Ever since I played the likes of ‘Cool Boarders’ and ‘1080 Snowboarding’ when I was younger, I’ve always had a soft spot for snowboarding games. This ‘soft spot’ was turned into more of a passion by the time ‘SSX Tricky’ came out (seriously, I’ve easily put well over a hundred hours into that game) but unfortunately I’ve not spent a lot of time with the genre since. The buzz returned when Ubisoft revealed STEEP at E3 this year though, offering a winter extreme sports game that not only included snowboarding but also skiing, wingsuit flying, and paragliding too. I didn’t know if it’d all work together in the promised open world, but thankfully STEEP delivers a great experience with just a few issues along the way.
STEEP gives you a gigantic mountain range to explore, with each peak and cliff split across four different regions. You can explore these regions freely with STEEP allowing you to progress through the game however you please, though you’ve got to do so via one of the five means of transport on offer (the aforementioned sports and walking). Don’t worry too much though as there are plenty of fast-travel spots on offer too, though you need to go out of your way to discover these. It’s simply a case of pulling out your binoculars and identifying ‘drop zones’ in the distance, though they’ve got to be within a certain range to be recognised on your map. It’s actually pretty vital to uncover as many of these ‘drop zones’ in as quick a time as possible, not only for the convenient fast-travelling options but to also keep yourself busy with the challenges they bring.
The main problem with uncovering these ‘drop zones’ is that you’re constantly moving down the mountain. There’s one hell of a descent on offer, so you’re only really able to travel in one direction and when that direction leads you to the bottom of the mountain it’s not always easy to get where you need to. In honesty it won’t hold you back too much since you’re able to walk to locations too, but slowly trudging somewhere on foot because it’s impossible to reach by a faster means could be a hell of a pain. The game’s ‘Mountain View’ that acts as a map in-game could be a bit of a burden too. When I first used it I actually hated it thanks to its clunky feel and the fact it was so slow to use, but it did eventually grow on me a little when I got used to it. Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t particularly like it, but it’s not as horrible as when I first tried to use it – it looks incredibly neat too, offering an impressive top-down view on all of your surroundings. Still, for a game that depends heavily on fast travel, the fact that actually doing it felt awkward could be a real pain.
There’s a plethora of events to take part in when playing STEEP, each one utilising one of the game’s four different extreme sports. The majority of events require you complete them via a specific means (such as performing tricks on a snowboard or gliding down a mountain using the wingsuit) but others offer more freedom. When racing down a mountain you might find the skis provide more speed for example, even if EVERYONE knows that snowboarding is so much cooler…
All of these challenges are good fun and come with different prerequisites for bronze, silver, or gold awards. It’s rare to get that gold award on the first attempt, so there’s plenty of replayability for those who strive for perfection. Challenges typically boil down to racing, reaching a goal in a certain time, or scoring a specific amount of points by pulling off tricks. Each event manages to keep things varied too with a great mixture of objectives on offer for each of the four sports. Whilst I’ll admit I wasn’t crazy about the point scoring challenges (probably because it took me so long to work out the precise timing required for most tricks), but some of the speeds you hit when smashing the snow on your snowboard during a time-trial was incredibly satisfying. That’s one of the things that STEEP really has going for it – when you’re actually competing in events the gameplay is incredibly tight, refined, fun, and extremely exciting. The only sport I didn’t fall in love with was the paragliding, but even that’s alright really. It’s just a bit slower and clumsier than the other sports, taking away from the speedy and hectic vibe typically found in the game.
Besides the main events there are also the ‘Mountain Stories’ to complete that bizarrely give the mountains of the game a personality and voice as they offer you a challenge to complete. It’s pretty strange, but actually adds an extra degree of personality to the challenges that is often missing in a standard event. It’s a bit silly and unusual for a game that seems to take itself pretty seriously, but hey, it offers something a bit different to the norm and they’re enjoyable to complete too.
What can also be a little silly (in a good way) is the extreme side of the game. When you fail a trick attempt, hit a tree whilst using the wingsuit, or simply tumble whilst taking a fall on your snowboard your character will bounce along the mountain in a zany ragdoll style. It’s oddly satisfying to see your failures send you on a bone-crunching descent, plus you never actually get hurt or anything – even if it should realistically result in your character’s death. It’s a fun and silly little thing, but it was something I’d smile at and appreciate each time I failed… I mean… on the RARE occasions, STEEP pro here…
The main problem with STEEP is that it can feel a little too samey over time. I spent plenty of hours blasting through everything STEEP had to throw at me, but after a while a lot of it simply started to feel the same. Whilst there are a decent variety of things to do in the game, it didn’t take long for the events to start to feel familiar with similar objectives. It’s unusual to get a feeling like this in a sandbox style video game, but the fact that everything takes place in a mountainous environment that never varies TOO MUCH probably didn’t help add to the variety.
At least STEEP’s mountains look staggeringly beautiful though. Never has a blanket of white looked so beautiful – that’s not to say all the snow is devoid of detail though, with plenty of stunning vistas to admire, wooden villages to race past, rocks and blocks of ice to avoid, and tight tunnels to blast through. The mountains are surprisingly inhabited and you’ll actually be surprised at what you’ll discover from simply exploring your surroundings. Whatever you do though, STEEP always manages to look phenomenal – seeing the snow rip beneath you as you speed down mountains whilst trees and other racers blur past you is simply jaw dropping at times.
There’s just very little feeling of progression in regards to the things you see around you, something that isn’t helped by the fact you can go anywhere in the game from the get go. At least your character will progress though, with completed events earning you XP that you can use to improve a range of stats and make yourself a better extreme sport pro. You’ll also be able to customise your character with a variety of cosmetic items, allowing you to give your character their own personal touch to look as foolish or cool as you want – it’s your shout.
STEEP has a strong focus on multiplayer sharing, so strong a focus that the game demands you’re online at all times. It’s pretty funny – it’s not often that I’m ever left without an internet connection, but the one time my internet goes down for a day I was attempting to play a game that requires it. It was frustrating, especially since most of what I did in the game focused on solo play.
Still, it was neat to be part of a world that was constantly inhabited by other players. It was cool to be skiing down the mountain only to see another player fly past in their wingsuit, whilst you’re also able to cause collisions if you aren’t careful. Don’t get me wrong, I rarely interacted with others, but seeing them brought a real social feeling to the game and made STEEP’s mountains feel like a living, breathing place. There’s a real emphasis on the social side too. Whilst you can compete with friends in challenges, you can share everything you do with them too including challenges you make yourself. Alternatively you can simply mess around with friends, which is a lot of fun when you’ve got some great equipment on hand. The multiplayer has a lot to offer that’ll appeal to all different kinds of players – whilst I’ll admit I didn’t spend too much time with it, when I did play with friends it was a lot of fun.
STEEP has reinvigorated my interest in the extreme winter sports genre, bringing with it thrilling gameplay along with a beautiful mountainous environment to explore. It’s one of the prettiest games I’ve played this year, which is quite a big feat seeing as we’ve also seen graphical powerhouses like ‘Final Fantasy XV’ release too.
It does have a few issues such as the awkward open-world navigation and the ‘always online’ demands, whilst events can start to feel incredibly familiar after an extended time with the game too. It doesn’t deter too much from the overall experience though, with STEEP’s exciting gameplay and sociable online functionality offering plenty for you to come back to. I always knew I’d enjoy STEEP from the moment I saw it, but I didn’t anticipate liking it as much as I did – Ubisoft could be onto something a bit special here…
Developer: Ubisoft Annecy
Release Date: 02/12/2016
Format(s): Playstation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC