This is that magical time of year when folks are obsessed with Walking in a Winter Wonderland. As much fun as a snowy stroll can be, there are plenty of others that would rather spend the cold months out on the slopes. Whether your sport is skiing or snowboarding, Ubisoft’s new release, Steep, is an attempt to finally bring a little reality to the world of winter sports. The real question is can this dose of realism breathe new life into a genre dominated by arcade experiences?
Starting From Scratch
In an era defined by sequels and reboots, it can be extremely difficult to birth an entirely new brand from scratch. In order for a new series to have the chance at establishing itself, it has to bring something new and unique to the table. Steep is attempting to do so by going all-in on a grounded experience. Since the genre has been primarily occupied by the likes of the SSX franchise, it seemed only logical to head towards Skate’s more grounded interpretation of their respective sports. Marry realism to the shared open-world design that is currently all the rage, and the result could be exciting.
When I think of winter sports, skiing and snowboarding most definitely come to mind. Apparently Ubisoft Annecy seemed to think that these two sports weren’t enough to fill out an entire game. They decided to tack on a bit more of the extreme sports flare by including paragliding and wingsuit flying. Despite not really fitting the winter theme, their inclusions prove to be a valuable addition to the suite of modes. Combining all four styles of traversal together results in an interesting amalgamation of complimentary skillsets and a bevy of different mission to embark upon.
The moment you hit the slopes it becomes abundantly clear that Steep is definitely on the right track, at least as far as the authenticity is concerned. As someone who skied frequently growing up, I can confirm that they have nailed the sense of velocity that someone would feel while hurtling down a slope at break-neck speed. This same sense of awe-inspiring insanity is front and center when using the wingsuit, only multiplied by a factor of 100. In direct contrast, paragliding is a measured form of transportation, where the player can traverse massive expanses at a relatively plodding and deliberate pace. It may be less flashy than the three other locomotion methods, but if you are into exploring Steep’s world, it is by far the most useful.
Wide Open Spaces
Remember that open world that we mentioned earlier? To put it simply, it is startlingly massive. According the development team, the map spans an impressive 256 square kilometers. Modeled after the Swiss Alps, there’s plenty to discover in each of the seven regions. Exploration is a necessity in order to get the most out of the game. Only through getting close enough to tag individual peaks using the in-game binoculars, can you uncover the events that it holds. This is a critical aspect of the game’s mechanics that get a surprisingly small amount of attention.
While you’re navigating the mountaintops, there is a voice in your ear that is constantly badgering you to participate in any event that you were unfortunate enough to scroll your cursor across. These missions take the form of races, high score competitions, endurance races and even expeditions. The latter two mission types were my favorite because it puts the expansive open world on full display. Literally no walls will come between the player and the finish line, nor is there any set path to follow. How you get to the finish line is irrelevant. It’s more about the adventure than the outcome of the race. This overwhelming sense of freedom is unlike anything I have ever experienced in a game.
In addition to the normal events present on each peak, additional “story” missions are unlocked by leveling up your character. I am using the word story rather loosely, because quite frankly, it is bizarre as all hell. Essentially the mountains are supposed to be talking to you, and as the player, you must heed their every whim. Just what this reality-based simulation needed: mysticism! Further piling on the “huh?” pile is the fact that most objectives boil down to either looking for a proverbial needle in a snowbank or following another decidedly non-enchanted person, on a tour of the game’s beautiful countryside. Sure, it’s an effective way to draw attention to how great the game actually looks, but it seems a bit on the nose if you ask me. I fully understand that it must be unwieldy to instill any form of narrative into a sports sandbox, but if you are going to give the hills eyes, they better damn well use them to stare into my soul. They needed to either go all in on this goofy mystic angle or just figure out something else entirely. Instead, the narrative feels like a disjointed half step in the wrong direction.
It is hard to speak of Steep’s missteps without mentioning the game’s mediocre controls. Despite standard traversal being straightforward enough, it is in the trick competitions where this issue shows up front and center. To start off, the actual tutorial on how to use any of the “trick stick” moves is a non-interactive cutscene. That’s right. Here is a video that will show you how to do an extremely difficult task. Now go out there and execute the same thing perfectly, without any form of in-game training. It is laughable how little thought is put into this aspect of the design. It should be common sense, especially when you are introducing a new franchise, to make sure that there are many opportunities for the player to learn the mechanics. A single pre-rendered video isn’t going to cut it.
In Need of Special Education
Due to, in equal parts, mediocre instruction and even more lackluster trick controls, this is where the wheels begin to fall off of the wagon a bit. Once you have successfully executed a launch off of the ramp, a flick of the right stick in any direction should execute a new trick. Sadly, this only seems to work part of the time, with the other result being the character slowly rotating to the right or left. It is infuriatingly imprecise and has led to countless moments of frustration on my part. Now just imagine compounding this with inconsistent rotating speeds while attempting to land high-risk maneuvers. Trick competitions end up feeling like a repetitive exercise in hoping for the best, while expecting the worst. Oh, and these events are everywhere. There is no way to avoid them, even if you wanted to. All I can say is thank goodness for the game’s replay function. Mercifully, it zaps your character back to the starting portion of any competition instantly, and without any need for load times.
The last element that the game has working against itself are the slightly odd behaviors of the physics engine. While most of the time everything feels spot on, when it comes to collision detection, things begin to get a bit murky. Sometimes you can run directly into the middle of a tree when traveling at full speed, and just deflect off as if your character’s suit was made of rubber. On other occasions, simply grazing a branch, even at low velocities, can bring travel to a screeching halt. It makes no sense why either scenario occurs, but these very blatant inconsistencies immediately begin to take a toll on the credibility of any purported simulation.
Thankfully, things aren’t all doom and gloom. Easily the crown jewel of Steep’s mechanics is its deep multiplayer integration. As was alluded to earlier, the mountains are a sprawling shared sandbox, that countless players are exploring simultaneously. If you see players gliding by, there is an option to join their traveling party. Teamwork not really your cup of tea? You can take your last random riding line and turn it into your own event! This mission will then show up on the map of all your friends, as will their creations on yours. Neat little touches like this can help add legs to an already beefy single player offering.
It is hard to evaluate a title like Steep without comparing it to the promise of its premise. The sheer idea of a gigantic extreme winter sports sandbox is extremely compelling. While the game manages to live up to some of its potential by offering up an expansive, beautifully detailed map and an extensive collection of modes, it falls short on several fundamental elements, critical to the success of a new franchise. Odd storytelling, inconsistent controls, practically non-existent tutorials and imprecise collision detection all combine to derail what should have been a new premier franchise for Ubisoft. Though it still has plenty of redeeming qualities, Steep proves to be an interesting new framework in serious need of polishing. Player beware. Your mileage may vary.
Review code for Steep provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4 Pro. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.