Steep is beautiful but its open world leaves me cold

There’s something about zooming down a mountain strapped to a board that makes me want to hide under a rock in real life but immediately gear up with pixelated snow gear. I’m not sure what doesn’t appeal about the real thing. Maybe it’s the compound fractures… Ubi’s surprise ‘snowboarding come skiing meets wingsuit-fest’ Steep had us all suitably intrigued at the conference earlier this week but my hands on didn’t quite deliver the open world Coolboarders I wanted.

Once you’ve appeared in the beautiful and expansive snowscape of France, you’re given the choice of selecting a way to throw yourself down a mountain. Pick where on the enormous map you’d like to risk life and limb and you’ve got a choice of exactly how.  Your daredevil can don a flying squirrel style wingsuit, pop open a parachute for gliding perilously close to rocks or you can just stick on the relatively more mundane snowboard or skis.

Both snow sports offer races and trick challenges and these are are scattered across the open world. To take one on, you just need to steer yourself towards the name of the challenge and you'll auto start. I start off snowboarding, slaloming down the mountain and attempting a high trick score. There's plenty of fun to be had here. Your right trigger is on jump duties, left trigger on grab and before too long I was leaping off snowy ramps, spinning a cool 360 degrees and feeling gently sick. No, the good kind. Trick rewards are somewhat underwhelming with just a points addition rather than any over the top trick labelling with offensively sized fonts and I'm surprised by how much I miss the noughties style digital pat on the head. How am I meant to know how rad I am?

Each course is flooded with other players and your world is dynamically populated with fellow thrill seekers. I start off a wingsuit challenge after shoving myself off a rockface and I'm immediately joined by a jostling crew of fellow flying squirrels. The wingsuit challenge I try is satisfyingly difficult. While in some missions you can steer yourself through the air and earn points by getting as close to rocks as possible without wiping out, my favourite sees you attempting to follow a single line through the air. This zig zags through pylons, zooms through holes in rocks and demands seriously precise aiming or it's adios for your spinal column. 

Steering is easy, reminding me somewhat of Batman's gliding but without having to hold X. Hurtle downwards until you're almost hitting the mountain side and quickly pull up and you'll earn points as well as that feeling in your stomach that reminds you why you'd never do this in real life. Also, if the GoPro branding on the wingsuit didn't give it away, there's of course a first person mode where you can take on control from the much more difficult perspective of a head mounted camera. I stay there for roughly six seconds and it's enough before I quickly retreat to the more comfortable third person control set up. No, this isn't a VR title and yes, that's a good thing.  

Yet this isn't just a series of challenges. Steep is a vertiginous open world. You can pop yourself into explore mode and just set off down the slopes and while the world is beautiful, there's actually very little I can see that's attractive about this mode. While you can of course find challenges, the rest of the time you're just slaloming through empty forests and hillsides. It's an open world that by it's very nature can have absolutely nothing in it. And you thought Watch Dogs' Chicago was barren. 

You're armed with a set of binoculars to see other viewpoints and there's a bizarre way to find hidden challenges. Pause in an area and hear a sparkling crystal noise? This means you're near a hidden challenge and if you land in the secret area, you'll unlock a new section of the map with new challenges. It's a bizarre exercise and I'm just not sure how long anyone will spend listening for a tinkling noise when they just want to throw themselves off a mountain. 

And yet, confusing open world mechanics aside, there's plenty of exceptionally pretty world to take in. I switched into paragliding mode and the scenery was breathtaking with undisturbed snow sparkling down below and mountains as far as the eye can see. There's a seamlessness here too. Land your parachute and pop your snowboard on and you can immediately continue your descent on a new mode of transport. 

There's a lot to like here - you can make your own challenges, follow your own ghost or even just decide to make slo-mo videos of your descents - but there's something about the open world that doesn't quite click. While the worlds of Far Cry, Assassin's and Watch Dogs encourage and give you a reason to explore, Steep just hands over an awful lot of snow and tells you to play in it. There's a beta coming soon so we'll all be able to play longer but my demo showed a game trying to cram everything in but never stopping to wonder if an open world mountain was really what wannabe sports stars really wanted. 

Louise Blain

Louise Blain is a journalist and broadcaster specialising in gaming, technology, and entertainment. She is the presenter of BBC Radio 3’s monthly Sound of Gaming show and has a weekly consumer tech slot on BBC Radio Scotland. She can also be found on BBC Radio 4, BBC Five Live, Netflix UK's YouTube Channel, and on The Evolution of Horror podcast. As well as her work on GamesRadar, Louise writes for NME, T3, and TechRadar. When she’s not working, you can probably find her watching horror movies or playing an Assassin’s Creed game and getting distracted by Photo Mode.