There’s something quite oxymoronic about extreme snow sports. You have a picturesque cotton white landscape, unchanged for millennia and, like something from deepest Middle Earth suddenly preyed upon by hordes of adrenaline hunting, Red Bull drinking, 20-something ‘bros’ who like nothing more than carving up miles of veins upon the untouched powder. Steep somehow manages to capture both the beauty of snowy peaks and deep cravases, pairing it with a breathless series of extreme sports, but despite the fitting combination, it somehow feels stuck between an open-world MMO and a sports simulator offering a pretty hollow experience.
Plunged onto the top of a blizzardy mountain at this year’s gamescom, I got a chance to go hands-on (or should i say skis on!?...sorry) with Ubisoft’s newest IP. Well, actually I had no skis on and was knee deep in the Alp’s finest snow and this gave me a chance to see what Ubi have coined as the Sports Wheel. Essentially, this is a cut and paste of weapon wheels that have been the bread and butter of numerous games, but instead of cycling between your various weapons, you can instantly select your sport; giving you a quick and efficient way to jump between all four of your sports depending on the challenge ahead.
Though you have skiing, snowboarding, paragliding and base-jumping (the one in your wingsuit) as the four core sports available in Steep, the game gives you complete freedom of choice throughout its open-world. Full of unique challenges, mountain stories (which are essentially the game’s core missions), and the classic Ubisoft ‘unlock more of the map by reaching me’ areas. Instead of having to scale a chalet or reach the top of a mountain, you use your binoculars to locate one of these areas, instantly giving you the ability to fast travel to the exact point and make the most of the unlocked missions and challenges in the area. It’s classic Ubisoft and feels like an easy solution as players would likely struggle to ski, glide or board to a single, specific location.
Once at these unlocked and newly discovered areas the game really begins. You can try to beat your own high-score, set one for your friends to beat or seamlessly join another Steepplayer as you both descend the mountain in a dash to finish first or rack up the most amount of points. And this is where you’ll either excel or fail miserably. Unlike classic snowboarder SSX Tricky (nominate a better one if you dare) tricks are not mapped to any particular series of buttons, instead the right trigger is grab, the right stick is “wiggle around and see what happens” and the left stick is used to straighten up/and or rotate. The result is a confusing mash-up of button presses, leaving you none-the wiser with what does what exactly.
The problem with Steep is it’s that classic blurry ground between serious simulator and fun combo builder. You have mountain ranges complete with ramps, short-cups and huge cliffs for you to leap from yet the controls are limiting, meaning your aspirations of multiple backflips and obscure grabs are a distant memory. Not only that, but movement is extremely sensitive, particularly when wingsuiting, leaving you with a steep (pardon the pun) learning curve.
It’s unusual for Ubisoft to announce a new IP and have the game release in the same year, meaning it’s unlikely to change drastically between now and then. Steep is an unusual change of direction from the AAA-action type publisher, but certainly is a breath of fresh air. Whether or not it’ll stick for a long period of time is another question though, and with confusing controls and simulator tendencies, it seems unlikely.