At E3 Ubisoft surprised us with a new action sports title called Steep. Focusing specifically on four main disciplines built around winter and snow, the game was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise oxygen-starved genre that used to be king. At this year’s Gamescom, I got even more hands-on time with the open-world title and it continues to impress with its scope and scale. This is a total player-driven experience, riddled with hidden wonders, tracks and runs for the adventurous gamers where even hiking on foot -- board or skis strapped to your back -- is an option. Pull out your electronic binoculars before James Bond knows you’ve swiped them and you can survey the mountain around you to find undiscovered locations that will let you know if you’re close enough to get there (ie, fast travel), or need to hike some more.
There’s a sense of discovery which is coupled with an equal dose of convenience in the game. If you’re a purist -- like me -- you can walk and discover as you go, but you also have the option of just jumping between points in fast-travel heaven. It’s a good thing too, because this playspace is enormous, and you don’t even realise just how big it is until you hit the Circle button twice to expand your overall view of the mountain(s) you’re attempting to conquer.
The separation between sports is handled well, and you can discover new areas to ride as you, well, ride various parts of the mountain. New back country will reveal itself as you go and while the game offers you base challenges, the majority of lines will come by way of your own created challenges, or those of other players around you. And when I mentioned purist before, the game absolutely caters to that breed. For example, it’s not all about light runs, or Snowpark, you can do incredible steep challenges that require you to ride in a sort of stop-start mode and there’s a G-Force system that dictates just how safe, or unsafe you are and it’s built entirely around physics. The right stick helps you cut into the mountain as you navigate between sheer rocks and you’ll transition between powder, sludge and ice in a pretty realistic fashion. For the snow people out there, there’s a huge amount of depth that’s hard to ignore, and I’m thankful the team is treating their foundation with as much intricate respect as they are.
Of course it’s not all about snowboarding or skiing, with paragliding and wingsuiting your other options. In my hands-on at Gamescom I only played a little of the wingsuit action, which also uses an equally impressive physics system. I found controlling the game in third-person to be pretty good, but switching to the GoPro first-person vision was an immediate nightmare -- in a good way. The sheer rocks perilously rush past your face, and the sense of speed and danger is immense. I haven’t asked, but if this is playable with VR, some emergency rooms might need to stock up on cardiologists. It’s frightfully good and gives you a clear understanding of just how crazy, and awesome, the actual athletes who do this in real life are.
While the game’s size and ambition is to be applauded, there are still areas of teething that need attention. Some of the crash animations at this stage are looking a bit disjointed, and timing jumps, grabs and tweaks feels a bit off. This is to be preambled with the game obviously still very much a work in progress, but I’d be remiss not to point out areas the team could be looking at. I’m also bummed there’s no jibbing (grinding) or buttering (like manualing in skateboarding). Especially given the game features Snowpark terrain. It’s likely not a feature at this point because the focus isn’t specifically on snowboarding, but it’s just a shame these freestyle components aren’t a part of game focusing heavily on the idea of player-freedom and a freestyle approach to any of the disciplines featured.
The lack of the options above also means the Snowpark sections are only filled with jumps and halfpipes, though riding halfpipe did present an alluring challenge when I dipped my toes in, unfortunately time wasn’t on my side and I didn’t want to waste the experience placating my own extreme sports ego by learning how to throw down a double McTwist 1260 as if I were Iouri Podlatchikov. But I digress.
The game is utterly gorgeous, even at this incomplete stage of development, and there’s a promise around users being able to create their own in-game videos using the aforementioned GoPro system. User-generated content is the norm these days, but given this is the only game in the genre, it’s going to be very cool watching the combinations of videos that emerge from the four disciplines Steep offers. I have brought up in the past that there should be an option for players to be able to actually combine all four sports into one, seamless run with no menu switching, or having to stop and load up a different starting point or the like, and it’s not entirely off the cards yet, but I imagine at this point it’s going to take a lot of screaming from the fans for it to become an actual thing.
With that being said, there’s still plenty to love about Steep and its lofty ambitions. While not all aspects of each sport are there, attention to detail like being able to ride fakie while skiing does elevate the product to respectful places. And the freedom to not only be able to create your own challenges, but partake in others created by other players is not only enticing, it’s inspired. The mountain is a canvas, and each sport a different brush through which you create your own story. It may not have a specific narrative element, but player-driven gameplay more than makes up for this. And add to this the game’s seamless co-op mode which allows you to drop in and drop out of other users’ sessions as they appear in your own mountain time, and Steep presents itself as a premier open-world action sports experience. And hopefully it’ll be an ever-evolving one once the community gets to drop into its lush, powder-addled world.
Steep is due out on PC, PS4 and Xbox One December 2, 2016. Click here to sign up for the game's beta