Early Impressions: STEEP
In this Crossfader series, our video games staff takes a look at early versions of upcoming releases so that you can know which hype trains to board.
I played a good number of snow sport racing games back during the PlayStation 2’s heyday. Perhaps due to my own love for hitting the slopes in real life, or even the adrenaline rush of speeding down a virtual incline, I distinctly remembered the severe winter sports drought during the PlayStation 3’s life cycle. Save for the — poorly received — SHAUN WHITE SNOWBOARDING, the generation of consoles I spent the most time with offered me no mountain fun. My primary frustration with the dearth of releases in this subgenre was the fact that the PlayStation 2, despite all its fun, was never particularly good at animating snow-capped mountains. Instead, we had fun arcade games that were showered in a thick white blanket. Neither the textures nor the animations were there yet, and though they weren’t really there for the PS3 either, recent titles like RISE OF THE TOMB RAIDER prove that modern consoles can render snow brilliantly. I can safely say that with STEEP, Ubisoft has brought us closer to the game I’ve been wanting to play all these years, though it might not be a perfect dream come true.
First things first: STEEP is really pretty. From a wonderful day cycle (you unfortunately never get to do night-skiing unless the level you select specifically loads you into a night setting), to believable character animations, this looks and feels like the open world winter sports simulator of my dreams. The option for a first-person perspective is an awesome bonus, though unfortunately too difficult for mastering tricks. The wide, open map allows for a lovely depth of traversal, assisted by an intuitive fast travel system (in place of ski lifts, which is blasphemy), and builds a constant urge to discover a new peak. Everything is built rather holistically here: You use your binoculars to discover new paths and challenges, and you’ll have to crawl up a steep slope if you wish to get higher. The game neatly balances its simulation and arcade elements so that it’s never a chore to change your playing style on a whim. Your modes of transportation, whether it be wingsuit, parachute, skis, snowboard, or walking, can all be selected with the click of a button, and if you wish to tackle a specific challenge, you can spawn there through your map. Yet while I appreciated this during the tutorial, it started to dawn on me that STEEP is too arcade-like for its oft unrelenting difficulty.
Screenshot of somebody playing their first five minutes of STEEP before opting for third-person
But don’t let these arcade-like qualities fool you. If SSX was TONY HAWK’S PRO SKATER, STEEP is SKATE. This is a decidedly realistic affair. It’s a game that will punish you for your dreams of overachieving, and one that values timing and precision over indulgent showboating. As such, it will certainly not be everyone’s cup of tea. Sure, this is an open world multiplayer game, but not the type you invite your friends over to play on a cloudy afternoon.
STEEP, much like its namesake, has a black diamond learning curve, and though it’s not exactly hard, it took me a few hours to accept that this will never be as comically “awesome” as SSX. Having said that, I began to feel the weight of STEEP’s rewarding points system once I started mastering a few complex tricks. You see, within a single race, you maybe do half the amount of loony jumping that you would in your average arcade game, but the few tricks you do pull off are not only hard, but build up your speed to absurd levels that can be felt by a constantly shifting sensitivity in the left analog stick.
As such, I often found myself crashing into walls, buildings, and rocks on my way downhill. The excessively sensitive jump command didn’t make things any easier. Thankfully, the re-try function is quick and painless (fingers crossed that it will remain without load times once the final product goes live). While I can’t hold the difficulty against STEEP, I will say that it would have been wiser to either commit to “full sim” or “wacky arcade,” rather than being caught halfway.
The only reason I say this is because STEEP clearly doesn’t know how straight it wants to play itself. The voiceover work is so unashamedly bro-core that I could almost see the Greek alphabet written in the clouds. The music doubles down on this, with “sick” dance tunes (thank God for a less-awful hip hop playlist that’s accessible via the menu) and the overt Red Bull and GoPro product placement. Having said that, the game is also far too difficult for somebody that isn’t passionate about mastery. STEEP does a good job catering to both player bases, but there’s admittedly little fun to be had if you are approaching it as a novice. Had this been a tough RPG/sim hybrid, STEEP could have been something really special.
Take a wild guess who of these three is having the least fun?
Within its four separate sports, STEEP finds itself oddly imbalanced. Skiing and snowboarding are, as expected, pretty fantastic. Pulling off tricks successfully builds an incredible momentum that helps elevate the slalom into a game of discovery. I spent just as much time enriching myself through the meditative terrain as I did actually completing challenges. Frankly, that is STEEP’s greatest asset. It is wonderfully relaxing when you want it to be, but doesn’t shy away from that hard-to-earn gold medal either.
Wingsuit and Parachute challenges are a totally different beast. While the former has very clear cut rules (fly through rings and close to the ground for maximum points), gliding through the air in my chute was oddly pensive, and felt absent of any real challenge. Maybe these modes will grow in complexity down the line, but there’s really only so much that can be done with a wingsuit and a parachute, namely making sure you don’t crash into the extremities of the mountain.
STEEP is a beautiful game, one that holds a lot of potential for highly competitive multiplayer entertainment. Its open world, scenic vistas, great replay features, and ease-of-use all make for a powerful experience. I would have liked to have seen the game slowly introduce me to each sports category, possibly opting for a stronger RPG component. Ubisoft has been on a roleplay-lite train for a while since FAR CRY, THE DIVISION, and WATCH_DOGS. have become their brand for open-world gaming, but STEEP could really benefit from a points system that isn’t purely relegated to cosmetic touch-ups. Why not construct a game in which you pick a specialty between the four sports? Why not level-up and learn new tricks with time? Why not force players to pick their gear at the bottom of the mountain and forcing them to take the gondola up? After all, this is a game that thrives on simulation, so why not go the extra mile? These are all elements that feel absent in STEEP. It’s all too-much too-fast, an endless game of arcade-like repetition. And yet, it’s undeniably gorgeous, a game that could make up for many of its flaws through its visual charm alone. So yes, it left me wondering if there’ll be anything new to find on the next slope. If there isn’t, I worry that the snow will melt quickly.