PC, PS4, Xbox One
You’ll believe a mountain can talk. Reach a new peak in Steep and you’ll hear its voice booming out, almost as if you’d been carving powder in a very different sense. One welcomes you as a dear friend; another boasts that its crags are as old as time itself; a third wonders who might deign to disturb its rest; a fourth promises to break you. Before you set off, before all the ostentatious event markers, irritating companions and intrusive branding, Steep establishes an offbeat tone that sets it apart from others of its kind. It’s a strange game, in fact, and ultimately that’s to its advantage.
For a while, however, it all feels like a bit of a muddle, even if immediate impressions are likely to be positive, as you quickly realise that this vast open world of Alpine peaks can be negotiated with no loading times whatsoever. Event restarts might require you to hold down a button for a couple of seconds, but you’ll be deposited back to the starting line instantaneously thereafter. Choose an overview of the whole range instead and you’ll be whisked to a 3D map, from which you can select a dropoff point. Again, once you’ve made your choice, there’s no waiting involved.
In theory, you’re able to choose from four sports on the fly by pulling up a radial menu, though that’s not entirely accurate: you can’t swap in mid-air, and you’ll need to come to a standstill if you’re going downhill – which can take some time when you’re ragdolling off rocks after a high-speed spill. Two of the choices are all but interchangeable, as you’re able to enter the same race, trick and orienteering events whether you’re on a snowboard or skis, and the difference in handling is negligible. With two planks you can ride backwards (good luck doing that in firstperson mode), otherwise there’s rarely a compelling reason to switch from one.
Wingsuit events, meanwhile, suggest someone at Ubisoft Annecy got fed up waiting for Nintendo to release a new Pilotwings and took matters into their own hands. The controls are simple but the courses often anything but, sending you swooping through narrow holes and plummeting down spiralling tunnels, twisting past jutting rocks above and below. In other events, you’re asked to glide just above ground to earn proximity points, a gentle shudder of controller feedback letting your palms know that your score is ticking upwards when your unblinking eyes are fixed upon your avatar. If this is Steep at its most exacting and intense, paragliding, where you hug cliff edges to collect updrafts and gain height, is a little too sedate for its own good – at least during its race events. But there aren’t many entries in this category anyway, so it’s an activity best saved for lazily taking in the sights from above, or when you need to get back up a little way and don’t fancy the slow trudge on foot.
Though you’re spirited away to event spots once selected from the map, if you want to start a run elsewhere you’ll need to either make your own way there or use up one of your limited number of helicopter passes. Alternatively, to unlock new drop zones to which you can fast-travel you’ll need to stand within 1,000 yards of them and highlight them through your rider’s binoculars. You’ll see some of these during events or general exploration, but often you’ll be too far away to tag them, which tempts you back to the map in order to search properly. Unfortunately, the map proves unwieldy to navigate: those pristine slopes are pocked with icons, as is the Ubisoft way, but moving a cursor within a 3D space is clumsy, not least when it’s subtly tugged towards markers you’re scrolling past. And for reasons we’ve struggled to divine, events you’ve already completed will often be highlighted with a ‘new’ tag, which can make finding actual new ones a chore. Befitting its name, Steep’s challenge is positively vertiginous on some of the Hard-level courses. In most cases, it’s difficult in the right way, but sometimes you’ll fall victim to spiteful placement of fences or wilful checkpoint positioning – and, occasionally, the two are combined. Its trick system, meanwhile, is ostensibly simple – this isn’t Tony Hawk, or even SSX where you’d be pulling physics-defying spins and flips off every ramp – but it’s obtuse in its demands and peculiarly fussy in its timing. Away from the pressure of competition, it starts to feel more natural, when you have open ground stretching out in front of you and plenty of time to prepare for each jump.
Learn to curb your competitive instincts and stop reaching for the restart button, and Steep’s minor frustrations steadily begin to melt away. When you miss a checkpoint, it’s often best to simply keep going instead: the run is automatically cancelled anyway, so why not take advantage of being out of contention? The thrill of successfully weaving through a dense thicket of slender trees, even if it’s more by luck than judgement, is still there when you’re doing your own thing. And as a multiplayer game, Steep is at its best when you’re not beating your fellow boarders but simply joining them.
So you might well roll your eyes when your in-game colleagues berate you for a bronze-medal performance or push you to enter a sponsored event, or when you ask to be dropped off and you’re held up by a cutscene showing your rider glugging a popular energy drink. But we sense Ubisoft Annecy’s heart isn’t really in any of that. There’s something quietly wonderful here when you step away from the corporate nonsense and braying thrillseekers; when those icons drift away, the music fades out, and you can carve your own path until the slope levels off and the edge of the world approaches. It turns out the mountain really does have something to say, but it’s only when the noise is gone that its message can really be heard.
There’s something quietly wonderful here when you step away from the corporate nonsense