If you weren’t able to make it to the slopes this year for your adrenaline fix, don’t despair – a virtual version of your favourite snowsports is here. Steep, the latest title from France-based Ubisoft Annecy, is set in a fictional recreation of the Alps, and meshes together several extreme sports into the one gaming package. Walking a fine line between realism and fun, this ambitious title from the French developer attempts to capture the high speed thrills that these pastimes are known for.
You are given four methods to facilitate your speedy descent: snowboard, skis, paraglider and the wingsuit. The snowboard and skis are very similar and can be substituted for each other at the start of events, but the paraglider and wingsuit can only be used in events specifically designed for them. I would have loved the ability to switch between the different modes while in midair, but this isn’t possible, much to my disappointment.
Frankly, they could have ditched the paraglider altogether, as it lacks the raw excitement that the other modes offer. The skis probably could have gone as well, though seeing as they are interchangeable on the events that use them there’s no harm having them there. It’s the snowboard and wingsuit that make up the bulk of the game's fun, and you’ll probably spend most of your time using one or the other to complete its many challenges.
The bread and butter of the snowboarding events are the freestyle challenges and races. You’ll be given a finishing line and maybe a few checkpoints as well, but the route you choose in-between these is entirely your own. As you descend you’ll need to trick, flip and spin to rack up points to beat the target totals, or if it’s race, it’s just a flat-out sprint to the finish. Many of the early events are arguably on the easy side, though conversely there is also a lack of proper tutorials and so figuring out the trick mechanics requires a lot of trial and error.
Steep uses a cumulative system for its bails, measured by a g-force bar on screen. A single upside down landing or pancake into a cliff will obviously knock you off, but numerous small bumps or too many bad landings at high speed can also cause you to faceplant too. While it took some adjusting to, this mechanic did end up growing on me the more I played the game. That said, a few of the really steep slopes were almost impossible to pass over without at least one bail.
I’d thought the snowboarding had been frenetic, but nothing prepared me for the wingsuit experience. I’ve used them before in other videogames such as Just Cause 3, but Steep takes things to a whole new level of extreme. You’ll be required to thread the needle through rocky outcrops, skim mere meters away from frozen mountain faces, and dance through snowy pines – all while travelling at what feels like mach one. The more difficult events that you unlock later in the game are diabolical, requiring the precision of a brain surgeon not to leave your own character's brain smeared over a kilometre of cliffside.
The online component of the game is ever-present, with other players randomly showing up all over the mountains as they connect to your session. At no point did I find this to be a nuisance, and in fact on more than one occasion I was able to follow someone else’s line through a tricky challenge that I had been stuck on. Teaming up to complete challenges is as easy as hitting a button, and though random players are bit naff, playing this with a small group of friends would be hilariously chaotic.
Unfortunately, whilst being out on the mountainside is both addictive and fun, this enjoyment is constantly strangled by poor design choices in other critical areas. There’s nothing driving the player through the game, as progression is just a multitude of levelling systems, coupled with an endless string of events that pop up in random places on the map. You’ll hear a voice-over talking about the sport or the surroundings every once in a while, but there’s no real story or characters to speak of. Even the act of trying to find new events is a mission in itself, due to the menus and map screen being a complete shambles.
In fact, the map screen is in serious need of fixing. There’s no ability to use any kind of filter to reduce the growing clutter as you progress, and pretty soon the mountain faces are covered in a forest of markers without any method of removing them. They did put a glowing ‘NEW’ next to events that had just appeared, but it’s completely useless as events still show as new a week after appearing. To top it off, the cursor for navigating the map screen will often not be able to lock onto icons until zoomed right in. It’s one of the worst menu systems I’ve had the displeasure of using, and it really hurts the title as a whole.
Other areas of the game’s presentation are also spotty. While the graphics do a great job making the snow-clad panoramas a beautiful sight, they also suffer from a lack of aliasing and and the odd drop in framerate. The sound is glitchy in places, and I found that retrying some events more than a few times would cause the soundtrack to drop out entirely. It all feels like it needed a few more months of polish before they shipped it out.
There’s a lot here for extreme sports fans to enjoy, but sadly it’s buried beneath an avalanche of game design issues. If you can endure the boring challenges in the opening few hours, and tolerate the terrible menu systems, then it might prove to be worth a look. I do sincerely hope that the developers fix this game post launch, but in its current state, many will find this to be far too rough around the edges.