Feeling a bit stuck in your gaming rut lately, tiring of predictable routines? Ubisoft is selling virtual trips to the Alps as a means to find your freedom.
In the late 1990s snowboarding games became a perennial, and to be honest a pain in the butt. From Cool Boarders in 1996 through EA's exhilarating SSX series and Amped in 2001, everything that could be done was done to death. Frankly we got bored of being rad, dude.
Now, pretend that none of this happened, because it's honestly going to help. Imagine that all you've known about skiing and snowboarding and paragliding is either your own amazing personal experiences of these sports, or watching other crazy people hurling themselves off or down mountains while you clutch a hot drink in the peak-top café. Next, receive the news that Ubisoft is attempting to capture both the spirit and the feel of extreme winter sports in this new game called Steep, and maybe now you are kind of interested. Or, you should be.
After spending a few hours pushing our personal limits on the mountainside, participating in organised events or simply packing our bag and exploring what's possible (or impossible for kicks and giggles) we think Steep has a solid chance of living up to its promise of an escape. It seems that the game's potential is as big as the ambition of the people taking part, while conversely being only limited by the audience's likely tendency to start feeling 'homesick' - that is, aching to hop back into Overwatch, Battlefield, Destiny, WoW... name your poison.
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So, the first positive thing we'd like to share about Steep is that the control set-up and feel is good. Whether you're snowboarding, skiing, paragliding or wing-suited free-falling, the sense of movement is convincing, working with the physics to basically steer or beyond that perform death defying feats. Even walking is kind of fun for a while, trudging through snow to admire the views, occasionally stopping to scan for drop-zones using binoculars.
Also, it's worth emphasising how easy it is to switch between any of the disciplines while exploring, via a menu wheel that allows you to try anything from any spot. You don't need to be limited by specific activities on the map, you can just head off and find your own thing to do, and it still contributes to the Experience Points earned that build your online profile.
There are six ways to play Steep: Freestyler, with set challenges to perform "killer tricks and own the ski parks"; Bone Collector, which monitors the amount of G-force gained in events while entertaining the crowds; Pro Rider is the main competition element, for players that love to earn the most points for coming first in a race or nailing the biggest tricks; Extreme Rider challenges players to take risks riding through dense forests etc.; while Freerider is a more relaxed way to find the perfect line and be creative with the controls at your fingers. Finally, Explorer, as mentioned earlier, leaves you to your own imagination and endurance.
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Above all, we found that Steep does a solid job of putting you on the mountain and feeling daunted about the experience before overcoming your fears and having a good go. Snowboarding and skiing convey the momentum required to start launching into the air so that you may perform tricks, simply by jumping and then pushing performance modifiers to turn, spin and grab. Paragliding is the art of riding the thermals, tempting riders to float perilously close to the rocks in order to navigate over and around the mountain peaks and can be exhilarating despite being comparatively gentle alongside wing-suited shenanigans. The latter proved to be our favourite sport by far, requiring leaps of faith and then reflex riding close to the ground to earn points for proximity. There's the added bonus of your guy looking like a complete fool, falling flat on his face before taking off if the timing is wrong.
Every sport and its associated event in Steep is impressive, owing to graphical realisation of the locations providing that immersive experience alongside the versatility of the controls. Anything you choose to go out and do on the mountain builds EXP, which in turn starts to unlock new gear for your rider, so is dangerously compelling for those of us that have been glued to any open-world/shared-world/MMO of late. By introducing a strong social element to Steep, Ubisoft makes the game relevant to a 2016 audience that enjoys regularly dipping in to an online space that constantly unlocks rewards based purely on participation, rather than loading up everything too heavily on pro-skills. It's about sharing, at the end of the day.
If you're somebody that likes to push the limits and burn through content asap, Steep allows you to do that. However, if you take a more casual approach, you can still enjoy areas that friends have unlocked if invited to their session; Steep allows up to four players per server.
It is too early to call whether Steep can hold our attention for days, weeks or even months on end, which will be the marker for success. To voice just one concern, the scoring mechanics are kinda hard to figure out owing to so many variables - it's not like going for that big 1080 or landing the sweetest set-piece combo; it's not exact in the same way. Consequently, your aim to become king of the mountain feels like luck combined with judgement. But we shall all have much better visibility when the Beta launches on November 10 (Early Access) with open beta scheduled to start on November 18, anyone can register here and keep your fingers crossed: beta sign up page.
The full version of Steep is released for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC on 2 December.