Sony PlayStation 4Also available on PC and Microsoft Xbox One
The extreme winter sports genre has always been rather niche. Only when the SSX franchise blew up in 2001 did the genre pull in a sizeable crowd, its quirky blend of ridiculousness, great music and style transcending above mere snowboarding. Of course, that crashed and burned with its gritty reboot in 2012. Other series have furrowed a similar path - Amped, Shaun White Snowboarding and the like all playing from the extreme sports rulebook and yet dormant, if not extinct. Ubisoft’s Steep abides by some of the genre tropes but manages to forge its own identity by opening Ubisoft’s other rulebook - the one that applies to nearly all of their games.
Which of course means Steep is set in an open world, much like Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed, The Division, Ghost Recon: Wildlands, The Crew and pretty much every other Ubisoft title. Only this time you’ll be trading in those weapons for a sick pair of skis and the only way to kill someone is by hurtling off a mountaintop with barely anything but a thin board of fibreglass and wood. Fair play to Ubisoft, throwing players off an extreme sports title into a mountain range with total freedom is pretty logical. Gone are the days of preset routes and regimented progression. Here you can trudge up any snowbound slope, leap off the side of any precarious drop and generally potter about without the risk of frostbite. It’s a strange feeling - anyone used to Ubisoft’s games might well feel exhausted at the sight of another map filled with icons to complete; players interested in the genre will be astounded, a huge playground immediately available to explore.
Traversing the snow-capped peaks can be done via a few ways. There’s the aforementioned snowboard and skis but players can also wingsuit off higher locales and paragliding allows for a bird’s-eye take on the map. Of course you can also walk about, but deep snow drifts make this a rather cumbersome way to move any great distance, so the handily instant shortcut button discourages too much trudging. Each of the sports have their own events you can complete, earning star ratings, XP and a place on online leaderboards to crow about. Snowboarding tends to focus on either fastest times or highest points earned (for stunts and tricks) while other categories have their own stipulations. You may, for example, only rack up points using the wingsuit dependent on how close you can stay to the ground.
XP earned contributes to an overall rank, unlocking new events and invitationals which in turn open up new mountain courses and starting bases. You can also earn XP in various other ways, ranking up other meters. Exploring the world and discovering routes and points of interest will unsurprisingly contribute to an Explorer rank, dangerous stunts and risky moves earn points for the Extreme meter and, rather delightful in its ghoulish nature, there’s a rank that tracks how many times you die. Death is merely a spectacle, a punchline that breaks up the rather dry sports. There’s a definite feeling Steep is aiming towards the Youtube crowd and their preponderance for Skate’s ragdoll mishaps, but this doesn’t diminish how fun it is to do a body tumble for a minute or two before occasionally getting up, dusting off and carrying on as before.
It wouldn’t be Ubisoft without some bizarre addition and the Mountain Stories inject a small amount of that oddness into Steep’s otherwise straightforward approach to extreme sports. Each mountain has a set route or challenge which is usually fairly long, allowing for a frankly unneeded load of dialogue from the perspective of the mountain itself. It may have been nice to personify these peaks on paper, but in practice it comes off as rather drama school in delivery. Not that it shouldn’t be there - it certainly adds flavour - but just doesn’t really work, often messing up the pace.
And that’s the crux of Steep’s problem - pace. Call me a philistine, but Steep doesn’t seem to have worked out whether it’s totally X-treeeeme or reflective and beautiful. Looking out at the sun setting over the distant horizon is lovely, but it doesn’t gel with the half-hearted attempts to paint the rest of the game as adrenaline-pumping craziness. The soundtrack is a perfect example - on one side you have Zikali’s mix of ambient classical, surf rock and punk and in the licensed tracks you have hipster-ish genre-spanning artists. Nothing seems to inspire; there isn’t the defining direction you’d expect for a genre steeped (ha!) in adrenaline. Even the sports themselves often feel subdued. Paragliding is the slowest, with not a great deal of control as you gently move between checkpoints, rarely feeling intense.
The addition of open-world public access is inspired - players share the world, allowing for instant challenges against real opponents. Some will ignore fellow players sharing their slopes, but it gives the massive, sparse world life. It’s also something to do should you finish all the challenges, although this would be a massive undertaking on its own. Joining up with another player is easy, straightforward and well worth trying, if only to hear the bizarre hails your player spouts as invitation.
It’s a bold experiment and pleasant surprise overall, even if glaring omissions feel like missed opportunities. The requirement to come to a full stop before switching sports is especially annoying - paragliding would be immensely more fun if you could switch to a wingsuit mid-air and speed your way to the ground. The world is beautiful and you’ll more often than not feel that rush of exhilaration as you speed down the rocky gullies and death-defying inclines.
However, it’s also worth noting that the game still feels empty, especially given the lukewarm reaction from consumers. Who this game is aimed at is hard to discern; extreme sports fans will love the freedom to do what they want but that’s a small niche. Everyone else will likely find Steep a curiosity, rewarding to some but just plain dull to others. Safe to say this is the least extreme extreme sports game to come out. Either way, it’s wonderful to see Ubisoft experiment in other genres. Steep feels like it has a heart, it just seems buried underneath a rather cold exterior.