[Reviewed on Xbox One]
It should be the perfect time of year to have a winter extreme sports game to sink your teeth into, but Steep’s biggest selling point is also its biggest mistake: it’s yet another open world, this one offering snowboarding, skiing, wingsuiting and paragliding.
Sports games usually pick either an arcade or simulation angle, but Ubisoft Annecy tries to straddle the line between both, and takes itself far too seriously with daft cut-scenes unveiling a newly found mountain with a voice-over that talks to you about how “epic” it is and how you must conquer it. It’s daft, unnecessary, and risks obscuring the fact that Steep can actually feel fantastic when you’re left to your own devices.
Luckily, then, after you’ve been walked through all of what it offers via a lengthy tutorial, you’re left to explore. Steep is a pretty game, especially when the sun hits the right angle and the lens flare blinds you like when you’re driving to work on a crisp winter morning, and despite the fact there’s far too much screen furniture most of the time, the mountains and valleys themselves are a delight to explore and discover… before the awkwardness sets in and you just give up.
Imagine you’re drifting gently through the snow on your skis to your waypoint. You’ve spotted a bit on the map that will unlock a drop zone, and you want to get close enough to whip out your binoculars and reveal it for fast travel. But you’re on a downward slope, and suddenly you’ve missed it. Momentum gone, you can either fast travel all the way back to the top and hope you don’t miss it again, or you can put your gear away and trudge (and we do mean trudge; even using the run button) uphill, in the snow, to find a vantage point to turn and get back on track. It’s painful, and means that after the opening few hours you’re going to exclusively use fast travel to get from course to course, and only explore when you need to find new places to race.
On top of this, there’s a litany of tiny issues that are infuriating. Some of the ideas are brilliant in theory, like a seven-minute long, open course that runs for miles, and encourages freedom, with no guideline to show you how to get from A to B. In practice, after six minutes you might realise you aren’t going to get back up to that finish line because you took a wrong turn and you’ve just wasted your time. Want to pause the game mid-race? No chance. Doing so will kick you back to the starting point, so if the doorbell goes and you’re expecting a parcel, you’ve a tricky decision to make.
Then there’s the tone. A dudebro-type guy is often your point of call over the radio, but he won’t shut up. There’s also an attempt to create a Forza Horizon festival feel to the whole game, but it would have been better if you were just left to explore and race without the need for any kind of narrative.
There is a good game buried underneath all the strange decisions, though. As there are four classes of extreme sport on offer, the actual gameplay is a mixed bag. Choosing between skiing and snowboarding, for example, will pretty much come down to personal preference, as they feel very similar, offering big jumps and tricks that are easy to pull off. Paragliding is difficult to control, and rarely fun, because most of the courses have an ideal path that not only gets you to the finish quickly, but also keeps you catching air to stay high.
Wingsuiting, then, is the star of the show. The thrill of hurtling downward, skimming the snowy dust with your belly to gain more points never fades. Catching a gust of air to throw yourself higher and hit that checkpoint ring is a rush, and nailing that run through a cavernous gap in a mountain is rewarding and very moreish, begging to be perfected.
Teaming up with friends is easy, too, as you’d expect nowadays. Even if you don’t have a gang of pals to play with you can just hit a button and join up with any random folk nearby. Doing so means you share your knowledge, and areas you unlock while teamed up will become available on everyone’s map.
But as Steep gives, it also takes away, and there are areas gated off until you reach a particular level. Sure, completing races, scoring big, or even just smashing your bones to pieces (there is a progression system for each type of activity: exploration, bone breaking, etc) will see you level up at a decent pace. But the idea of a narrator telling you that it’s your world to explore and then blocking you from places until you reach an arbitrary level makes for a game that is, ultimately, at odds with itself. Plus unlocking clothes for your avatar hasn’t been fun in years.
Steep isn’t without moments of joy. Watching back your best bits and taking pictures as you’re upside down mid-jump is pure elation in gaming form. But then there will be a course that feels as though it was intended to make you angry by placing too many obstacles in the way of a downhill slalom.
It could have been something special, and there’s tremendous potential for a sequel, but for now, Steep feels like a game of two halves. It tries to do too much and fails to capitalise on what it does best, and as such, makes for a tricky game to recommend.