Steep Review

By Sam Quirke,
Ubisoft surprised us all at this year’s E3 with the reveal of Steep. It seemed as though Ubisoft Annecy could deliver the benchmark snow sports title for which we’ve been waiting since the early days of SSX. Six months later and after a suspiciously quiet launch, we now have a game that certainly isn’t anything like SSX. Steep is its own, strange beast and despite some shining moments, it's a bit of a mess.

Steep. Or STEEP... or possibly StEEP. Whatever.Steep. Or STEEP... or possibly StEEP. Whatever.

At first glance, Steep is a very simple arcade racing concept that covers four disciplines – snowboarding, skiing, paragliding and wing-suit. The open world is a gigantic swathe of the real-world Alps, including the sinister Matterhorn and the graceful giant, Mont Blanc. You can switch between the different disciplines seamlessly and use your binoculars to find and fast-travel to new drop zones. At each new point you’ll find different challenges in the form of races or trick competitions. Ostensibly, you'll be racing against other riders on screen; this is a thin veneer over what is essentially a huge catalogue of time trials rather than dynamic races against AI opponents. NPC riders will be labelled gold, silver, and bronze, and they will finish at the appropriate time indicated at the start of the race. The same is true for the multiplayer – players will drop in and form groups, but ultimately all you can really do is follow each other, share map locations and try and beat each other’s times. There’s no overarching tournament here, nor are there any narrative rivals. It all feels pretty lonely and uncompetitive compared to other open-world racing titles.

The thrill of zipping past deadly outcrops in a wing-suit or carving down a cliff on a snowboard is breath-taking. Steep really is a benchmark title when it comes to capturing this feeling and I don’t think that I’ve ever heard more accurate sound effects when slicing through fresh powder or flying through a screaming gale. There's a real sense of euphoria when you reach the finish line, especially if you are seconds from plummeting into a rock face. Sudden stomach-lurching drops into thin air on trick runs reminded me of the greatest moments in SSX history.

Smacking into a tree is much more enjoyable here than in real life.Smacking into a tree is much more enjoyable here than in real life.

Sadly, frustrating checkpoint markers can dampen the spirit quickly. While an extreme sports game should certainly require tricky twists and turns, the gates themselves shouldn’t be near-invisible against the environment. Wafer-thin translucent orange circles sitting on an identically coloured vertical column is an odd design choice, especially when flying in direct sunlight. There is a racing line to follow, but only in certain race types. The line is white when it does appear, which seems ill-advised in a game world that is around 90% snow. None of this would be an issue if Steep had borrowed the rewind function from a game like Forza Horizon 3, so that you could step back a few seconds and adjust your path. While you can pause and backtrack to any point on your previous line down the slopes, you can only use this function in free-roam. In a contest, your only choice is to start again from the beginning.

The controls are mostly intuitive, although a terribly forgettable tutorial sequence means that you might be struggling to remember what to do. This isn't helped by a whole host of potential glitches, from invisible obstacles and stuttering rag-doll physics to screen white-outs when fast travelling from a dark location to a bright one. These moments aren't common enough to be game breaking, but there are enough of them to make a difficult race torturous. Despite Steep’s attempt to vary up the sport options, paragliding and skiing can be particularly cumbersome in practice. Most players looking for entertainment will end up defaulting to either the wing-suit or the genre’s standard – the snowboard.

Pictured: Incorrect skiing posture.Pictured: Incorrect skiing posture.

Races and challenges start to wear thin towards the second half of the game. The only reward for ranking up is unlocking more challenges, but these are only variations on the same themes. When coupled with Steep's focus on environmental realism, new runs stop feeling particularly interesting after a while. You start to wonder why you are bothering if there is no meaningful progression or reward system. Gear load-outs and clothing are all cosmetic and there are no stats to build up, meaning that there’s no opportunity to tweak your rider’s performance. This ultimately gives the game a ceiling that is based on a player's reflexes. If you’re struggling with a race, there’s nothing you can do but try it over and over again. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that and old-school arcade junkies will get a kick out of going for all of the gold medals, but it might put off players used to the adaptive difficulties and deep customisation of other open-world racing titles. Seeing as there is an attempt to build up an online community and offer DLC later down the line, alienating the casual racing fan is a significant problem.

