Steep. Ubisoft’s E3 2016 surprise which inspired about as much excitement in me as brussel sprouts did at Christmas. Sure the visuals looked pretty, but could the traversal and all-round fun factor really stack up against legendary titles like GTA and Just Cause? Does taking the violence and explosive nature away leave enough game left to make it worth your time and money?
The short answer is yes.
Steep is an extreme sports game made in Annecy, a small mountain city in the French Alps. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit. The adorable canals are reminiscent of a miniature Venice, whilst the vast alpine giants in the background are enough to instill a sense of awe in anyone. This natural beauty and general vastness is perfectly encapsulated in Ubisoft Annecy’s Steep.
Snow glistens and sparkles across every peak by day, making every journey feel enchanting even if you are slogging through thick drifts to reach an event. The weather effects are subtle, meaning the mountains never look dull, and there is always an incredible vista to gawp at. By night you use a torch to light the way, which is especially useful when traversing snow covered forests or glacial gulleys, but there is beauty in the night sky. It brings a hush upon the mountains, almost like they are gigantic sleeping beings.
If you enjoy the atmosphere and peace surrounding the mountains, many of them have stories to tell. A rather weird touch, as if the disembodied voice is actually booming from the mountain as you traverse its slopes. Some mountain stories are genuinely amazing experiences, whilst others seem a little like a game filler. Either way they offer a bit of folk lore and story to the game which would otherwise have been just a mindless playground. The culture of the mountains and indeed of the sports themselves seeps into every part of Steep. It is just so chilled, despite the adrenaline fueled challenges and life risking feats you’re constantly achieving. Everyone is so positive and optimistic, and excited about life; so I regret even more when I send my character into the side of a craggy mountain…
The voice acting of the montaine narrators, along with the character voices are well done. I did often find my character would repeat himself a lot, but the lines are miraculously devoid of cheese. Launch your snowboard off a huge ramp and be rewarded with a “Whooooooo!” or a “ShitShitSHIT” if he/she doesn’t fancy the trajectory. The general audio quality is fantastic. Whether you are skiing down a route, or wing suiting down a sheer cliff, or even opening a parachute; the sound effects are spot on. This really adds a layer of immersion to Steep–because whilst first person (or Go-Pro mode) isn’t really a feasible way of achieving your best run, the immersion of 3rd person is still incredible.
There are 4 different types of ‘transport’: snowboard, skis, wing-suit, and para-glider. Snowboard and skis are two alternatives for completing downhill events. These can range from timed checkpoint events to skill-based free-style events. Personally I didn’t see a clear advantage to using either over the other, they are balanced well. However I tend toward the snowboard, because it’s more ‘rad’ obviously… Performing tricks and taking risks increases your multiplier and scores you points which ultimately results in you achieving gold, silver or bronze depending on your performance. Steep is multiplayer focused though, so leaderboards are easy to access, especially when you join up with someone else to make a club. This is where Steep is most addictive, because you are always going to want to shave more time off, or pull off a sicker jump and beat your friends’ scores.
Whilst paragliding bored me senseless, the wingsuit challenges were my favourite part of Steep. This is where the ‘extreme’ belongs in extreme sports. Proximity flying especially is very exhilarating, since it rewards you for flying close to things. When your belly brushes a snow bank and you dive into a valley to retain your multiplier, the heartbeat of your sportsman becomes audible, increasing the adrenaline, and the wind whipping past your face almost drowns out the catchy music in the background.
The story is very open ended. You are taught the controls and how to find new challenges, then the game drip feeds you new activities as you level up. I ended up with a huge backlog of events to do because I was being a perfectionist on every run I took. However they were simple to find once I realised there was an easier way of picking events than using the map. The map itself is very intricate, although I found it hard to use, especially when trying to analyse a route. As with most GIS programs, zooming in on mountain ranges is tricky! From the map view you do get an overwhelming sense of the scale of Steep, and it’s gratifying to know you can explore every square inch if you wanted to.
Gameplay-wise I found Steep an absolute blast to play. The controls are simple and generally easy to use, meaning that on easy and medium levels anyone could have a go at it. Along with the lack of violence this makes Steep accessible to a wider audience, and it’s actually a wonderful change not to be gunning everything down! The left stick is used for pretty much everything, which is OK for timed events and wingsuit challenges, but when it comes to free-styling I got frustrated. Having the left stick used both for navigation and tricks meant that if you go into a jump and don’t release the left stick first (which you’ve been using to navigate onto the jump in question) then you end up not doing tricks at all! I got used to it after a long time, but even now after 20 odd hours of gameplay I still mess up on most runs, and it doesn’t feel like my fault.
Other than that the controls are generally responsive. Snowboarding is so effortless in open sections and so intense in others, and some of the jumps you’re forced to pull off are as incredible as they are ridiculous. With the aerial events the wind physics of the mountains is expertly done. Closer to the mountain sides the treacherous katabatic winds can send you down to a rocky grave whilst wingsuiting. At the same time the upslope anabatic winds are what the paragliding trails follow.
What surprised me about Steep was how varied it was. There aren’t that many sport types, but the amount and variety of events even within each category are staggering. Considering each event has a global leaderboard, the content is virtually never ending as long as you don’t get bored. I admit, much like with Ubisoft’s Trials Fusion, the difficulty can be rage inducing, especially if you are competitive with yourself, but this adds to the interest. I also found Steep to be a uniquely entertaining spectator game, mainly from YouTube Let’s Plays.
Customisation is a strength in Steep especially as a lot of the sporting brands have been used such as Red Bull and Go-Pro. It means all your gear looks official and cool, and there is a lot to choose from, however if you want something a bit less serious Steep has you covered there too. Animal suits can be donned, all of which change the character’s voice to random sounds. The Yeti I found particularly hilarious, although the random yelping got a little annoying after I flew him into the same rock 20 times in a row… It’s a good option for cutting out the profane language though, note to parents.