Is extreme sports making a big return? Maybe, but the latest take of a popular game genre a few console generations back, Ubisoft’s Steep, might be on to something, something big if it works out.
The first ever game with Ubisoft Annecy at the helm with Ubisoft Kiev, Steep takes winter extreme sports- skiing and snowboarding, and also paragliding and wingsuiting, and mash them up with the tried and true Ubisoft’s open-world formula. It has some nifty features that can excite fans of this old genre of games, but jaded players who are tired of the cookie-cutter open-world formula might have trouble with the vast mountain ranges and plenty of checkboxes to complete.
Yet I believe this can be something special, as long as it can attract a healthy community of players. Based on the 7 hours spent on the open beta this past weekend, Steep has the foundation of an interesting extreme sports game.
The Open World
Let’s talk about the biggest selling point of Steep (and most other Ubisoft games)- the open world. It’s a lame buzzword by now, but for this genre, it can work. The Skate series was successful for its vast world open to explore on a skateboard and of course, the inventive new controls, and Steep has the potential to replicate this success.
This is the first big title to offer a complete open mountain range to traverse. SSX 3 had these interconnected routes and tracks that made it feel like one, connected mountain, but Steep gives you access to each and every angle of the seven mountains in the range. So there’s no one absolute route with branching paths, it is completely open for you to shred through or glide along.
And just one of these mountains is already huge. The three regions that were accessible in the beta, Aravis, Tyrol and Aguiles. Each has its own characteristics in their slopes- Aravis tends to be easier to tread with some nice jumps, Tyrol being steep and fun for blazing down at high speeds while Aguiles is dreadful, full of hazards, obstacles, and those deadly, deadly rocks.
Interestingly, there are a few story missions where you need to complete several objectives, dubbed the Mountain Stories. Some of these are actually the mountains themselves doing a monologue, then addressing you once you’ve completed it. Aravis is spunky and cheerful while Tyrol is old and wise. It’s ridiculous and I love it. Minimal effort, but still something that either hits people or easily skippable.
While they tried to make each region unique, it can still look a bit samey- plenty of reused assets. Prepare to see a lot of the same trees and the same wooden cabins. Graphically the steep slopes isn’t something that breathtaking, but it looks fine for the most part.
To assist you in traversing the Alps, you have the Mountain View. Basically it’s the world map, but zoom in enough and you can see the part of the game world being rendered, like how it’s done in The Crew. Fast travel is easy and quick with minimal loading. Speaking of that, restarting a ride is also a long press of a button, perfect for perfectionists who would keep on repeating the same challenges until they score gold.
Sounds all good, but unfortunately, there’s still towers to unlock in the form of camps or points of interest. These points can be a starting point of a ride and you can unlock them either by stepping foot to them or spotting them with your binoculars. With my experience, spotting these points feel unintuitive and random. You’ll get a sound cue if there’s a spot nearby, but that’s it. It doesn’t guide you, and trying to scope it out with your binoculars is fiddly. Also, if it’s too far, you won’t unlock it straight away, but it will be marked until you set foot to that point.
So far, so Ubisoft. But what sets Steep apart isn’t just the open world, but it has some nifty control schemes.
The Inventive New Controls
Steep controls normally for movement, but you might probably be searching for the jump and tricks button during the tutorial but can’t find it. Thankfully, the moment it gets introduced, it was explained pretty well. You hold RT/R2 to prep a jump and then release it just before the end of the slope to jump. But to spin, you can’t prep it like in SSX. You have to hit the left analog just after the jump to properly spin or do a barrel rotation or a mix of both. RT/R2 and LT/L2 adds grabs and right analog stick lets you tweak the grabs.
It works brilliantly, and actually takes more skill to execute while still fun once mastered. It feels like Skate where the controls were dramatically changed from other games in its genre but for the better. You won’t do Uber Tricks here in Steep, but pulling a 1080 grab feels more satisfying than ever.
One slight nitpick: the way the game explains how to switch your riders position (regular/fakie) is not handled well. This may not be an issue as much for snowboarding, but going fakie on skis mean you’re facing the wrong direction. It took me around a few hours of game time to finally figure out that “push the two analog sticks in separate directions” means left on the left stick and right on the right stick. After that, the motion becomes intuitive.
Can’t praise much on the paragliding and wingsuiting controls however. It seems you can lose altitude really, really fast with just the stick in neutral. You’re probably be pulling the left stick down to varying degrees a lot of times, but it just doesn’t have the right sensitivity to pull off those “thread the needle” obstacles. Prepare to bail a lot. A lot.
Which is fine, since bailing, among a lot of other things you’ll just do naturally in-game, will feed to the progression.
