themselves for hours on end. Whether belting from coast to coast in The Crew or exploring the many wondrous settings of Assassin’s Creed, despite shifts in genre, most of Ubisoft’s open worlds carry the same hallmarks. Steep is no different and although it can definitely be played like a sports title, there’s a surprising emphasis on freedom and discovery.
Within minutes the training wheels are taken off and you’re effectively cast off into the Alps to fend for yourself. What few tutorial exercises there are help flesh out the basics, but the game as a whole takes a much more freeform approach. It can be overwhelming at first, especially when you zoom all the way out on the world map and see the huge snowy mountain range that’s begging to be explored.
There are four modes of transport available – five if you count walking. Naturally, there are snowboards and skis, though Steep also manages to pack in two slightly more unconventional options. The wingsuit allows players to dive from any ledge or cliff in the game, rocketing down the slopes at immense speed. Paragliding is also there, but it is the least exciting of the four disciplines by far.
How you approach the game is entirely up to you, though there are progression hooks for those wanting some kind of path to follow. By simply exploring the Alps, you’ll unlock new drop zones and points of interest, many of which come tagged with challenges. Completing these, as well as a sublayer of goals, will supply a steady source of experience points. These are then earned through Steep’s six fields of expertise such as Extreme, Pro Rider, and Bone Collector. Each one is associated with a particular approach to gameplay, whether landing the craziest tricks, or narrowly missing rocky terrain while strapped into the wingsuit. There’s an overall player level too and as you rank up more drop zones and challenges will become available.
How far you progress will hinge entirely on your own willingness to take on challenges and discover new locales. Although there are tiny threads of story to be found in Steep, they never tie together to produce an actual narrative. Instead, you’ll encounter the occasional barmy side challenge while also playing some of the game’s “Mountain Stories” – missions that attempt to inject Steep with a sense of character. As a result, it occupies a strange middle-ground. There’s a purist focus on player exploration and the sheer beauty of the Alps, but it’s juxtaposed with the attempts to slip in some goofball humour.
Ubisoft Annecy have adopted a similar approach to gameplay, caught between the arcade feel of SSX and the open world vibe of EA’s Skate series. It’s an interesting mix and one that works for the most part. Using only the two triggers and analog sticks, tricks are easy to pull off without feeling as though you’re having your hand held. Judging a good landing still takes skill and perception, especially when travelling at speed, though Steep feels much more forgiving compared to recent snowboarding titles like Infinite Air or Snow.
Try to flip or spin one too many times and, sure enough, you’ll come a cropper with often humorous results. Getting wiped out mid-challenge can be frustrating when aiming for those gold medals, though Steep allows players to reset within seconds using a single button press. That sense of immediacy works in the game’s favour, creating that Trials-liked “one more go” effect as you bid for top spot on the leaderboards.
While having some kind of multiplayer interactivity seems appropriate, Ubisoft’s decision to make Steep online-only is easily its biggest drawback. Throughout the game other riders will seamlessly appear in your session, scouting new drop zones and perfecting their runs. Although you can send invites and buddy up, this doesn’t add anything to the overall experience unless playing with someone you know.
For those who care, there’s a hidden layer of tools allowing you to create and share your own challenges and “dares” though it’s hard to see many people engaging with them. It almost feels as though multiplayer is simply there to make Steep look more alive than it actually is, populating the world with avatars you will likely never bother to interact with. What’s worse is that it’s mandatory and if Ubisoft’s servers happen to be offline, as they have been at various times during its launch week, then you may as well play something else.
Still, there’s a lot to like about the game. It’s far from the prettiest sports title of 2016, though completely outshines everything currently sitting within the subgenre. The day/night cycle wraps the Alps with various lighting effects that compliment the impressive amount of detail that has gone into creating this huge of mountain range. Sure, things can start to look samey, though Ubisoft Annecy attempts to breath in some diversity wherever it can, dropping in glaciers, caves, and other landmarks. The music choice is also sound though I found myself immediately booting up Spotify. You can listen to just about any music and Steep will have you locked in a trance as you traverse the Alps at your leisure.
The game works best in how it empowers you to toggle between idle exploration and obsessive score chasing whenever it suits you. However, as time drags on, if that drive to make headway begins to wane, there’s little else to keep players hooked. Then, of course, there’s the ridiculous online-only policy that is bound to frustrate, adding a completely expendable layer to the year’s best winter sports game.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4 Pro