Few sports games inspire more love than SSX. EA's classic snowboarding series captured hearts and minds back on the PlayStation 2, and is still fondly remembered for its sheer arcadey fun. Its 2012 reboot recaptured some of the old magic, but it's been MIA since. Enter Steep: Ubisoft's attempt to fill the void left by EA.
Set in the Swiss Alps, Steep is an extreme sports sims focusing around four distinct types of play: skiing, snowboarding, paragliding, and wingsuit flying. It's clearly out to capture the delightful tricks-oriented fun of SSX; and indeed, there are times when it is successful in that regard. But it also feels messy, unfocused, and not quite right.
Steep's structure centers around a handful of famous mountains, each of which can be experienced at your leisure. One of the game's earliest "ah-hah!" moments comes when you just start snowboarding and don't stop, leaving behind the structured races for the pure joy of racing down the mountain. You can start at the top, drop in at a designated point, or take on a race and just keep going once you're finished. The seamlessness of the experience is quite impressive.
When you get tired of joyriding, you can take on any number of events, most of which center around scoring as many points as possible with tricks or beating a certain time. The races are accessed either through a somewhat cumbersome mountain map, with events being represented by tiny icons, or by spotting them with your binoculars from the mountain itself. It isn't too bad once you get used to it, but it would be nice if the menus were a little better organized. The ability to filter by event, for example, would have been very welcome.
Outside of the races there are Mountain Stories: hilariously overwrought narrative pieces that jarringly shift Steep's tone from Extreme Sports Brotacular to vision quest. Following a cutscene introducing the mountain in the most dramatic terms possible, you follow a ghost as they slowly descend in what is essentially a tour of the mountain. When it's done, it's back to slamming Red Bulls and recording videos for GoPro (two of Steep's most prominent sponsors).
Completing these events earn you points toward leveling up, which in turn opens up more mountains and races to complete. Steep is built around a certain drive toward perfectionism, encouraging you to complete all of the courses and get gold medals whenever possible. It can be addictive, especially when you're trying to nail a stunt run and pile up as many points as possible, and you're rarely at a loss for what to do. It's aided by the ability to almost instantly restart a race when you wipe out, which cuts down dramatically on the frustration of having to continuously redo each race.
But for as much as it gets right, Steep's core gameplay isn't quite good enough, which is ultimately what keeps it from being the heir to SSX's legacy.
It feels great the first time you jump on a snowboard in Steep. The sense of speed and momentum works, and tricks feel natural and exhilirating to pull off. When you really get going in Steep, it's a treat.
But while the actual snowboarding mostly works, it runs into a couple problems. First, Steep's races are often difficult to navigate, becoming a traversal puzzle of sorts as you try and figure out how to get down the mountain while avoiding sharp rocks and walls. It's fine at first, but the courses get progressively gnarlier as you go, eventually becoming an exercise in frustration. Second, the collision detection doesn't quite work.
I'll say that I don't envy Ubisoft on this front, because they have to balance in such a way that it feels realistic without being frustrating. Still, there was more than one occasion where I thought to myself, "There's no way I should have stayed on my feet there." Conversely, there were times where I went down for seemingly no reason at all. There isn't a good sense of what you can and can't do in Steep, which makes some of the more difficult courses feel disjointed and awkward.
Ubisoft may have also erred in introducing the paraglider and the squirrelsuit. I get it: They want to capture the full range of extreme winter sports. But the squirrelsuit is frustrating in the extreme, often offering no room whatsoever for error, while the paraglider is mostly just boring. I avoided them like the plague until they were the only events left, and even then I usually found something else to do.
With the squirrelsuit, you'll often find yourself cursing as you navigate a series of tight turns only to miss one of the hard-to-see checkpoints or accidentally clip a rock and go flying into the abyss. Unlike the snowboarding, where you can fall down a couple times and still finish the race, any mistake with the squirrelsuit is an instant KO, requiring the utmost concentration. The paraglider, meanwhile, is usually an awkward and unsatisfying ride through a handful of checkpoints-a chance to gawk at the scenery and not much more. Both feel like afterthoughts in comparison to the skiing and snowboarding, which comprise the meat of the gameplay.
Ultimately, flight is one of those ideas that seems great on paper, but winds up compromising the rest of the game. I would have preferred that Ubisoft had used their time to polish up the courses and the collision mechanics for the far superior snowboarding and skiing, which is really why everyone wants to play Steep in the first place. It's a case study of trying to do too much within the framework of the design.
What's frustrating is that there are a lot of good ideas in Steep. The ability to seamlessly team up with other players for a ride down the mountain is neat, as is the ability to set custom challenges, though it's frustrating to not be able to play offline. The idea that you're filming your runs for social media is awesome, but only half-realized. Yes, you can save and watch your races from pretty much any angle when you're done, but I'm surprised that Steep doesn't automatically create supercuts for you to be able to upload to Youtube. Even more surprising is the absence of any kind of social media mechanic, which seems like a natural for a game like this. What does it say when even Pokemon Sun and Moon is more ambitious on that front than you are?
It makes me really want Ubisoft to make a sequel, because there's a ton of unrealized potential here, and the game itself is often very fun. But given how completely it's been ignored since launch, something tells me that Steep won't do the numbers it needs to warrant a sequel. What a shame. I guess we'll have to wait a little longer for the long-awaited heir to the SSX legacy.
The mountain interface is a mess, as is the replay interface. The minimalist UI makes Steep look cheaper than it should. It makes new events annoying to find, and it can be hard to tell what is the latest mountain. The poor UI ultimately really hurts the overall experience.
Steep lets you switch between rock, EDM, and assorted other licensed tracks. You also get the odd bit of classical, usually when you're doing a Mountain Story.
Steep can be gorgeous, but the occasionally awkward ragdoll physics lead to many moments of unintentional comedy. It feels unpolished, which was really driven home when a viewer on a recent stream said it looked like a beta. I agree.
Steep brings a lot of really good ideas and reasonably strong snowboarding action to the table, but it's held back by a lot of little problems with the physics, the UI, and the course design. The final result is ambitious and often entertaining, but also unpolished and frustrating. Hopefully Ubisoft gives the series another chance, because I'd really like to see some of Steep's better ideas fully realized in a sequel. Alas, the initial outing doesn't quite meet expectations.