Arts & CultureVideo Games

Review: ‘Steep’ brings ambition and an open world to mountain sports gaming

Snowboarding has always had a place in the digital world. Beginning as early as 1990 with Heavy Shreddin’ and popularized with the SSX series in the 2000s, the genre entertained audiences mountain after mountain. For the most part, none of these games (even the thoroughly average Shawn White Snowboarding) lost the thrill of careening down a run at breakneck speeds. Even after two decades, maneuvering a skier or snowboarder with a controller and exploring a snowy wilderness from the comfort of the indoors is still fun.

Perhaps because of the genre’s general lack of newness, Ubisoft, a publisher best known for the Assassin’s Creed franchise, made Steep a vehicle for innovation. Developer Ubisoft Annecy named the game a “passion project” for the studio, designed to be accessible to fans of both skiing and snowboarding while still carrying enough depth and features to appeal to hardcore gamers. The passion shows. Steep is a vast open-world game that takes place on a gigantic mountain range, and the level of detail worked into every square foot of the landscape is impressive from the get-go. 

The game revolves around four major extreme sports (skiing, snowboarding, wingsuit flying and paragliding), all of which the player can freely switch between at any time. After a lengthy opening cinematic that features the unnamed protagonist hiking up a mountain and a short tutorial sequence, players are free to tackle challenges around the map. Freestyle courses and complex flight paths are available in any order the player chooses. Venturing off the beaten path allows players to discover new mountaintops and starting points using a pair of binoculars. As players complete runs and discovers new paths, they earn experience and level up. Each level grants the player access to more difficult and hard-to-find areas.

All of this should be familiar to anyone who’s played a snowboarding game. But Steep stands apart thanks to the sheer size of the world and a series of innovative online features. As mentioned before, players are free to explore the mountain at their will. The degree of exploration the game offers simultaneously allows for fast-paced runs and slower treks through a wintery wonderland.

Discovering new environments, like forests with snow-topped trees and empty villages, is a meditative experience and unique in a genre normally built upon thrills. Disruptions only appear when navigating the most treacherous passes, where it becomes easy to get stuck on objects in the environment.

Ubisoft took great care factoring online play into the game. Players can carve out new runs and save their paths down an unexplored mountain for other players to follow. Steep also includes a “collide” feature, allowing skiers and snowboarders to cross paths with one another at random.

Finally, the game features a trick system. While it’s fun to use, it lacks any sort of depth. The maneuvers are exciting to pull off, but mastering a difficult flip or grab takes less than five minutes.

Unfortunately, the shallowness of the trick system reflects back onto the rest of the game. The flaws are traceable back to the game’s core design. The scale on display is impressive, and the task Ubisoft Annecy laid out for itself is certainly ambitious. But Steep falls into a trap that seems unavoidable for many open-world games. The list of possible activities on a given mountain is inherently limited. 

Make no mistake: Steep was created for extreme sports lovers, and it caters to that audience exceedingly well. But because it reveals its complete bag of tricks so early, there are virtually no surprises in store after about an hour of play. Nevertheless, it accomplishes its goals with enough pizazz to make it a must-have for fans of the genre.

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Dana Alston

Dana Alston

Dana Alston is an Associate Arts & Culture Editor from San Jose, CA. He writes about film, music, and television. Paul Thomas Anderson is his one true god.

You can follow his meme-endorsed social media ramblings @AlstonDalston on Twitter or Letterboxd, or shoot him some eloquent hate mail at [email protected]