Steep: Road to the Olympics hands-on gameplay, interview

Ubisoft’s open-world winter sports title, Steep, has undertaken a journey that can best be described by its namesake: an uphill climb marked by cool initial reviews and the faithful endurance of its developers. Gaming Trend gave it an 80—great—and complimented it for its sleek presentation, tight sport mechanics and gorgeous vistas, while critical of its always-online social elements

Since its release in December 2016, Steep has received a slush of improvements, including a new region in Alaska, cosmetic updates, and a port to the Nintendo Switch. At E3 this year, Ubisoft announced the game’s first major expansion, Road to the Olympics. Ubisoft aims to release it just in time for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyongchang, South Korea in February.

The expansion includes two brand-new regions: South Korea and Japan. Korea’s mountainous overworld is dedicated to the Olympic Winter Games—comprising of downhill, super-g, slalom, and more—while Japan features a number of breathtaking freeride slopes and activities. The expansion also adds a new story, allowing players to experience their own excursion as Olympic athletes.

Recently, I had the opportunity to play the expansion and speak with Gameplay Director Arnaud Ragot. Arnaud is a soft-spoken man whose previous credits include work on Assassin’s Creed titles and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist. He is the type of developer whose work is a labor of love: he takes pride in the major (how it feels to blitz down a sheer mountainside) to the minutiae (the simulation of fine powdered snow). Part of that attention to detail included close collaboration with the International Olympic Committee and real-life athletes.

“We have been really in contact with [the International Olympic Committee],” Arnaud said. “We have a lot of back and forth trying to understand what it should look like, where it should feel more realistic to put the Olympic Rings, to define the overworld. Our goal is to create a really authentic Olympic Winter Games experience.”

If authenticity is the benchmark, I’d say that the Steep team has succeeded based on preliminary impressions. The Korea region is a “competitive fantasy,” with all the Olympic regalia that entails: blue banners crowned with gold rings flapping in the wind, international competition and media presence everywhere. At the end of each run, you can see how you stack up against other competitors, earning medals and the admiration of the crowd (who will boo and cheer you as you perform). An announcer comments on your performance throughout each event.

The main criticism of Steep upon release was that playing with other people online wasn’t fun. Road to the Olympics continues the always-online multiplayer gameplay, of course, but I’m curious to see if the structure of Olympic competition will make it more appealing. Contending for medals feels more tangible in this expansion.

There’s a healthy variety of sports to choose from. Big Air was my favorite, as you might have already assumed from watching the gameplay highlights above. Halfpipe was tricky, and I never quite got the feel for it. Downhill skiing was satisfying, though I found it difficult to maintain my speed and accuracy simultaneously.

It took a bit of experimentation to get a grasp on the controls; Steep prides itself on being a more realistic sports title, far removed from the wonky arcade fantasies of Electronic Art’s SSX or Activision’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series. Timing is essential, and even after a good twenty minutes of practice, I stumbled through the events until finally earning a Silver Medal. (I was very excited.)

Players familiar with the original Steep won’t be lost in the gale. Mechanics like air tricks have been in the game since launch, but in the expansion, the events are mostly self-contained challenges: a test of just how well you’ve mastered the existing gameplay and integrated it with the new.

“We want the player to be immersed in this experience, but we are making video games,” Arnaud said of the game’s approach to blending realism into the gameplay. “We tried to make sure [that what makes players successful] in the Olympic Winter Games is really what is needed in real life, but can still do it in a really spectacular way…and play with the limit of reality. The final goal is to be fun.”

Another feature of Road to the Olympics is a new story, but Arnaud cautions it’s not exactly traditional. Ubisoft aims to weave together a narrative based on the experiences of real athletes they interviewed. At the beginning of events, clips of the interviews will play, letting athletes tell their stories in their own words and (hopefully) impress upon the player how magnanimous participating in Olympic events can be. In a sense, the game endeavors to be a perfect encapsulation of the Olympic Winter Games—why it’s so important to its competitors, how it feels to participate, and what it means to win.

Arnaud doesn’t necessarily want to call it educational, but if people learn something about the Winter Olympics along the way, it’s a bonus.

“We are not going that far [to make it educational],” Arnaud said of the decision. “When we were talking with the athletes we learned so much about them, about what it means to go to the Olympic Winter Games. And that’s something you won’t have if you are just looking on TV or reading about it on the web.”

In my time with the expansion I also visited Japan, where the showpieces are freeriding, slopestyle, and other trick-based runs. I played a few different challenges, but my favorite was the trip through pristine powdery white snow and cherry blossom trees. The deep, powdered snow is a new addition to Steep, and is super fun to blast through—I liken the experience to sailing, or gliding through a frosted cake.

“It’s you in the mountain and you have to enjoy the freedom you can have going through amazing landscapes,” Arnaud said. Overall, I think it’s safe to say the expansion seems to be a welcome and exciting addition to Steep. I’m excited to play it more later this year.

Steep: Road to the Olympics is slated for release for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on December 5.

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