The National Sporting Goods Association reported in 2011 that more than 6.9 million people around the world ski, while more than 5.1 million snowboard. With this in mind you’d think that snow sport video games would be more popular than they are; the last significant snowboarding or skiing game arrived in February 2012, more than four years ago. We haven’t even seen a proper title this generation.
Surprisingly enough it’s Ubisoft that’s looking to change this unfortunate reality. For the past couple years it’s been working on Steep, an open world extreme sports game that would like nothing more than to represent snow sport with pride, providing millions around the globe with a way to enjoy their hobby without having to make a trip to the mountains.
Steep opens by letting its world do the talking. Gazing down the several thousand foot altitude slopes, the endless snow-packed mountains are a sight to behold. Set in the Alps, and crafted with incredible meticulousness, the world is as expansive as it is beautiful. The technology bears a striking resemblance to Tom Clancy’s The Division—a good thing.
On the surface level this means that you’ll be compelled to take screenshots and watch replays, if only to admire the scenery. In this regard the game goes out of its way to support any enthusiasm for photography that you may have, executed by an incredibly well delivered replay system. On a deeper level this means that you will feel immersed in the snowy atmosphere, especially when playing in first-person view and listening to the amazing soundtrack. It feels cold, yet inviting, angelically beautiful, yet humble.
There is a mild amount of variety when it comes to level design. The slopes vary in angle of repose with obstacles such as trees and rocks present in varying degrees. Though, after a couple hours every slope begins to feel the same. The terrain variety present is low enough that it is a problem long term, largely unsolved by unlocking the more advanced areas.
Most of your time will be spent engaging in challenges, which range from official to custom. There are events with pre-determined routes that send you down the mountain in hopes of a low time or highs core, but you also have access to create custom events at any time. This is where the game shines. Being able to lay down a challenge anywhere means that you will be rewarded for finding special, out of the way locales that present interesting obstacles for participants.
Swiss Army Knife
You might be able to snowboard in Steep, but it’s not just a snowboarding game. Your skillset includes snowboarding, skiing, paragliding, and base jumping with a wingsuit. Switching between these disciplines is possible any time you are stopped on the mountain, meaning that you may choose to ski down a slope halfway before base jumping the rest. The choice is yours.
Each of the disciplines offer great usability. Snowboarding and skiing are great when you just want to cruise down a mountain and pull off some stunts. The wingsuit is much more fast-paced—almost race car like—in nature offering the fastest way down a slope, requiring you to constantly be close to the ground in order to maintain point multipliers. Paragliding is precise, and can be used to gain elevation to reach locations that would otherwise be out of reach. You can walk around when necessary, too.
This gameplay freedom is an enormous achievement, especially when you consider the smooth gameplay implementation of each. It isn’t only liberating to be able to explore a mountain range in the style of your choosing, it’s unequaled; there is no other game that has ever accomplished such a feat.
Steep borders on simulation with some arcade elements. This simulation applies to all four disciplines, where everything from velocity to jump heights resemble what you’d see at the Winter X Games. The effects of this are two-fold. It’s difficult to pull off tricks, even the ones that you would expect to be nothing more than a quick button press after playing a game like SSX. In-fact, you may find yourself struggling to spin or flip during your first couple hours playing. The benefit is that landing huge tricks is incredibly rewarding, knowing that you require great mechanical timing to pull them off.
This is where Steep is the most divisive. The emphasis on carving with some challenging trick maneuvers thrown in is best served for fans of the represented sports—at least in the case of snowboarding and skiing. This is a game that falls short of being exciting a lot of the time, some of which is owed to the lack of any rail slides or super moves. The wingsuit serves as a great way to elevate the level of excitement, but only as long as you can keep finding interesting routes and have at least one friend to play with.
Steep is a surprisingly social game. At any time you can drop-in/drop-out of a friend’s group to easily enjoy the experience together. You will also see other players carving the mountain while out and about. Interactions with strangers are among the best moments in the game, as your solo thrills become romantic excursions.
This is further reinforced by how easy it is to create and share challenges. In many cases, players spend most of their time participating in custom challenges that can range in focus between speed, lines, and/or scores. The battle for top leaderboard positions is surprisingly addictive, especially in cases where challenges are crafted in prime positions in the game world; not all areas are created equal.
Your efforts will allow you to progress through level ranks as well as earn currency. The currency is spent on a wide range of equipment and clothing, none of which affects your performance, but does allow you to present your personality to other players in the way of your choosing. Meanwhile, levels display your level of experience, and also are used to gate access to some of the world’s most exotic spots.
All in all, the amount of play value you’ll get from Steep is dependent upon your passion for the sports that it represents. If you consider skiing or snowboarding to be one of your greatest hobbies, this game could last you months as it supplements your real-world trips. However, if you are someone who isn’t enthusiastic about snow sport and is looking for the next SSX game, Steep may prove disappointing to you.
Ubisoft deserves a round of applause for addressing the industry’s severe lack of snow sport games with something bold and ambitious. Steep might suffer from play value issues, but there’s nothing comparable. For the more than 10 million skiers and snowboarders around the world, this is a moment of liberation that should go recognized.