The mountains are icy white — the clouds wool grey — and at times, sunlight breaks through the dark veil like a spotlight on the forbidding cliffs that whirl below me. Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” is playing in my ears as I cut in zigzags through narrow passages in the mountain’s…
A button tap sends me instantly back to the top to try again.
There are lots of moments like this one in Steep, Ubisoft Annecy’s extreme winter sports game — moments that harbor challenge, atmosphere and often frustration, but even Steep’s lowest points can be overlooked thanks to its diverse gameplay, backbreaking challenges and cathartic atmosphere.
In Steep, you explore a mountainous open world and conquer the slopes via four sports — skiing, snowboarding, paragliding and wingsuit flying — and each sport feels profoundly different from one another. Paragliding involves successfully adjusting to elevating or depreciating winds, whereas wingsuit flying feels like a tug-of-war with gravity. The diversity in the gameplay prevented me from ever getting too bored, especially considering that you can switch between these sports instantaneously.
Just as each sport caters to different types of players, the challenges spread across the map do as well, ranging from simple timed runs down winding slopes to masochistic, cliff-jumping antics. The more challenges you complete, the more experience you gain and the more mountains are unlocked for you to explore, but thankfully, you don’t need to complete every challenge to progress. New slopes and challenges open up so frequently that you never feel forced to complete a challenge that seems too difficult or that doesn’t interest you. This pervasive sense of freedom smartly mirrors the freedom you’d expect from exploring these places in real life.
Steep never tells you what to do, only what you can do.
The ability to free roam on foot or by sport adds to the game’s sense of place, but if you don’t feel like making the long trek from peak to peak, Mountain View is an easy-to-use alternative that lets you teleport instantaneously to different points via a top-down map. Teleporting to new points is wicked fast and does away with loading screens completely, so once you’ve jumped into the game, navigating the world is blessedly seamless.
Ubisoft’s pension for strong presentation extends to the visuals, too. Despite some minor cases of pop-in (especially during wingsuit challenges), Steep’s world is profoundly beautiful and diverse, and there were many moments where I ignored a beckoning challenge marker to stand at the edge of a cliff and gawk at some icy lake or sunset forest. These scenes are supported by soft, pensive music as opposed to the tunes that play during challenges, which evoke a sense of living on the edge.
Steep isn’t always about isolation, though — in fact, quite the opposite. Just as you would expect from a Ubisoft game, social functionality is deeply integrated in the game’s design, from competing against other players for the top spot on the daily leaderboards to running a line in free roam and challenging your friends to it online. Other players seamlessly appear in the game world as you play, but while it was fun to see them occasionally attempt the same challenge as me, it felt unrewarding to team up with strangers (despite an increased score multiplier). If you want to play socially, Steep is best experienced with people you know.
Steep is a triumph at merging gameplay and presentation to deliver players a sense of place in its beautiful open world. Controlling each sport feels simple yet laser precise, and the diversity in sports and challenges encouraged me to stay in the game even when challenges became too frustrating or uninteresting. Add to this a solid layer of social functionality, albeit shallow when playing with strangers, and you have a game that reaches the great heights it endeavors to recreate.