One of the most mysterious aspects of the games industry in recent years has been the disappearance of snowboarding and winter sports games. Examples like SSX and Shaun Palmer’s Pro Snowboarder were massive in the 1990s and 2000s but for whatever reason, games publishers lost interest in them. Ubisoft, however, which has a developer in Annecy in the foothills of the Alps, has spotted a gap in the market and the result is Steep, a very modern sort of winter sports game.
Specifically, Steep combines the structure of a massively multilayer online game with elements of user-generated content, so its general feel is very different to that of the linear, often event-based snowboarding games of yore. It abandons any lip-service to shoehorning in an overarching narrative, in favour of providing a huge, snowy playground which is essentially a mash-up of the back-country in the Alps – groomed slopes and demarcated resorts are absent, in favour of wall-to-wall powder, rocky outcrops, forests and the occasional village which acts as a set of launch-pads for spectacular tricks.
Steep isn’t just a snowboarding game, either: you can switch at any point between snowboard, skis, wingsuit or paraglider. The first thing it does is introduce you to Mountain View, a zoomed-out, top-down map studded with events and activities. Initially, you only have access to one mountain: as you participate in races, freestyles and the like – or merely explore – new mountains and even hot-air balloons, from which you can wingsuit, open up.
The first stages are essentially a tutorial, introducing the tricking system — which is pretty simple but still effective, requiring you to time your initial jump then initiate different tricks using both sticks, add grabs with the triggers and make sure you’re back on an even keel for landing — plus concepts like using the binoculars to open up new areas and turning new lines you find into challenges that can be posted for others.
Steep is by far the most free-form winter sports game ever.
The game telegraphs undiscovered areas, but you have to be close enough to open them up by scrutinising them with your binoculars. You can take all or part of any run and turn it into a straight race, or various types of freestyle events with different goals. The events and activities on offer are pleasantly varied, including wingsuit courses which are reminiscent of Pilot Wings, paragliding courses that require you to make the most of updraughts, tricky descents that involve avoiding cliffs, rocks and trees and freestyles on a variety of courses.
Any narrative thrust the game possesses is derived from its Mountain Stories – long, rather mystical sequences supposedly narrated by the mountains themselves, in which you might have to select the best equipment to get you to a faraway peak or participate in a night-shoot with another boarder. Ski, snowboard and extreme sports brands like Saloon and Red Bull feature prominently, and levelling up by earning XP brings virtual kit as well as opening up new mountains and events. The game’s online nature means you can group up with friends or random players and take on events with them or just explore aimlessly, according to taste.
Steep, in other words, is by far the most free-form winter sports game ever but that doesn’t necessarily constitute a selling-point. The novelty of being able to create challenges wears off quickly, and the game-world feels criminally under-populated. There’s a fine line between free-form and amorphous, and Steep too often falls into the latter territory.
Instead, its strengths lie in look and feel. The physics and graphics are great, and little details such as the crunch of snow beneath your board, as well as the way it moves around with the contours, give it a really convincing air. The way in which you have to ride air-currents when wingsuiting or paragliding is great, too — some of the wingsuit courses, in particular, are deliciously tricky to negotiate.
Steep has vast amounts to offer those yearning to be at the top of an Alp with a tea-tray strapped to their feet, but who, for whatever reason, are instead stuck indoors in front of a console. Those who live to ski or board might end up getting so into it that they become obsessed with creating challenges for their mates, but the average gamer will find that, after a while, they are scrabbling around for new activities. Ubisoft has a generous downloadable content plan which should mitigate against that — earlier next year, for example, Antarctica will be added as a new play-area which is roughly the same size as the existing one — but any gamers wishing to recreate the joys of SSX or its ilk will soon find themselves craving a bit more structure.