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Steep Review - Rushing to the Top of the Mountain

Matt Mirkovich | 13 Dec 2016 16:00
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Developed and published by Ubisoft. Released on December 2, 2016. Available on PC, PS4 (Reviewed), and Xbox One. Review code provided by publisher.

Steep is one of bigger surprises from Ubisoft this year. An open-world extreme winter sports game? Sign me up! At least that was my train of thought after the Ubisoft E3 press event. After my brief hands on at their booth though, I was feeling a lot less enthusiastic, since at the time, Steep looked rough. There were visual blemishes, a confusing trick system, and a g-force meter that seemed intent on punishing me for going too fast. It looked like Steep was going to need some more development time to really shine, but here we are, less than six months later, with the final product delivered. It's as haphazard a mess as it was when I first saw it, though after spending more time with Steep than what a cursory E3 demo granted, I've come to appreciate it a little, despite its flaws, of which there are myriad.

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Where to start? In motion, there are times where this game is an absolute beauty. But then issues start cropping up. The filter over the sun occasionally breaks and it becomes a checkered mess, and sometimes the trees and textures in the distance have abrupt pop-ins. One thing that really bugged me was the choice to eliminate load times, which means a lot of the textures are streamed, this resulted in me seeing a textureless world when I spawned in after warping to a new event. Recreating the Swiss Alps is certainly a technical marvel, and Ubisoft should definitely be praised for their visual accomplishments, but the blemishes are difficult to ignore, especially when some of them are so blatantly obvious.

I can easily look past a lot of visual issues if the gameplay is on point, and Steep manages to be great and infuriating at the same time. The crux of the experience is to discover and explore the entirety of the Swiss Alps, giving this game a very, 'it's not about the destination, but the journey,' kind of vibe. Players are encouraged to share everything about their journey, whether it be through your replays, or through the challenges that can be created for other players to discover. Player interactivity is a big focus in Steep and the developers provided a pretty good set of tools to help you leave a legacy on these mountains. My competitive streak had a field day with all the leaderboards that were instantly at my fingertips.

There are four different extreme winter sports options; skiing, snowboarding, paragliding, and base jumping via wingsuit. Paragliding seems to be the odd-one out, but it is one of the most chill experiences out there. When I've got nothing going on, and I just want to explore, it's a great way to find some of the hidden drop points, and then ponder why we haven't seen a new Pilotwings game in almost two decades. The missions for paragliding revolve around races, which may be through checkpoints, or free-flying. Seeing how other players handled some of those races (via their in-game ghost data) forced me to get a lot more creative in how I approached these events. Not all of the events are a linear path up or down, so I had to strike a balance between using the mountain air to lift me, while at the same time spinning and falling to get an optimal line that would maintain a high speed and get me close to the mountain for whenever I needed a pick-up. This amount of depth isn't what I expected from the paragliding, and the course design is great, which really sells its inclusion in the mix of events.

As the difficulty ramped up, I became utterly frustrated by this game and some of the asinine course design.

The wingsuit wound up being my favorite of the bunch. The missions are mostly races that require precision to shoot a lot of narrow gaps, while maintaining a high rate of speed to continue to glide. Some races take place on an exposed mountain face, while others placed me in a forest, weaving through a dense cluster of trees. The former felt liberating, and the latter, frustrating, until I figured out the best line is not always straight through a bunch of trees. Shocking, I know. In addition to races, score challenges demand more high risk maneuvers, to fly as close to nearby objects and the ground as possible to score points, and there's a one-off mission that required I suffer as much damage as I could inflict on my character. I didn't think plummeting into a mountain would be that amusing, but I took the challenge to see how many g-forces I could eat in one spectacular crash with aplomb. That might set a bad precedent, but at least Ubisoft was smart to say not to attempt anything in this game in real life. It wasn't all roses in the wingsuit, though. I had difficulty in getting a proper sense of speed, even as I reached the later missions. Speed is managed by pushing up on the analog stick to collapse the suit to increase speed, or pushed down to slow down and fully expose the suit to glide. This means that over flat stretches I had to manage my speed while fighting gravity, I had to pull back and dive repeatedly in order to make fast times while avoiding the ground, and while I thought I was getting the hang of it, I was beating my previous records by only a few hundredths of a second. I felt like I was doing something wrong, whether it be in my choice of line, or how I was handling the wingsuit.

Skiing and snowboarding was where the game really lost me. That's a massive bummer, because after the SSX reboot, I was looking for a new snowboarding game to pass the time. The biggest issue here is control, or the lack thereof. When you're skiing or snowboarding, you expect a certain amount of control over your movements, your lines, your jumps, and your tricks, but I felt like I had very little say in all of that. Now before you decry that I 'get gud,' hear me out. I get that this isn't SSX so I shouldn't expect an arcade-y experience, but that doesn't mean I should be fighting with the game just to pull off good jumps. All too often I'd prime my jump, and release at what looked like an early enough point, only to listlessly pop into the air, with any trick I was hoping to pull off negated by the 'not enough height' message. Thanks! That really did a great job in telling me what went wrong there! Other times, I'd launch into the air in a hilariously unrealistic manner, completely unprepared for what was going to happen, so my rotations came out late and slow, but at least I nailed the grab. Unfortunately this is all too common an occurrence, leaving me to question what I was fundamentally not getting. There are video tutorials meant to instruct you on how perform tricks and jumps, but the videos describe things from a 'best-case scenario,' where you've got a nice long ramp to get a proper set-up time. Out on the mountain, the object layout rarely gives you more than a few seconds to be ready for a jump.

