Ubisoft’s mountain madness leaves us anything but cold
Publisher Ubisoft Developer Ubisoft Annecy Format Xbox One ETA 2 December
There was a time when not having a snowboarding title in your games collection was like owning an Xbox but not having any controllers. And not having a TV. And your Xbox was just a crate with an X drawn on it. But the brilliant studios that brought us greats like SSX and Amped must have got buried in an avalanche last console generation, as the snow sports genre seemed to melt away into gaming history. So why has Ubisoft Annecy decided that now is the time to bring it back?
“We needed a breakthrough again in the market,” explains Steep game director, Arnaud Ragot. “That breakthrough was the new hardware, the new engine, and we decided immediately to go for an open-world. There’s still expectation from players. They want this free, open-world experience to enjoy different types of sports. An openworld with scale and technical prowess far beyond what was possible in previous generations.” We’ve come to expect huge open-worlds from Ubisoft, of course, but Steep’s recreation of the French Alps is still a staggering technical achievement. The draw distance here had our vertigo worried long before we even started descending the slopes. Giving us immediate freedom to explore this winter wonderland how we want is an inspired choice, but one that would mean nothing without a great choice of tools to navigate it with.
“You have four different activities,” explains head of Ubisoft Annecy, Rebecka Coutaz. “We have skiing, snowboarding, paragliding and the wingsuit. We believe we offer a completely new experience to those who enjoy those kind of games but also for players who are just looking for an adrenaline rush.” While we see the snowboarding and skiing taking up most of our playtime, the wingsuit is an excellent starter choice for exciting exploration. Gliding over rocky slopes that would crush any boarder, and soaring directly above jagged clusters of ice shining like diamonds, makes your heart pound. “We are an extreme sports game and we wanted to deliver adrenaline moments,” explains creative director, Igor Manceau. “The wingsuit is the best to deliver that experience.” For us, flying down the mountain felt like playing a prettier, colder Just Cause 3.
But hang on, Just Cause 3 was ridiculous. Like, ‘ Voodoo Vince getting an HD remake’ levels of ridiculous. We thought Steep was meant to be a more realistic take on snow sports? “We wanted something that was credible and fun to play,” explains Ragot. “This is why we’ve gone for physics-based gameplay, but we’ve pushed the realistic aspect to make sure the player will have fun. So they can do big jumps, they can land huge drops, but we wanted to make it feel realistic.” It’s a smart artistic choice. Plummeting down a mountain with two planks strapped to your feet is already one of our more bizarre hobbies, so there’s not much need for a game to embellish it.
Besides, you have the freedom to play Steep as realistically or as madly as you like. You can wingsuit over rocky terrain, ski gently down its slopes, paraglide around to explore and snap prettier screenshots, or go for big air and extreme stunts on your board. “We’ve got guys big on tricks,”
“Soaring above jagged clusters of ice shining like diamonds makes your heart pound”
“You have the freedom to play Steep as realistically or as madly as you like”
says Manceau. “We’ve got guys playing Skate 3 and talking about it like crazy. That’s not my way of playing the game, but we think this may be your kind of game. That’s why we wanted to produce different play styles.”
Performing tricks here is surprisingly accessible, given how fond Skate 3 was of shattering our kneecaps every time we dared attempt an ollie. Leaping off ramps still requires perfect timing, and once you’re airborne you can spin your boarder or execute grabs, with the analogue sticks letting you grab specific parts of your board. Initially we introduced our face to plenty of trees, far more than our on-screen avatar was happy with (“I don’t want to die!” he wailed at one point. The wimp). Even when you do successfully land tricks, you’re only offered a measly amount of points for anything less than a perfect landing. But it’s not long before you start nailing spins and grabs, and it feels fantastic, especially as the speed never lets up.
That speed may be the key to Steep’s success. We were worried that hurtling down the mountain too many times would end in vomit and tears, but you’re so focused on your boarder, you soon forget about the backdrop. It’s similar to Rock Band, where you only pay attention to the notes in the foreground. Your scope narrows to perfecting your trick, or launching off a ramp at the optimum moment to get the most air. Speed lines whip around you whenever you risk increasing the pace, and successfully landed tricks aren’t celebrated with a lull in the action. You keep zipping down the mountain, hopefully already planning your next stunt. It’s this sensation of speed, and the draw distance of Xbox One letting us see the next five threats in advance, that could keep us coming back to Steep’s slopes.
There are plenty of in-game challenges, all ranked on leaderboards against friends and worldwide players, but you’re also able to create your own ‘lines’ (that’s snowboarder lingo for ‘courses’, braw). Lay a few highlighted beacons, prove your line is possible by skiing through it yourself, then upload it online. Friends can then attempt your lines, with extra points awarded for how dangerous and (yes!) steep your beacons are. If they’re struggling, they can even watch a replay video of your run for help. Share big air There are lots of other neat little gizmos scattered across the game. The replay editor, for instance, lets you alter time of day, use slowmotion and switch camera angles (including a terrifying first-person one that makes playing the game feel even faster). But is having a video editor really necessary when we can share screenshots and clips easily already on Xbox One?
“That’s why we wanted to do this kind of game!” claims Coutaz. “We think that the sharing generation is out there and we don’t think there are many games providing them with the tools they are looking for. It was a natural step for us to include that because we are already doing it in our everyday lives.” Ragot agrees, saying, “Sharing videos made us decide there’s still a market for this kind of game. On YouTube, there’re millions of views on those action sports videos. We wanted to have that because we know the console can do it and players are already doing it. We’ve seen that in many games, so we wanted to give them the tools.”
This means fans of video sharing and mad tricks will find a lot to like here, but it’s really the freedom to manoeuvre around the mountain your own way that we see having the most lasting appeal. “That’s been really hard to achieve,” says Ragot. “Giving the player their own agenda and leaving them free to do whatever they wants to do. A seamless experience where you can drop in, switch between wingsuit, snowboard, etc... Having everything seamless with no loading and no interruption, that’s always been the main challenge. Making sure you can do whatever you want with no disruption.”
If Steep is able to pull this trick off, the winter sports genre could be on the verge of making a long-awaited console comeback.
Main Always fun to open our lead preview with a man plummeting to his doom.
below This guy’s had the sense to wear a helmet, before skiing into trees.