Some say that this the most wonderful time of the year. Whether or not you sign up for that old adage, it’s clear that Steep is the perfect game for the winter. It’s an experience where the sparkling, fresh snow makes you want to grab some thermals and book a trip to Verbier before the season’s out. Maybe even call some friends to take down the mountain with you and share a few cheeky eggnogs with afterwards.
That’s because Steep is the brand new extreme winter sports game from Ubisoft Annecy, the studio that sits at the base of the very mountains you’ll be hurtling down in-game. Whether that’s on skis, snowboarding, perilously close to the rocks in a wingsuit or taking in the vistas in your paraglider is up to you – and the event you’re taking part in – but there’s very much a focus on player choice here right from the off.
It’s also clear from the opening few races that this is a labour of love for Ubisoft Annecy. The attention to detail between the different mountain terrains, the magic sparkle of the snow, the squelching noise the fresh snow makes as it compacts under your board or the way the sun crests the mountains during a sunrise... it all takes you right there to the Alps, in a moment. It’s a beautiful thing.
But it’s not just the visuals that are a testament to Ubisoft Annecy, it’s also the massive open world and all the activities that nestle among the peaks. There’s a decent variety of stuff to do here, and the events you take part in range from trick- and speed-based runs on skis or snowboard, to daring wingsuit challenges where the closer you are to the rocks the more points you earn, to slower paced paraglider experiences.
These are interspersed with Mountain Stories, which are another sign of Annecy’s dedication to the mountains, as they tell stories of famous explorers or the range itself as you traverse them. You occasionally even take part in bigger events with multiple parts for companies like Red Bull or Solomon, which raise your rider level and earn you some rare gear. Is it as thrilling as getting a new Exotic in Destiny? Well, maybe not, but it’s good to feel like you’re progressing.
The actual order you undertake any of these events though is entirely up to you. This is an Ubisoft open-world game at its best: jam-packed full of content to explore without the pressure of having to undertake story missions in order to progress.
Some events might be locked behind reaching a certain level, but most of the time it’s just up to you to discover them by simply choosing to carry on down the mountain, paraglide into uncharted territory or take a look through your binoculars.
The only issue with this discovery system and the sheer amount of events on offer is that the UI is incredibly difficult to navigate. When you first start playing, the map is vast but ultimately quite bare. As you begin racing through events that map, which is split into four different alpine regions, begins filling up fast. You’ll unlock the Drop-Zone fast-travel points and flagged events galore, all dotted around in close proximity, and you’ve got no other way to select them apart from a laggy mouse-style cursor that you control with the right analogue stick.
It’s clumsy, frustrating and difficult to see which events you have and haven’t completed without selecting them directly. It might encourage replayability, but to begin with that will be from accidental selection errors rather than actual willingness to replay a race you’ve just spent an hour getting the gold medal on.
The same goes for the other menus too, especially the rider customisation tools, which are great at hiding what amazing content there is on offer. For example, donning a rubber chicken helmet means you’ll cluck at opposing riders, while a full goat mask will have you screaming as you flip off cliffs. Of course, you could just save up for the bright pink unicorn costume of your dreams… you know you want to.
It’s shame because this clunky UI mars the fantastic gameplay. Performing tricks seems simple at first, but it’s complex to master as you’ll need to combine the left analogue stick movement for spins, L2 presses for jumps and hold the shoulder buttons to control the various grabs. A combination of all of these inputs performs the most impressive tricks that earn you the most points, but can often result in a KO or at least a face full of snow.
The actual speed-runs are great too, offering just enough challenge that you feel like a gold is within your reach with just one more try, one tighter line, one less trick. The control scheme is well mapped, your speed can easily feel out of control and you can actually feel the change of terrain under your board and be forced to react accordingly.
And that’s heightened when you’re racing other, real-world Steep players too. Like many other Ubisoft games, including Watch Dogs 2, Steep features seamless online multiplayer, which means other players will drop into your game to race the same runs as you or catch you in the sky mid-glide. You can choose to join up with them to race together, or simply just enjoy sharing the same snowy paradise with these other rides. Like the races and other events, taking part in any kind of multiplayer is totally up to you.
What you can do though is challenge other racers to beat your times, perform better tricks or create trickier runs simply by sharing them from the map. Again, this suffers from the over complicated, cluttered UI, but once you’ve figured it out it’s relatively easy to do.
However, all of this variety, content and freedom to explore mountains and their stories doesn’t mask the fact that Steep can feel repetitive fairly quickly. Events may be scattered across four different mountains, each with their own terrain quirks, but that doesn’t stop the races start to feel like a variation on a theme.
It’s more that the challenges become more difficult, checkpoints placed more awkwardly or the time limit gets tighter, more than the events becoming more inventive. The UI and map certainly don’t help those frustrations, and there are plenty of annoying bugs that can force you to restart races repeatedly. I’ve been stuck on rocky outcrops, started races facing the wrong way, or had our parachute get stuck on invisible rocks. They’re not game breaking, but irritating nonetheless, especially if they happen mid-race. It’s frustrating because the game looks and feels so great to play. You’ll just be aching for some apres-ski action a little too soon.
This game was reviewed on PS4.