Tricks are all rotations and grabs. Grabs are assigned to the trigger buttons, making them easy to pull off, but the jump button is also on the right trigger button, making for awkward execution. To rotate, simply push the left stick in the intended direction, but it has to be timed right, and the window for it seems incredibly unforgiving. Too early, and nothing happens. Too late, and it's a slow turn. Tricks are also confusing in that it felt like there was no consistency in scoring. Tricks that seemed relatively complex would receive a low score, with no feedback explaining why, meanwhile I could get a decent amount of air on a jump, and it would score higher than the 1260 Rodeo Tailgrab I had just pulled off one jump prior. The trick scores are also augmented by a multiplier that builds by successfully stringing tricks together, which is vital for earning leaderboard worthy scores.
One of the other kinks in the game is the g-force meter, which encourages you to perform clean landings and find smooth lines. If you experience too much g-force then you're likely to wipe out on even the safest of jumps. I get that there is some modicum of real-world experience Ubisoft was going for here, but the fact that the g-force meter gets set off by almost every action, is utterly annoying. Nothing is more frustrating than having a line ruined because my avatar didn't stick the landing even though I let off the rotation long before attempting to land, but the ground just wasn't parallel enough to my board or skis, so it's a tumbling I will go.

Early on, when the runs are more forgiving, I was too. But then, as the difficulty ramped up, I became utterly frustrated by this game and some of the asinine course design. Case in point, I give you a screenshot from a part of the Alps called 'Peak of the Damned,' the course is called 'Boardsleigh.' This event puts players on a derelict bobsled course that's elevated high above the mountain. It's a timed event, meaning you have to hit checkpoints and you need to hit them fast. Well, I was hitting them pretty fast; so fast in fact, that I was caught completely unaware by this blind jump. I hit it too late, causing me to fall off the course, which meant it was back to the starting point for me.

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Here's a shot of the replay I took, so you can see what I was fighting against, or supposed to be aiming for. Side note, those balloons have collision, and bumping into them can totally throw you off course. WHY?!

This was when I was about level 18, which is pretty well along in the game. Some courses got easier, but a lot of them got harder. The Matterhorn is a monster of a course, and I'll warn you: use the paraglider to navigate the checkpoints. I would have had a much easier time had I realized that before I took a few dozen tumbles off the mountain. I'm glad there was no timer on that course, as that would have kept me from earning a medal.

So the mountain has some difficult courses. I guess it goes along with the personality that the peaks were given, as each was more menacing than the last. Ubisoft created a bunch of these 'Mountain Stories.' These are events that come off like some new-age belief that the mountain could talk to people, and explain how it came to be, and what it can offer players. I followed the mountain's proxies as they told me the story of the individual peaks, while I struggled to keep up. I don't understand their inclusion though. It was as if Ubisoft was trying to shoehorn reverence and respect for these mountains into the game. It certainly didn't convey a sense of story, instead it felt like part of a checklist that Ubisoft had to complete before Steep could be shipped. The same could be said of the soundtrack, grab a song from almost every genre under the sun, add Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries' for good measure, and we're good to go. I must say though the sound effects in the game, from the crunch of snow, to the blustery winds sound great, play this game with headphones or a good sound system for excellent immersion. For an extra wild ride, give the game's 'GoPro' camera mode a go while wearing a PSVR headset, it's actually kind of fun, though not a true VR experience, since you don't control where you can look in that mode via head tracking.

Steep is a game where I'm in love with the concept, and contemptuous about the execution. I really wanted to like this game, but even though I was hoping for more SSX, I got something closer to Amped (which I greatly disliked as well). To me, the game felt like it was at its best when I didn't have anything to accomplish. When there were no high scores to beat, or times to crush, I could just cruise from summit to sea, and I felt like I was truly enjoying Steep. Ubisoft should be lauded for the attempt at making an open world game of this scope, as the mountain range is absolutely impressive, just don't count on having the best tools to navigate it.

Bottom Line: Steep is a great accomplishment, but it feels like it was rushed. I expected this game to be a 2017 title, and having it now, faults and all, makes me wish they'd have held off on releasing this game until it received a bit more polish and gameplay refinements. In its current state, it's a frustrating game to play with occasional flashes of brilliance.

Recommendation: Steep is for those out there who miss the Amped series, or need a high octane dose of wingsuit exposure without the danger of death. Snowboard and ski fans, approach with caution.

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