“No there ain’t no mountain high enough… to keep me from gettin’ to you, babe”
Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” should be the theme song to Steep, because this is
a mountain high enough, and it’s bloody fun to keep dropping from its myriad summits and peaks to take on diverse part arcade, part physics and skill-based challenges along the way.
It should be noted, out of the gate, it can be finicky to get to grips with early on, especially with the snowboarding and skiing side of it. Controls can initially feel unresponsive and even a bit unintuitive which isn’t helped by some animations -- mainly around stacking and borked physics -- not seemingly linking up with the player-character’s trajectory or previous speed or the like. Moreover, as I’ve stated in a handful of previews, the lack of some pure snowsport tricks for both snowboarding and skiing is a heavily missed opportunity. There’s no grinding on rails or other parts of the terrain. You can’t wall-ride anything. There’s no buttering (the snow equivalent to manuals in skateboarding). And riding the pipe is a long, long and steep
learning curve that will more often -- early on -- end in frustration than it will in triumph.
But you’re here to conquer
this beast, and you’re helped in this area by a very specific and awesome element: freedom. You couldn’t possibly scale Steep’s base on-foot, so you can find points of interest by scanning the environment with your binoculars and take your view of the world out to a 3D overworld map, then select your destination and go there. But from there, even if there’s a challenge waiting for you in any of the game’s Freestyler, Extreme Rider, Freerider, Explorer, Bone Collector et al Challenges, you can just ignore them, choose your sport from snowboarding, skiing, paragliding or wingsuiting and just carve your own path down the mountain. And I even found after completing those challenges, even with the allure of XP lying in the wings to redo them, or move onto the next one, I would just continue on down the mountain. It’s how you discover all the mountain has to offer, and it’s how you discover a bit about yourself, as pretentious as that may sound, because despite this being an open-world to explore, the ways in which you go about it are all very different.
Speaking of different, an element of the game I wasn’t even aware of until playing the review copy was the addition of Mountain Stories. These aren’t necessarily trick, speed or air obstacles, rather they’re a uniquely-presented way of breaking up the “action sports” component of the game with wistful stories that have you following ghosts off the beaten path, while the mountain talks to you in poetic and cryptic ways, literally. In one scenario you need to summon a singing tree by, and here’s the clincher, gliding into a church bell. There are some really inventive objectives here, and I’d be doing you a disservice spoiling any of them for you, just listen to the mountain -- it knows best.
Another interesting addition is the Bone Collector Challenges which, literally ask you to throw yourself off a cliff to see how much damage you can accrue. This isn’t new in action sports games, of course, but there’s something fundamentally different about doing it down a hill on a road in skate, and going off a fucking cliff
in Steep. But like everything else in the game, it’s just another excellent distraction from the normal videogame concept of maintaining a structured loop of gameplay. The only real gameplay loop here is exploring the mountain, at your own pace.
It becomes pretty clear how much ambition the team at Ubisoft Annecy had when you do your first Expedition. You do most things to gain XP and unlock gear and credits (to then essentially use on gear), but the other major driver beyond bragging rights is the “carving your own path” thing I mentioned earlier, and in Expeditions, this is the point. These are mammoth undertakings where you need to get from point A to B using whatever means necessary -- so you can use all four disciplines as you see fit, as well as simply hike different parts on foot, and they’re enormous, and don’t always have the A up high and the B down low, meaning you need to be creative in how you reach your destination. A handful of these took me hours, purely because I either went too far off course and restarted them, or because I just kept getting distracted along the way.
There are some issues outside of the snowsports ones I mentioned much earlier. You have a G-Force counter which makes sense, because this game isn’t SSX, it does try to take itself a bit seriously, despite a lot of the craziness going on around you, and so going too fast can be a detriment, but the system gets in the way of some really gnarly runs. Moreover, touch any rocky surfaces depletes a meter on-screen that when fully red, makes you stack regardless. This is especially frustrating if you’re actually going pretty fast and would realistically only be kissing the rock face and just banging up your board or skis. Countless times I would do an awesome run from a pretty steep drop with some cool jumps, only to have the whole thing thrown out the window because I smoothly crossed a rocky surface long enough (not very long, mind), to have that meter deplete and me thrown to the ground.
I also found I enjoyed the wingsuiting, snowboarding and skiing the most, barely ever touching the paragliding. There are some cool physics and tricks involved in paragliding, especially when trying to meet (or create) an updraft to gain altitude where you probably shouldn’t have been able to, but among the other three sports, it felt the most out of place. But that could just be me.
As far as multiplayer goes, it’s cool seeing the world around you populate with other avatars, and because of the game’s customisation, everyone looks different. You can team up with anyone in your nearby vicinity or just play with friends. It’s a pretty seamless system, and I didn’t really run into too many issues playing on PlayStation 4, but it’s not something I went out of my way to do all the time -- there’s something far more rewarding about finding your own way down and through the peaks and valleys of this massive, massive open-world. There’s a different kind of emergent gameplay that surrounds Steep, and it’s the game’s strongest component, and it falls back into that freedom gameplay pillar I mentioned earlier. You couldn’t possibly have this playspace with linear, game-directed objectives. And while Challenges offer you pathways to complete them, and obviously have finish lines, the freedom you have to just do all of the things, as you please, is the game’s number one strength.
In parts it’s an absolutely stunning game, and in others it’s pretty standard -- not visually OTT and not sub-par, either. Little things like cutting to a stop after gaining a huge amount of speed to watch trickles of snow chunks leave individual lines in the powder are gorgeous touches, and the way cloth moves is really neat. The video editor mode is actually very decent along with the Gopro stuff, which should sate the YouTube generation of players out there, but for me the game’s sheer size, and the freedom to tackle that size however you see fit is where it’s at. I’d love more dedication to the snowboarding and skiing parts of the game, but as an out-of-left-field product, Steep is engaging, fun and most of all yours to play, however you
want to play it.