Preview: Steep is most extreme with four players, and has story missions
We go hands-on with Ubisoft’s exhilarating open world of extreme sports ahead of its two beta periods.
Powered by an intuitive control scheme, Steep is going to be a hard game to master, and it doesn’t shy away from its intrinsic challenge. There’s no easy mode or handholding, but there are plenty of second chances. You’re going to crash, and crash horrifically, a lot racing down the picturesque slopes that partially comprise the snowy mountains of the Alps, and Steep wouldn’t have it any other way.
I played earlier this year, for about 20 minutes at E3, and got the basic idea. Now with three hours under my belt, Steep has opened up to become the mass multiplayer extreme sports sandbox Ubisoft Annecy promised during its unveiling. Wingsuiting down a perilous gorge, as close to the ground as possible for maximum points, was fun solo; but it transcended to an addiction through the perfect blend of competitive leaderboards and playful chuckles at the inherent failures through multiplayer, where Steep realises its full potential. If I’ve learnt anything about virtual wingsuiting, it’s that it will go horribly wrong surprisingly fast a quarter of the time.
If you missed the surprise E3 announcement, Steep is an extreme sports game, more than merely a snowboarding specialist; although, I expect that’ll be the primary means of transit for most players. You’ll also ski, glide via wingsuit, paraglide and, more sedately, walk to explore the open world. Finding new areas unlocks base camps and events, which are instantly accessible via the real-time 3D map called Mountain View. Once new locations have been scouted, and unlocked by reaching the prerequisite level, all events are started through fast travelling. It’s easier to fall into free-roaming after an event is complete, as the world doesn’t stop just because the race has. Everything keeps going and you’re free to explore, or zoom out back into Mountain View at any time and teleport to a new location at the touch of a button.
The primary goal, regardless of which of the four sports is enabled, is simple: fall, or slide, with style. That’s the easy part; anyone can submit to gravity’s pull by pressing the left stick forward. Earning points is where it embodies the sheer difficulty adopted by adrenaline junkies. There are a number of ways to increase your score, and in-turn XP to level up and unlock new events. The most lucrative is by performing tricks on what sounds like a simple control scheme. Holding downing the right trigger crouches on skis or a snowboard, and releasing at the right time performs a jump. In the air, the left stick is used to perform tricks, and releasing it before hitting the ground usually makes for a safe landing. In flight, the right stick is used for quick dodges, while on the ground it controls speed. The commands are simple, but they demand perfect timing. Add other competitors, complicated routes and dastardly trees into the mix, and all of a sudden nailing an ollie seems the least of your worries. One little mistake and it’s back to the beginning, if you’re serious about setting a competitive score.
Along with performing tricks, taking needless but exciting risks is a sure fire way to impress. Almost succumbing to an altercation with a tree is highly favourable, as it narrowly avoiding the uncomfortable “splat” moment. As in the real world, thrill seeking is only half the reward for risking life and limb; it’s all about the video hits. The replay system encourages admiring your own handy work and sharing clips, from a magnitude of angles, with other players.
Camera angles during events are limited to either third or first person, but you don’t have time to think about much else. By default, Ubisoft sets the more controllable third person viewpoint. I found it near impossible to wingsuit from the athlete’s point of view, and snowboarding lacks finesse when you can’t easily observe the apparatus; but it’s much more exhilarating. I won’t be surprised if the hardcore fanbase within the community determine that first person is the best way to play.
The seamless jump in ‘n’ out multiplayer allows you to team up with four players in a group, either through invites or finding them and connecting in the world, to compete with and against each other. Challenges based on points, like wingsuiting close to the ground, inject an element of surprise compared to the more straightforward race to the finish. Co-op story-based challenges task you with completing a series of objectives to tick-off the event, and require only one player in the group to complete each to progress. I only saw a couple of these, but there’s a narrative behind each, told through a combination of short cutscenes and voice overs. The underlining premise is recording footage to solidify your status as a rising star. The narrative won’t be at the forefront of Steep, but if you crave clearly defined main mission progression, there’s something to keep things ticking over.
The thrills of roaming mountains with and against each other are obvious, but the social gameplay extends to not actively playing together. Despite being set in a collection of remote locations, you’re never alone in Steep. Like Drivatars in Forza Horizon, the automated ghosts of your friends’ accomplishments will drive you to obliterate their efforts. If beating them isn’t enough, create your own challenges to see them fail. Creating and sharing your own events is pushed early during the tutorial. There’s a lot of base content, certainly more than I had time to see, but the longevity of Steep is firmly entrenched in its community. It will live or die off the back of its players.
To my knowledge, there’s never been an extreme sports game that offers so much variety, let alone one deep rooted in reality, without prioritising authenticity. The Alps have been recreated in atmosphere more than natural accuracy; after all, impenetrable impasses don’t make for fun exploration. From part of Mont Blanc to Tyrol, Monte Rose, Aravis, Switzerland and Aiguilles, some of the iconic mountains that comprise the Alps, across four countries, have been modified to generate thrilling routes and tantalising risks that eclipse insanity. Wingsuiting between power lines and tiny gaps in colossus rocks would result in certain death in the real world, but Steep’s clever design hooks you into risking much less, a points multiplier, to take the precarious plunge. While I should have died a great many agonising deaths, far from the reach of medical support, during my time with Steep, parents needn’t worry about grim reality having any baring. There’s no death in Steep; merely a couple of broken ribs, and an easy way to restart an event at any time. These relentless crashes can become infuriating trying to shave a few seconds off a time in single-player, but as a posse of four, they never cease to be hilarious.
While it’s understandably liberal with some of the specifics, like the ability to survive such harsh collisions, Steep is heavily connected to its real life counterparts. It features licensed events from Red Bull and Northern Face, complete with the branding and enhanced expectation in performance. I’m going to be honest: I don’t follow these events, so I can’t say with any great authority how the Red Bull X-Alps events in Steep compare. But it doesn’t really matter. Unlike FIFA or NBA, Steep is based on the concept of extreme sports, rather than trying to replicate every minor detail, and it’s a stronger game for it.
With so many big names out towards the end of 2016, Steep has slipped under the radar. The selection of shooters and sports games has been strong for multiplayer enthusiasts, but now it’s refreshing to have something totally different – not only this year, but this generation, to play with a group of mates. With difference can come uncertainty, so Ubisoft is offering two chances to try Steep before its launch on December 2. An early access beta will run this weekend, and an open beta will follow later in November. It’ll be available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC.