A refreshing take on a dormant genre that suffers from design and UI issues
Outside of video games, the hobby I have been doing for longest in my life is skiing. I practically grew up on skis, and struggle to recall if I got into gaming first, or strapped a couple of planks to my legs and went down snowy hills. Either way, gaming and skiing have always been two of my favorite pastimes, and I have always lamented the lack of games that capture the rush of hurtling down a mountain powered by nothing but gravity and adrenaline. So it is with a somewhat unique perspective, as the owner of a slightly embarrassing amount of back-country ski gear and even a Go-Pro camera, that I can assess this latest open-world offering from Ubisoft, a game that taps into some things I have only ever experienced on a mountain in real life before.
In broad terms, Steep consists of an open world mountain-range, the Alps to be exact, where you can choose to either ski, snowboard, wing-suit or paraglide in an exploratory manner or as part of a bunch of challenges. As you play, you unlock new points where you can drop-in, or pay a bit of money to have a helicopter drop you wherever you please. It is a remarkably free-form title, lacking the rigid structure that many open world games are built upon. You can choose to switch between any of the above activities, and walking, whenever you please.
Based on the number of available challenges and mechanical depth, the emphasis seems to be on the skiing/snowboarding activities over the air-based ones. Overall, the skiing and snowboarding is excellent thanks to great controls and animations. While far from a simulation, Steep requires you to learn some real skills that older games in this genre glossed over, like managing speed, traversing across slopes and picking good lines through complex terrain. I expect most players will gravitate towards snowboarding due to the slightly simpler controls, though I spent more time on skis due to personal preference.
Both activities control in similar ways for the most part; you can bomb down hills by pressing forward on the left stick, go back and forth with the left stick to perform satisfying S-turns, or hit the right stick to quickly dump some speed. It is worth noting that you cannot control the camera as a result of this scheme, though the camera angle is rarely a problem, with the exception of when you are going straight forward on relatively flat terrain which results in some objects right in front of you being blocked from vision.
If you want to perform tricks, you hold down the right trigger and release it right at the crest of a jump, then use the triggers and left stick to perform grabs, spins and flips. The controls take a bit of getting used to, especially when skiing as you will sometimes find yourself going backwards down hills and must learn how to spin around to go forward, but overall they are responsive and feel very natural. There is a G-force meter that you must manage; once you start going really fast, landing jumps poorly or even bumping into objects will cause your G-forces to build up, forcing you to be very careful as you can easily lose control and crash if you make even a minor mistake. This is a great mechanic that emulates what it feels like to ski faster than you should and have to fight for control to keep from crashing. While this might make the skiing and boarding in Steep sound like a simulation, it is fairly forgiving overall. You can fly down cliffs and land backwards on rocks and stay on your feet, and get up from crashes that would be fatal in real life. If you really mess up you can get knocked out, but apart from this, you can recover from most falls and continue down the hill.
All sport types share the same challenges. These vary from getting points from doing tricks, to completing a course in a certain amount of time, to free-style events where you earn points from going fast, getting a lot of air and riding difficult lines. Most events I found quite enjoyable with good terrain variety, free-style events being my personal favorites as you can usually take your time and choose your own path down the mountain.
The air sports are significantly less enjoyable. Wingsuit flying can be fun, though it lacks the same sense of inertia that made this activity so thrilling in Just Cause 3, my only point of comparison. The challenges can be quite frustrating as you are often required to fly through checkpoints in small gaps in the rocks, or perform proximity flying challenges where you must fly as close to rocks and trees as you can to earn points. A single mistake usually ends your run in these events, which makes them less forgiving than the ground-based skiing and snowboarding. Paragliding fares even worse, as this activity is slow and the controls are a bit clumsy. You must try and ride up-drafts to keep going, and challenges tend to involve flying through a series of checkpoints. I found this activity was useful for traversing the terrain in some areas, and for taking in the views, but the challenges are not much fun.
Aside from the more straightforward challenges, you will also unlock 'Mountain Stories' as you progress, which have a wide range of objectives. My favorite ones simply asked you to reach some distant objective by any means at your disposal, which I found to be incredibly immersive as you must plan out your route, and their length means it is faster to walk short distances if you make a mistake rather than simply restarting. Other Stories are less successful, requiring you to follow an AI rider who is usually annoyingly slow while some cheesy narration plays from the perspective of the mountain you are on.
