During the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s, games based on winter sports such as the Amped series and Shaun White Snowboarding were released every few months. The star of the genre, however, was the SSX series that combined fast-paced downhill racing and death-defying stunts for a thrilling representation of extreme winter sports. EA rebooted the series in 2012, in the form of SSX, and whilst is was well received both critically and commercially, it offered nothing new to the genre aside from varied tricks and better visuals. It became clear that winter sports games would have to move in a different direction to regain its popularity, especially with a new generation of consoles being introduced.
Now, four years after EA’s reboot, Ubisoft has combined winter sports and a format they are very familiar with – large scale, open-world multiplayer games – in an attempt to spark new life into the once adored genre. Steep is the logical step forward for the winter sports game, just don’t expect the high flying thrills of the SSX games.
Steep has been in open beta this weekend and with its release just two weeks away, players have been given the chance to test a game they may have overlooked during the busy fall release window. Ubisoft’s game is played at a significantly slower pace than EA’s famous series, with the emphasis being on exploration and discovery rather than speed and showing off. You are given the freedom to explore the studio’s recreation of the Alps in one of five disciplines: walking, snowboarding, skiing, wing-suiting, or hand-gliding. As long as you are stationary, you can switch between them with the press of a button, allowing you to use the best tool for the terrain ahead.
It is this ease and variety of travel that makes exploration so appealing. As you hurtle down a mountain on your snowboard, you may come across a perfect wing-suit launch point that allows you to easily access an undiscovered area of the Alps. Getting stuck on rocks and crawling up slopes on your hands and knees can be frustrating but, with liberal use of fast travel, getting around isn’t too much of a problem. However, Steep’s world map can be difficult to navigate and much of it can be hard to read, making knowing where you are, and where you are going, a chore at times. The structure of the world is similar to that of SSX 3, which let you ride freely around a peak, taking part in events as you passed them. Unlike SSX Tricky and 2012’s reboot, the whole mountain is the focus, rather than specific slopes that are designed to take advantage of certain event types.
Where Steep and SSX differ most is in how they treat events and why the player is taking part in those events. Whilst SSX encouraged high score chasing, experimentation, and combos, Steep’s events act as as steps to gaining experience and leveling up, with challenge sharing always being an option. Whilst getting a certain score in an event awards you with a medal, your limited trick ability, especially on a snowboard, means events offer far less than simply exploring. Sliding down slopes without much excitement makes events feel slow and when coupled with uneventful exploration, Steep lacks the signature SSX thrill of extreme sports. Of course, the movement and abilities of the player are much more akin to those of real life skiers and snowboarders but being able to do things you had never seen before, that were truly spectacular, were what made the SSX series so compelling. It does a good job of representing the tight-rope real world enthusiasts walk between a perfect run and disaster but that doesn’t make it a consistently enjoyable experience. Steep’s wing-suiting section are a highlight however, as the speed is increased and you feel far more in control of your movements than you do in any other discipline. Sweeping between great fur trees and over jagged cliff faces adds a sliver of excitement.
Where the SSX franchise and Steep are similar is in each game’s strong multiplayer component. On the PlayStation 2, SSX Tricky and SSX 3 were staples of an extended local multiplayer session. The controls were easy to learn, yet seasoned players often had skills others could only dream of having. Races would rarely last more than two or three minutes but showing off your skills was just as important as finishing first. Other games based on extreme sports, such as the excellent Downhill Domination, learned from SSX and focused their gameplay on fast-paced multiplayer action. You could set targets for each other and share your discoveries of new paths or special tricks. Steep shares this idea of sharing your experiences with other players, only on a much larger scale. You can create events, share you own clips, and meet other players on the slopes to explore in groups. Each event explains how other players have done whilst pitting you against friends. Sharing and seamless multiplayer aren’t new concepts for massive open world games but they have never been a part of the winter sports genre.
Another area in which Steep impresses is with its visuals. Ubisoft Annecy’s recreation of the Alps is stunning with beautifully detailed mountain sides acting as a backdrop for the varied slopes, each of which have their own unique lay out. Standing on top of a wing-suit launch platform, looking out over the sun drenched wilderness is stunning. Steep’s landscape is unlike anything we’ve seen in a winter sports game and it makes exploring the world all the more appealing.
Refreshing the winter sports genre by integrating a huge open world and all the levelling systems and collectibles that come with it was the logical step after 2012’s SSX. However, EA’s classic series and Steep are very different experiences. Whilst they both feature an important multiplayer aspect, SSX is a far more thrilling recreation of the sport than Ubisoft’s effort. You won’t see impossible stunts or racing at breakneck speed because the focus of Steep is exploration and discovery. I only wish that exploration was more exciting.