Steep is an odd beast from top to bottom. It wants to be the return of extreme winter sports games entertainment that EA’s SSX reboot failed to revitalize. It tries to put a novel spin on the now “iconic” trademarks of its publisher: open worlds, online elements, and in-game stores. But the entire experience feels like a mismeasured tuxedo. The material and craftsmanship is solid and it cost an arm and a leg, but it just tugs and digs into you in all of the wrong ways to make the whole effort hardly worth it.
Go Big or Go Home
The set-up is simple and direct. You love extreme sports, you brought a bunch of climbing tools and extreme sports equipment to a mountain resort, and you’re here to shred sick moves while recording the whole thing on your GoPro headset camera to upload to your YouTube channel in hopes of getting sponsorship deals. No, really. There really is no big theme or overlaying plot to wrap your head around. Just have fun, compete in races and trick challenges and your sponsors will send you cash and new toys to play with.
Which brings up the first odd design decision Steep makes. The game centers entirely around racing and arcade style scoring challenges. Get to the finish line as fast as you can or see how many crazy neck breaking tricks you can perform during a run. But instead of being a linear succession of levels, the game is structured as a sandbox, complete with having to unlock new peaks to practice on through a combination of a perfunctory RPG leveling system and by “discovering” them by looking at them with your binoculars. It would be unique to this genre if it weren’t for the fact it’s been used in every single major release under this publisher for almost a decade now.
But rather than have the entire mountainside be drenched in pointless collectathons and tedium, this game’s open world barely qualifies as open. You have the ability to fast travel to any race or mountaintop you discover right from the beginning, and anything resembling side activities, like smashing into snowmen or seeing how far you can fall before pulling your parachute, are all clearly marked on the map.
The user interface is like pulling teeth. Looking for options and purchasing outfits for your character with an interface that is transparent on a background that’s mostly white is just begging for serious eye strain. There is an online element where you can make improvised groups with other players that are fooling around nearby, but while sending an invitation is as simple as a button press, accepting and joining involves going into two separate menus. The whole thing feels maddeningly unintuitive.
Things are a bit better with Steep’s actual gameplay. You can alternate between four different extreme sports: snowboarding, skiing, BASE jumping, and paragliding. Snowboarding and skiing are the most underwhelming in terms of potential. On the one hand, it is still exciting to speed down a mountaintop and do flips off of snow hills, but the controls are unfortunately lacking. Steer with the left stick, hold then release the right trigger for a jump, use the left stick again to do tricks, break by pulling back on the right stick. This wouldn’t be a problem except your ability to perform tricks are severely limited, one or two tricks minimum, and there’s an entire analog stick’s worth of input relegated to your brakes just begging to add some much needed variety. Paragliding fares a bit better with a control layout conveying the terror and glee with riding wind currents and hooking around mountain peaks. BASE Jumping is the best of the bunch thanks to its simpler control scheme and how it remains consistently thrilling to glide across a mountainside while bobbing and weaving through terrain.
Ubisoft Annecy’s game at least looks good enough. The snow effects are great, the framerate is consistent, and once again the in-house development studio knows a thing or two about great animation. Not to mention it is breathtaking to be able to move through day and night cycles at will, watching the lighting and weather effects turn on a dime. The only visual flourish that is questionable is the game’s first-person mode, which perfectly encapsulates the feeling of watching a GoPro headset record something in real time. Specifically, it is shaky, nauseating ,and flat out unpleasant to look at for more than a few seconds at a time. Controlling while in this mode only exacerbates these problems.
But what really hurts Steep isn’t its odd controls or its clunky online, its the trappings of the now trademark Ubisoft sandbox model. Races and challenges become more harrowing as you go on, there’s at least thirty hours of content on display if you just go from each race to challenge, but the sandbox structure completely ruins any sense of getting better. What should be a coherent difficulty curve with arcade style action instead becomes a quagmire of aimless trial and error. The only thing you earn other than levels is in-game money which you can use to purchase different cosmetic outfits for your character. But even that is rendered moot by the inclusion of microtransactions. These in-game purchases aren’t heinously invasive but their presence nonetheless adds to the game’s lack of structure. Even the game’s unique selling point, the ability to create your own challenging races and daring your friends to beat your score or time, are let down by underwhelming sharing systems and the fact that the challenges are reset each day.
There is some merit to Ubisoft Annecy’s little project. When you get used to the controls–and they behave themselves–there is a lot of excitement to be had with tackling the slopes. But it’s a hollow shell of entertainment that could have used more time with UI design and a clear break from the publisher’s more recent habits. Wait for a sale if you’re craving shredding some of Steep’s digital powder, otherwise stay away.
Note: This review was made possible thanks to a review copy provided by Ubisoft on PlayStation 4.