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Steep Review – Rough Around the Edges
Steep comes to the gaming market at a time when there is a dearth of games focused on snowboarding and other winter extreme sports. There was a time when players were inundated with snowboarding games and were spoilt for choice with brands like SSX, 1080°, Amped, Shawn White and Cool Boarders franchises that have been absent in recent years.
Ubisoft looks to fill that void with Steep, a winter extreme sports game, set in Alps, with an open world filled with various challenges, activities and whole mountain peaks for players to freely explore.
Unlike the famous snowboarding games like the SSX and 1080° series, Steep veers away from arcade style gameplay and goes for a more grounded approach to winter sport activities.
Steep features 4 winter sport types, which are essentially 2 categories of activities, each with 2 variants. One contains aerial gliding with the help of either a paraglider or a wingsuit; next involves on-ground maneuvering with skis or a snowboard.
Player is given the freedom to utilize any of these four tools, as well as traveling on foot, to explore every inch of the world map. Each of these traversal options can easily be selected through a ‘sports selection wheel’ without the need to pause the game and allows player to switch to any sport quite seamlessly whenever the character is not in motion.
This however is finicky in practice, as the character does not always reliably stop to enable dependably smooth transition from sport to sport; this finicky gameplay also extends to low character stability that does not react well with the nonuniformity of having a realistic terrain in the game world, and the unintuitive mechanism of accomplishing tricks that penalizes the player for buffering and planning inputs before the jump.
Despite the finicky gameplay, maneuvering the terrain on skis, snowboard and wingsuit can be fast and exhilarating, however by comparison, the option of travelling via paraglider and exploring the mountains on foot goes against the spirit of extreme sports and comes off as plodding and slow.
The developers could have made some adjustments to improve these traversal options by adding ability to use sleds on ground and speed gliders in the air to speed things up, but Ubisoft decided to go into another direction and withhold those choices for extra cash.
Aside from the gameplay variety afforded from freedom to employ the 4 different sporting tools however they want, players also earn experience points based on a range of playstyle categories including taking risks, showing off tricks, navigating the slopes, competing in races, crashing about or just plain exploring the mountainside.
Steep also features more than 100 different challenges, ranging from scoring tricks and stunts to navigation in extreme riding, precision flights and proximity flying; each challenge colour-coded to signify which playstyle it corresponds to and the XP it awards.
The XP earned through those activities goes towards ranking up the player reputation level, which unlocks new summits to explore and new events to participate in.
Despite all that variation in gameplay styles the game does a very poor job of differentiating different missions and challenges, resulting in a situation where with the passage of time most challenges start to look like same template with different layout.
Most of the ramp in difficulty of the challenges comes from level designs that feature placement of checkpoints and obstacles with so little margin for error, that they end up relying less on mastery of movement and reflexes, and more on rote learning a course through trial and error.
Steep tries to toe the line between accessible and simulation gameplay, which lands it in an odd area where the actions of the player character are not realistic, but the controls are a bit stiffer and more finicky than snowboarding games of the past, resulting in a learning curve that definitely requires some time to get used to.
What might frustrate some is that while the player skill increases with time and practice, there is absolutely no change in the skills, handling and abilities of the character within the game. With no sense of character progression, the player character remains quite fragile with low stability and inability to withstand contact with a lot of small obstacles littered across the world map.
Despite routinely featuring some words of encouragement from a faceless voice and occasional mountain story events that feature vague commentary, there is also no sense of overall narrative binding all of the challenges and events together to give meaning to what the player character is working for.
This absence in context and cohesion, combined with the game’s ‘play your way’ philosophy amalgamates into this overall lack of focus that really shows in long term play.
While the exploration aspect of the game is spot on, there is not much depth to any of the other gameplay styles. With its limited set of tricks, grounded but mundane crash animations and finicky character handling, the game does not leave much room for fun experimentation and long term finesse execution, whereas similarly grounded snowboarding games like Mark McMorris Infinite Air and Snow, offer a more focused gameplay of that allow player more gameplay depth and world editing functionality.
Even with all of the available sport-types and the playstayle options, this game’s world environment is the real star of the show. Steep’s map size is huge and the scale eclipses maps and stages of anything from other winter sports games from past or present.
The game does a great job in capturing the tranquil beauty of snowcapped mountain ranges but the game’s visual design fails to bring variety; after a while everything starts to look the same and the lack of visual diversity makes the beautiful scenery come off as sterile and uninspired.
The game’s open world is composed of half a dozen mountain peaks, seamlessly connected with one another, each with its own terrain type and its set of challenges and events. However, the difference in terrain is mostly restricted to number of trees, canyons, rock faces and the angles of slopes, instead of changes that pop out and immediately register visually.
