Last week Ubisoft's Steep opened the slopes of its majestic mountains to extreme winter sports fans around the world. We've spent a bit of time with the game, and we have much to discuss.
While I've currently reached level 17 (of 25) to Stephen Totilo's 7 or 8, both of us played Steep in both beta and release, enough to get a feel for what we loved, what we didn't love and a couple of things that make us scratch our heads.
Mike Fahey: If it feels like it's been ages since we've gotten a big budget winter sports sim, that's only because it has been. Ubisoft, maker of fine open world action adventure games, fills that gaping void with Steep, an open world skiing, snowboarding, paragliding and wingsuit sim.
Stephen Totilo and I have spent a bit of time on the virtual slopes, and now we're sitting in front of a virtual fireplace, discussing the experience.
Stephen Totilo: What is this rug made out of, Mike?
Fahey: The hopes of SSX fans.
Stephen: Ooof. Does this mean you're not a Steep fan?
Fahey: Oh no, I've been enjoying the game. I've just had a lot of people asking me how it holds up to more outrageous snowboarding games of the past like SSX and the Coolboarders series. It's not that kind of party.
Stephen: Nope. Not really. And when it tries to be goofy, I think it mostly fails. There's a mission involving having to snowboard through evil snowmen. And there's something about a singing tree.
Oh, and when they try to be serious, I guess that's not so great either. There was a "mountain story" where I had to follow a computer-controlled snowboarder while the mountain told me a bunch of new age stuff. Like, someone actually voice-acts the mountain. It was nonsense.
But the actual snowboarding and skiing feels quite nice!
One of those rare silly attempts.
Stephen: Hmm. Questionable.
Fahey: I've progressed a bit farther than you have, so I've unlocked the special snow Rabbids stage. Very questionable.
Stephen: (That said, if there WAS an in-game ski lodge and if it did have rugs and those rugs were made from pelts you collected in Far Cry Primal, that would be cool.)
Fahey: The "mountain story" thing is very odd. Each mountain has a distinct voice, and I don't mean feel or character. It has a voice, and it talks to you. I've played through a couple where you're trekking through the snow while voices talk about how they thought they were dead and never got to say goodbye to their family. Cheery!
Stephen: Are we in agreement, though, that the skiing and snowboarding feels good? It's a pretty difficult game, but it seems like a fair one.
Fahey: The skiing and snowboarding are pretty exceptional. The sense of speed and relative friction is exquisite. They certainly feel good enough to keep me wandering around the various mountains for hours on end with no real goal in mind.
I was playing last night, and I kept going back to this one point on top of a mountain. I think it was this one here:
Stephen: Very pretty!
Fahey: Obnoxious event signs aside, after my fourth or fifth run down the mountain I realised the moment I liked the best was standing at the start, taking in all the possibilities.
Stephen: Yeah, so I tend to like open-world games. Ubisoft almost exclusively makes open-world games. And I was intrigued by how they'd do open-world extreme winter sports. There's good and bad in the execution.
On the good side: the world is vast and full of things to do; it all loads really fast so you can zoom out and then get to a new spot on the mountains in the snap of your fingers; and carving through the snow feels great.
Stephen: On the bad side: the wingsuit should be fun but I find it too unforgiving, and the paragliding is boring; they have also loaded the game up with licensed gear and jokey costumes but the normal Ubisoft open-world feedback loop of doing missions and unlocking stuff feels broken when (correct me if I'm wrong) every item you unlock is cosmetic.
On the I'm-not-sure-about-it-yet side: They offer a very forgiving restart system that draws a dotted line down the path you take and then lets you restart on any of those dots, but I would prefer the Forza series' rewind feature.
I'm guessing they don't have that here because they have made the game co-op in a way I don't yet understand or appreciate and can't have you travelling back in time while another player might be standing next to you.
Fahey: In terms of difficulty, it all depends on the type of event. I tend to do really well in freestyle snowboarding and skiing, where the players has to score trick points to win. I have a much harder time with timed races, as the various mountain surfaces are far too appealing to limit myself to a single line.
The wingsuit is very unforgiving, and most times I can barely make it to the finish line in time to pull my chute, let alone complete whatever objective I'm given. I have actively fallen asleep while paragliding.
The whole vast open world thing is wonderful, though I find myself drawn to clean spots that aren't littered with scored events, rather than trying to go for bronze, gold or silver medals. That's probably why my stats are like they are.
