Steep is a pretty game. You shuffle up to the edge of a platform hanging off the side of the Matterhorn and launch a drone to capture your run. There’s ice and rocks. There are trees frozen solid, jumps, and an insane amount of lens flare. If there wasn’t such a thing as lens flare, you get the feeling Ubisoft would have to invent it just for this game. You begin your run, find a fast line, throw in a few tricks, hang on as you hit some ice, and barely reach the snowbound village that marks the finishing line. Check your time against your friend’s best and call in the Red Bull helicopter to take you back to the summit.
Steep is an open world mountain-sport simulator, and it is beautiful. It’s a big, spectacular world. In many ways a traditional sports-sim, allowing you to paraglide, wingsuit, ski, snowboard, and walk to all corners of the map. But, it also has an ambitious online twist. The Alps are populated with gamers; you shout out to them, form a crew, and explore together. You share hidden locations, race each other, create runs, and simply hang out (this usually means standing around in the same general area, and occasionally shouting “whoop” until you decide to fast travel somewhere by yourself).
Before you join up with others you can do a lot of exploring on your own, By completing different runs you open up new areas, and also gain experience across different categories and disciplines, like Bone Breaker or Freestyler. However, there is no leveling up. Getting better is entirely down to you. The new areas and runs you unlock get progressively more extreme, allowing you to get more air and complete more complex, higher scoring combos.
But, the runs aren’t all about points. While some rely on accumulating them, there are check-point races, exploration challenges, and some events that are all about how hard you slam face-first into the side of a mountain - and you will slam face-first into the mountain, a lot. Although there is plenty of calm exploration, where you are encouraged to take your time and appreciate the epic scenery, when you are using your wingsuit the game turns into equal measures of rage fuelled nightmare, and Goat Simulator.
The main problem is altitude. Obviously, the only direction you can go in your wingsuit, is down. The problems start when you have to hit checkpoints. While you know the direction you need to go, it’s only after you pass through a checkpoint that you find out the height of the next one. It could be metres in the air, half buried in the ground, or through the middle of a pylon. So, if you get the first checkpoint slightly low, there is no way to regain altitude, and you slam into the rocks and ragdoll an absurdly long way down the mountain. If you hit it too high, and have to quickly adjust for the second checkpoint, then you’re not lined up for the third, and have no chance. No matter how good you are, or even how lucky, there is no way to complete a wingsuit run without multiple bone breaking fails. It’s annoying.
Of course, it might be I’m a bit hopeless at using the wingsuit. Fair call. I initially felt the same frustration about tricks and combos. Both getting air and crashing for no reason. To get air you hold down the right trigger and release it as you get to the edge of a jump. It can be tricky, especially since not all jumps have a clear edge. You can get air from the tiniest bumps in the ground, moguls, man-made ramps, and the sides of mountains. Hitting the sweet spot can seem random, and frustrating, to begin with. After a while you start to see opportunities and time your jumps. Before long it becomes brilliantly intuitive. Maybe I just need more practice with the wingsuit.
Wingsuit frustrations aside, an emphasis of the game is the serene majesty of the environment. This is reinforced by the long, undoubtedly beautiful, loading screens. Cresting a mountain, using your binoculars to scan the adjacent ridge for drop-off points, landmarks, and new races. Some challenges are all about walking, skiing, and flying from point A to point B. No time limits, no restrictions, you can spend hours walking up and down mountains. An experienced enhanced by an appropriately emotive, and diverse, soundtrack.
Steep is full of spectacular moments, with a good mix of exploration, races, and challenges. But, it also has more than its share of rage filled frustrations. Camera angles can be horribly limited, and for a game set in the Alps, not letting you look up is a strange design choice. Not to mention how hard it is to look down when you’re paragliding, or using your wingsuit. Insane if a check-point is directly below you. There is plenty of in-game advertising and lot of pointless unlockable clothes and gear – although, saving up in-game coinage for some of the sillier costumes is fun. Also, it might be worth pointing out that you have to be online to play.
There is a serenity to Steep. French developers Ubisoft Annecy have placed a big emphasis on creating an experience. But, there is a significant contrast between that, and building an extreme-sports simulator full of speed, combos, and epic fails – and that difference may be too jarring here. I haven’t sworn this much, or this loudly, at a game in ages. I’ve wrecked my only good controller. I need to calm down, breath the mountain air, and appreciate the big, beautiful, spectacular world they've produced.
Dene received a digital copy of Steep from Ubisoft for review.