Challenges and Stories are unlocked either through levelling up, or by exploration. Doing well in challenges rewards you with money, experience, and cosmetic customization items for your rider. You start a challenge by skiing or flying through checkpoint, or can choose instead to go off on your own adventures in the large, gorgeous open world. You will unlock challenges and discover drop-points which you must get close to and look at through binoculars. At any point, you can hold a button to open a 3D map of the world from which you can choose a new spot to drop-in.
This structure of progression works well for the first ten hours or so, but starting around level fifteen, I began to have a hard time finding the types of challenges I wanted to do. The game always emphasizes that you should play your way, but doesn’t provide enough challenges for you to ignore the activities you don’t enjoy. This is compounded by the poor UI design of the 3D map when it comes to finding challenges, and the fact that all of the mountains looks similar enough on the map that you can easily get turned around and forget where the newest areas are that you unlocked, that are likely to have fresh sets of activities.
The problem lies with the fact that challenges are depicted on the map with small rectangles with a strip of color that corresponds to the style of challenge, eg. Freestyle or Extreme, and not whether you will be using skiing/snowboarding, wingsuiting or paragliding. Challenges will have a ‘new’ tag as long as there is medal you have not unlocked, so if you complete a challenge with a silver medal, it will still be marked as 'new' on the 3D map, and there is no way to filter out completed challenges or certain challenge types.
The result is that you eventually have to spend a lot of time on the map view, hunting around for activities, or force yourself to complete the challenges you would rather not take part in. You do get some points for going off and skiing outside of challenges, but it would take a very long time to actually level up from doing this once you have discovered most locations. This problem snowballs the further you get into the game, and by level 20, I felt like I was spending more time searching around for new areas to explore or new challenges to complete on the map than I was actually skiing, boarding or flying.
The problematic UI extends to the gameplay as well. Ubisoft Annecy have created one of the most gorgeous open worlds I have ever seen, and covered it with a whole bunch of UI clutter that cannot be disabled. Huge challenge flags can be seen floating on distant mountain sides, polluting your view, and many events have a big white line that depicts the suggested route, which I wish could have been disabled. For the Mountain Story events, a huge opaque objective display will remain on the left-middle side of your screen, blocking a large area of your vision.
Perhaps most offensive is how the game handles its seamless multiplayer. You are forced to play Steep while connected to Ubisoft’s servers – there is no way around this, you cannot play the game without an internet connection. While playing, you will encounter other players, who will have a gigantic colored icon above their heads. When they are off-screen, this big, bright annoying icon will drift to the side of your screen and move around the edges based on where they are relative to your location. The intended behavior seems to be that only other players close to your location will exist in your world, but this system frequently breaks, such that you will have these big annoying icons zooming around the edge of your screen for players who are literally on the other side of the map.
While cluttered UIs are nothing new for Ubisoft games, most of them let you disable these elements individually. The cluttered UI in Steep can really hurt the immersion and distract you during difficult events. It is especially frustrating sine the seamless multiplayer aspect of Steep adds very little to the experience. While it is cool to randomly see other players going about their business in the open world, interaction is kept to a minimum. You can invite players to group up which lets you take part in activities together, but more often than not, random players will not accept these invites, and there is no way to try and match-make with others who actually looking to play together. Frankly, I like to go to the mountains to escape people, and Steep’s approach to multiplayer rigidly prevents this. You can watch replays of any run, which can be fun in and of itself, and share them or even create custom events, but I never figured out who I was sharing the replays with, or how to access custom events created by other players. It is possible that because I had no one on my friends list playing the game, these aspects of Steep didn’t really come into play.
Cluttered UI aside, Steep is a really gorgeous game. The developers really nail the important elements with the snow, lighting and player animations. As you go down a hill, the snow will deform and leave a trail behind you, and motion blur is used just the right amount to depict speed when you really get going. The sound design is first rate as well, with snow crunching and swishing beneath your skis, the wind howling in your ears and glaciers cracking in the distance. There is a mix of licensed and original music, and all of it is quite good, with the original music being calm and atmospheric while the licensed tracks have been for the most part tastefully selected. The only sore point is the poor voice acting that comes with the narration in Mountain Story challenges.
Even though not all of Steep's winter sporting activities are enjoyable, and its seamless multiplayer hurts more than it benefits the game, I still want to go back and play more, even after seeing the whole map and completing the challenges in the areas I enjoy. The title's free-form nature and excellent skiing and snowboarding mechanics better capture what I love about winter sports in real life than any game I have played before. There are some genuinely profound moments in here, and most of them occur naturally rather than as part of pre-scripted events. While I’m not sure I can recommend this title at full price due to the somewhat thin amount of content, if the idea of an open world game with a focus on mountain winter sports appeals to you, Steep is worth playing.