While the visual uniformity serves to keep the illusion of realism in a map that tries to seamlessly jumble together different mountains, however what this lack of overt visual and challenge variety creates is long expanses of sameness that makes the game seem too big for its own good.
To its credit, even with such a humongous map, the game never shows a loading screen; whether the player restarts a race, travels miles and miles to a different region or even warps to an event place, the game never skips a beet and instantly travels to the designated spot. Conversely, even though the game features a sleek, minimalistic user interface design, it still experiences delay and slowdown in loading equipment, accessories and clothing customization menus.
However, it is not the game’s map size that makes its world awe inspiring but its overall presentation in how it looks and sounds.
The sound design of Steep does a good job of complimenting the flow of player activity and performance. It dynamically moves from serene tunes while the player explores, to utilizing its electro, hip-hop and rock playlist to raise the beat when the player is landing tricks and speeding down the slopes, and drowning it out during missteps and abrupt slowdowns.
Accompanied by the ambient sounds of wind blowing and the snow crunching beneath player, the visuals of the game do their share of work in completing the overall presentation package.
Not only does Steep feature snow that dynamically deforms according to player movement and leaves a trail behind every trek, but the game has amazing lighting that reflects off the snow to create a glow that changes with the time of day and really sets the mood of living in a vista of snowy wilderness.
The game allows the player to experience this beauty through different views; ranging from far away and closer camera angles, to third and first person point of views, as well as GoPro camera angles during replays. However due to the aforementioned evenness in the game’s level design, Steep is one of those few games that look great when the camera is up close but do not stand out when their world is viewed from afar.
The game’s online multiplayer integration allows other players to dynamically appear in game world and the ability for the player to group together and challenge online opponents to beat a trick or a score through a visual leaderboard system; which creates a custom trail that can be shared with online friends.
Steep also features a replay suite that records all of the player’s best attempts at every challenge and event as well as their recent trails. This allows player to view the replays of their accomplishments through different camera angles, edit the speed and positioning of the replay and share it with the online community.
However, this multiplayer component does not affect player’s interaction with the available content much more than seeing others populate the world map around you, and is not core aspect of the gameplay; therefore, it is perplexing why Steep insists that the game be constantly connected with the internet to function.
This is one of the two major game design/publishing decisions made by Ubisoft that negatively affect the value of this game as a consumer product for the general player.
The game requires the gaming system to be persistently connected to the internet and the game’s servers, but its multiplayer component is not sufficient enough to warrant such an arrangement. So much so that the game boots you out of whatever event you were doing, even if it is doing a totally solitary exploration of game map, and brings you back to the game’s start screen. This means that you cannot play Steep if Ubisoft servers are down, PSN or XBLA is under maintenance or when your internet connection is acting up.
The whole thing just needlessly jeopardizes player experience and adds many factors prohibitive for player to enjoy the end product. Unfortunately, this is not the only developer/publisher decision that works against value of the product, as Steep also suffers from the case of incorporating paywalls to hide game content.
While it is true that the game contains micro-transactions, its implementation is in fact not that egregious. Steep’s micro-transactions actually allow players to buy new designs for clothing and accessories with real money, if they do not have enough in-game currency for it. This is handled tastefully as the game not only provides ample opportunity to earn the in-game currency but the purchasable items themselves do not impact the gameplay in any significant way.
However, what is extremely off-putting is how Ubisoft has decided to withhold not just additional costumes and challenges but entire game modes/sport disciplines behind the paywall of DLC and its horrendous Season Pass.
Steep hides 4 more winter sports activities behind their DLC wall; these include Winter Sledding, Base Jumping, Speed Gliding and the use of Rocket Wings. None of these activities are available in the base game. For a game about celebrating mountain based winter sports, it is quite shameful for them to limit players’ options to reserve content for more cash.
The game is definitely not for anyone looking for a fast and fun arcady gameplay experience similar to SSX or 1080° series, as there is a lot of mundane and slogging treks that come as a part of playing Steep. Therefore, casual fans of snowboarding games would do well to look elsewhere.
Similarly, those solely interested in an in-depth snowboarding simulation experience with thorough course and obstacle customization, might find Steep lacking in focus and might prefer to go for Mark McMorris Infinite Air.
Steep is more geared towards overall snowboarding, skiing and mounting gliding enthusiasts. Those that appreciate the time, technique and difficulty of these winter sports, but also relish the longwinded solitary treks in the unadorned, snow-covered mountain ranges.
This game is the snowboarding equivalent of Skate games in the skateboarding genre; Steep is to SSX as Skate games are to the Tony Hawk Pro Skater game franchise. It’s a more grounded, sim-like, gameplay take on a familiar snowboarding game experience.
Steep is rough around the edges and includes some disappointing design decisions, but it has the potential to offer an enjoyable experience of exploring a realistically portrayed open world mountain range, if you are willing to stick with its controls and look past its lack of variety.