Freedom To Progress
The progression system tracks you in six different styles of play. Imagine Need For Speed 2015’s five ways to play progression, but better executed. The six different styles are Pro Rider, Freerider, Freestyler, Extreme Rider, Explorer and Bone Collector. Pro Rider gains points for winning events (especially in the first go) and beating best times, Freerider gains points for long runs, uninterrupted ones especially, Freestyler gains points for tricking, Extreme Rider gains points for death-defying stunts- close calls to trees, wingsuiting close to the ground, Explorer gains points for discovering all the points of interest and Bone Collector gains points for just bailing, and huge, huge crashes. Brings back memories to Skate that also rewards crashes and bails, but you can’t control the ragdoll in Steep.
There is a ragdoll button though.
So what this entails is that you can just do whatever you want and still progress at a good rate. You’re not gated by missions or events needed to be cleared, you can just do a lot of long rides on your own, discovering your own path and still open up new regions and challenges. You have a level and all the playstyles feed into that for progression.
Each of the action you do that feeds into the playstyles feel natural and repeatable enough, except the Explorer line, which seems a bit limited. From what I’ve seen here, we could really expect to see someone who just crashes a lot to gain progression, and another who just do freerides with some friends and still progress through the game. While Steep has its sets of checkboxes to complete, like any open-world game, it is open enough to just ignore what you don’t like.
Speaking of which, there’s no underlying plot or anything in Steep. Unlike The Crew, which had a full story mode perfect for single-player play, Steep doesn’t hold your hand for too long. Once the tutorial is done, you’re off. You’re playing Steep not because of the story here, you’re playing because the four sports you get to do is fun.
Expressing yourself is something Steep is pretty good. You can also express yourselves in various customisation options.
You don’t get to create your own rider in Steep, instead we get a bunch of different riders, all fully voice acted. You can change to any of these riders at will and all your unlocked gear is accessible. These riders are purely cosmetic, no different stats of any kind, and so are the gears. From generic winter sportswear to branded items from real brands to the ridiculous helmets and costumes, you can go very pedestrian or very ridiculous with your style in Steep.
How ridiculous? Some of those wacky helmets and costumes comes with their own special sound effects, replacing the voice lines. I managed to get enough for a giraffe costume and I assure you it is just the right amount of ridiculous. Googly eyes, squeaky voice lines and lovely fur animation as it shreds through the slopes.
There’s plenty to choose from. Aside from the ridiculous ones, you can also deck out the backpack with some real (but purely cosmetic) gear and add some stickers to it too. Locked items are either purchasable with in-game currency or by completing a certain challenge, which you can immediately go to from that menu. Handy.
But all these customisation needs to be showed off in some way, and Steep has a pretty robust replay system.
The Robust Replay System
Replays may not be a cool function that everyone uses, but its handy with games like this. It certainly helps relieving the cool (or horrible) moments quickly, or a second chance to catch that all on recording, but Steep does more than just that. Each ride is recorded, and the last run you did is always there in the Mountain View. You could save the replay for safe keeping, watch it, or issue that run as a challenge.
And you can pick what sort of challenge, either purely tricks or extreme points, or a mix of everything. This will then come up like any other challenges- the events- littered around the game. Especially useful for people who play together.
Speaking of playing together, you can group up to 4 players and have a shred through the mountains. Collisions will be on when you’re in groups, and it’s the best way to enjoy the use of the replays- it doesn’t just capture your run, it captures anyone else that were there as well, even outside of your party. Sure, it’s what you expect from a proper replay system, but it’s good to know Steep has a proper replay system, aside from some parts where an animation keeps on playing instead of being played on reverse when rewinding.
So, with all its interesting features (and slight shortcomings), will Steep be any good? It has that potential, but the hook of it is if it can be a YouTube sensation. YouTube was namedropped a lot in the game, and the replay system, as well as the freedom to do a lot of things on the Alps have potential to appeal to content creators, but is that enough?
There’s going to be some seasonal events that focuses on competition, but we highly doubt it will go the e-sports route. Steep is fun for what it is, it nails the winter extreme sports by injecting something new, and offer an interesting enough playground to go have our own fun in. But extreme sports as a genre has long since been quiet for a reason: it isn’t as big as other AAA games that usually involves some kind of shooting.
Steep is a bold gamble by Ubisoft, but it’s not a blind one. If it can iron out some small issues I had, Steep can be a decent game and be the breath of fresh (Alpine) air in the AAA space we all need once in a while.
Steep will be out in December 2 on PC, Xbox One and PS4.
First Impressions are based on the PC version of Steep Open Beta.