Fahey: I do a lot of exploring.
Totilo: Oh yeah! I was going for green, too. But... Mike, am I playing the game wrong in that I often find that I have to go uphill? And then am faced with the fact that walking uphill in Steep is about as fun as watching a loading screen?
I want a grappling hook or something. Maybe a hookshot? Or a jetpack perhaps?
Fahey: I would kill every random person wandering the map with me for a grappling hook. It seems like going uphill is a thing in Steep, which makes sense as steep works both ways. Some of the exploration-centric "mountain stories" made it seem like there was no other way to get things done than spend some time going uphill. Later I discovered that a better way to gain height is catching air currents with the parasail, but you have to stay awake for that to work.
I have no idea how co-op works either. And that was a big focus of the game when it was initially presented. Join together with your friends on a snowy sports adventure! I get the press (whichever button) to ride together prompt when another player is nearby, but I see no clear benefit to doing so.
Hold on a second, getting thirsty.
Fahey: Ahhh, that's better.
Stephen: Ha ha. There's some subtle branding in this game!
Mike, if we were smarter, we'd have done some co-op already. Maybe even done this VG-chat while playing co-op. Interesting idea there that maybe the way to go up is to paraglide up hot-air drifts, but they sure don't teach you that. So, yeah, some of the exploration-based mountain stories sure seem like they were designed to force you to sloooooowly climb remote parts of the mountains. That doesn't make sense.
Now, about the wingsuit ... I think you need to push the stick up a lot, yeah? That's the trick? My guy is always crashing. And speaking of my guy ... do you have any idea why there are so many pre-set characters? Are we playing as famous winter sports athletes who I've never heard of? (edited)
Fahey: Let's see, I am playing as Kelly Walsh. Google says... I do not think that is a real person. Let's try another. Jean-Luc Cassel. That's got to be a real guy. No. Doesn't seem to be . . . wait, there is a Backgammon champion named Jean-Luc Cassel. Probably not him.
Stephen: They're just some pre-set nobodies? Weird.
Fahey: I really do not know why we have these premade characters. Why not allow for character creation, if we're going generic and no one has stats that make choosing one over another worthwhile.
At the end of the day they're all wearing the same bunny suit.
Stephen: What if the pre-sets were all Ubi characters? You could be Ezio and I could be Aiden Pearce!
Fahey: Or the Far Cry caveman! As fun as that would be, I suppose that would make this less Steep and more Ubisoft All-Stars Snow Sports Festival.
To tell the truth, I do get kind of a Far Cry vibe from this, the latter bits, when you're wandering about freeing forts or whatever.
Stephen: Man, I wish!
There is that binoculars thing where you can expose/defog parts of the mountains to discover new challenges.
Fahey: Right, and at level 15 you unlock the shotgun (no you do not).
Stephen: I notice, by the way, that even though you're about 10 levels above me, you have no equipment attached. No flashlight. No avalanche shovel. Probably because, like many of the items in Steep, they don't seem to matter.
Fahey: Funny, I was actually just in the game equipping those, and no, they really don't seem to do much. There have been night rides where the flashlight seems to equip itself automatically, but equipping them manually doesn't give me access to new abilities. How strange.
It does feel a bit like the developers had other things in mind that didn't quite make it in to the final game.
Stephen: Right, and I'm wondering if we should really hold it against them. There's something refreshing about a game that, I guess like most sports games, gives you all your abilities at once, doesn't hide new features behind countless unlocks and just lets you go anywhere you want and play. I know they do lock off some stuff, like hot air-balloons, for example, but this is a much more free game than you usually get from Ubisoft.
I just think that the game needs a bit more life to it, that what you do in it should feel a little more dynamic and a little less prone to suddenly getting really boring. But, hey, what do I know? Maybe people like trudging uphill in the snow. Here's a person who paraglided for 37 minutes! Different strokes...
Fahey: Smart money says he napped through half of that.
Stephen: Different slopes for different folks, Mike!
Fahey: I don't hold hold it against them. I like to imagine they were dutifully adding things, stopped at some point to see what they'd created, realised they'd already given us enough and called it a day. Which character I am playing and whether her ice axe is functional is the furthest thing from my mind while I am playing Steep. It's a pretty outstanding (and safe) way to get lost in the snow for hours on end.
Steep is now available on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.