The real surprise is how enjoyable Steep can be when it stops being an arcade racing game and starts behaving like a bizarre extreme sports version of a walking simulator. The game's "Mountain Stories" range from pulling off spectacular wing-suit stunts for a film shoot to carving after a lone rider in the dark while the voice of the mountain itself speaks to you in throaty whispers. These unusual moments perfectly capture the otherworldliness of the Alps and force you to contemplate their majesty and beauty rather than speed past the scenery. Some stories even feel quite poignant – one memorable paraglide through five difficult points had a documentary style voice-over of a rider explaining his failure to manage the same trek. I almost yearn for a game with a smaller scope that spent more time on these experiences. Perhaps the reason why the arcade elements of the game feel so unpolished is because the developers considered them secondary; Annecy's real desire was to share their passion for the mountains themselves.

Sometimes you just have to stop and appreciate the view.Sometimes you just have to stop and appreciate the view.

Unfortunately, ambitious developers have a habit of forgetting the practicalities. This is never clearer than when wrestling with the invasive, buggy and confusing user interface. Floating challenge points block your view of distant drop zones, so you can't fast-travel. "Points of Interest" are robbed of any beauty by a horizon filled with race markers on distant peaks, not to mention the point's own name hanging in the air above you in ugly black lettering. The game never directs you to the start menu, where you'll find cosmetic customisation options and a progress tracker but no in-game help pages to remind you how to control a particular discipline. The help text that does appear in the game is not only tiny and squashed, it's also clearly been through an English translator without a grammar check. A lot of it doesn't quite make sense. All of these are minor gripes in isolation, but they build up to an exhausting chore just to get around.

The game has a full three-dimensional map, scalable down to individual riders. It looks beautiful, but that level of detail is unnecessary, even counter-productive. Dragging the slow-moving cursor around is a huge pain, especially since you are constantly being snapped to the nearest landing point whether you intend to or not. Some map functions are genuinely broken. You should be able to press cn_back to snap straight to the start point of a new challenge when the game notifies you, but my map cursor instead lurched across in the general direction before stopping dead on the first challenge that crossed the path, rather than wherever it was actually headed. Challenges and drop zones are flagged "NEW" when nothing new is there, while at standard zoom you can barely make out which medal you have earned on each challenge at a glance. These are just a few of the many poor design decisions, and they all make it desperately hard to remember the moments of brilliance when you actually get into a ride. This is a real shame. Buried in this strange and frustrating experiment is the seed of something truly unique.

If nothing else, it's made me want to book a vacation here.If nothing else, it's made me want to book a vacation here.

The achievement list is pretty standard for an open-world racing title. You'll need to reach the top Reputation rank of 25, which isn't particularly difficult, and you'll pick up some of the action-oriented achievements through normal play. It'll take substantially longer to reach LEGEND rank in all of the game's fields of expertise, and getting gold on all challenges will be reserved for those with good reflexes, not to mention limitless patience. You'll be sorely tested by pinpointing all of the Points of Interest in the game, particularly because the map is coordinate based yet lacks a compass to remind you which way is north. You can make a significant dent in the list quickly, but by no means is it an easy completion.

Summary

Like the Alpine region that it calls home, Steep is a strange world that is both beautiful to look at and mind-boggling to navigate. You can feel genuine love for the Alpine region in every rock face and glacier, but the game seems unable to decide if it wants to be a run-of-the-mill arcade racing game or a high-octane snow sports version of a walking simulator. There are beautiful and breath-taking moments here, but the experience wears thin quickly due to a lack of meaningful progression and unacceptably poor interface design. Frequent bugs will eventually exhaust your remaining patience. It’s an ambitious passion project that I wish I could love, but Steep's reach ultimately exceeds its grasp.
3 / 5
Steep
Positives
  • Beautiful scenery and genuinely thrilling action
  • Narrative vignettes bring something unique to the genre
  • Immersive sound design
Negatives
  • Buggy, irritating interface and map
  • Challenges get repetitive quickly
  • No meaningful customisation or progression
Ethics
The reviewer spent 17 hours hitting the slopes, mostly with his face, in order to earn 23 of the game's 29 achievements. A digital copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purposes of the review.
Sam Quirke
Written by Sam Quirke
Sam has been a Newshound since 2016 and is now the Editor for both TrueAchievements and TrueTrophies. He loves gaming on all devices and in all genres. He remains a stubborn Assassin's Creed and Pokémon fan.