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November 9, 2016

Steep preview: A winter sports game for the MMO generation

by John_A

Skiing and snowboarding games used to be inescapable – older gamers will no doubt come over a bit misty-eyed when you mention efforts like 1997’s Cool Boarders (a key title for the original PlayStation), 1998’s 1080° on the N64, 2001’s SSX Tricky, and Shaun Palmer’s Pro Snowboarder (the last of which essentially being Tony Hawk’s on white stuff).

But in recent years, snowboarding games have slipped off the agenda, which is odd considering that they both allow you to experience all the thrills of sliding down mountains on a tea-tray without the huge expense, and that global warming means real-life snow is becoming increasingly hard to find.

However, Ubisoft is about to end the drought suffered by winter sports-loving gamers with Steep, created by its in-house developer in Annecy, situated in the foothills of the French Alps. A perfect pairing, then. We managed to avail ourselves in about three hours’ worth of play with Steep on the PS4 ahead of its full release.

When in Steep released?

Despite only making its first appearance at this year’s E3 Show, Steep is on target to hit the shops without delay on 2 December 2016. And given that Christmas time rarely sees the white stuff these days, this might be your only chance.

Steep is definitely an ambitious game – it clearly aims to set a new, 21st-century-style agenda for winter sports games, as it is determinedly open-world and multiplayer.

Ubisoft Annecy creative director Igor Manceau says: “One of the things we wanted to do was to celebrate the mountains: we felt there was an opportunity to do something fresh and new in that segment, which was kind of abandoned for a while”.

It’s also very much a winter sports game. Although it lets you snowboard, you can switch for skis, wingsuit and paragliding at any point. And in order to complete its challenges, you’ll have to sample all four sports.

What is Steep like as a game?

The first thing you notice about Steep is that it now looks and feels pretty good – it has come on a lot in visual terms since E3, when it looked a bit dodgy, even though it was shown on the PC.

The snow looks convincing, the sounds you make when you carve through it (or transition to ice) also convince and when, say, you’re wingsuiting, there is plenty of feeling and a proper sense of speed.

The fact that Steep has got the basics right brings a grin to the face, as it’s the first mountain-set game we’ve come across that operates on the current crop of consoles, with their ability to run sophisticated particle effects and so on.

Ubisoft

Steep starts off pretty gently, with what is essentially a tutorial that introduces you to its key concepts. You start off at a base camp (which you can return to at any time), and are invited to hit L1, which brings out a pair of binoculars; scanning with those brings up new drop-zones to investigate. If you then go to the map-style Mountain View, you can teleport straight to them and then scan for activities. Activities also crop up as you sashay down the mountains, so it doesn’t take long before you have plenty to do.

Does Steep have a single player campaign?

There is also a narrative element of sorts. Dotted around the game-world are 30 so-called Mountain Stories. In terms of storyline, they are basic, to say the least.

One we played set up the premise of a snowboarding-equipment company wanting you to participate in a night-shoot, so we had to follow another boarder, pulling off tricks as spectacularly as possible.

Another one involved traversing from one peak to another distant one, which proved to be a pretty epic paraglide, taking about 15-minutes, during which a rather cheesy voiceover extolling the glory of the mountains kept us entertained.

What tricks can you pull off in Steep?

Control-wise, Steep keeps things commendably simple. When skiing or snowboarding, R2 lets you jump when you hit a ramp, while both sticks let you pull off rotational tricks, and R2 and L2 perform grabs with different hands.

Ubisoft

Trick-wise, it’s all about nailing your animations before you land, then getting your stance right in the process of landing; you can’t do tricks which are anything like as elaborate as those in Shaun Palmer’s Pro Snowboarder, say, but if you time your jumps over elevated ramps correctly, you can still pull off some breathtaking manoeuvres.

When you’re wingsuiting or paragliding, it’s all about feeling the air-currents and making tiny orientation adjustments; pushing the left stick up when wingsuiting essentially stalls you, helping to preserve height, and you can roll left or right with the right stick. When paragliding, you have to follow contours, otherwise you’ll lose height quickly; R2 lets you pull off extra-tight turns.

No matter what winter sport you’re engaging in, the tricking aspect is geared towards what you would be able to do in real life. So some may criticise it for not being sufficiently elaborate. That’s kind of Tony Hawk’s fault.

Steep preview: XP, rewards and medals

There’s a simple XP system predicated on how well you do in races, challenges and the like: you’ll be awarded bronze, silver or gold medals, and you’re given awards like flash new helmets and snowboards.

Ubisoft

When you start levelling up, you gain access to previously locked events. The challenges are mostly self-explanatory – races through gates or designated mid-air circles if you’re wingsuiting or paragliding, or events that require you to pass a threshold of points via pulling off tricks. They are split into freeride and freestyle categories, and there are plenty of snow-parks dotted around the game-world.

How big is the Steep game world?

And that game-world is impressively big: Manceau says it covers 256 square kilometres and is split into seven regions, among which are Switzerland, Aiguilles and Tyrol.

Ubisoft Annecy didn’t go for a lifelike reconstruction of the Alps, choosing instead to pick out areas that would be fun to explore and mash them together. Although you encounter the odd village, they are basically there to provide different terrain through which to ski or board, they are empty of people and there’s nothing you can do in them. Nor are there any ski-resorts with formally delineated pistes: Steep is all about back-country exploration.

Ubisoft

Manceau explains that design policy: “We could have gone for GPS data and realism, but that wasn’t an avenue we followed, because the real world doesn’t offer large playgrounds: some places are good for practice, but not that many.

“The way we did it was to go for interpretations of some regions that we thought were interesting. We know, for instance, that you can’t see the Matterhorn from Mont Blanc, but we thought it was cool to give you the possibility to ride the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc.”

Steep multi-player challenges explained

Manceau was keen to push the online side of Steep, which represents a first for a winter-sports game. User-generated content looms large: it’s very easy, when randomly exploring, to take whatever new line down the mountain you have discovered, save it and post it to the Steep community as a challenge (you can even choose whether to base that challenge on speed, tricking and so on).

Ubisoft

You can also create and join groups of other players, bringing about what feels like the sort of experience you would enjoy on a real-life winter sports holiday – exploring together, racing against each other and taking each other on in snow-parks.

Likewise, you can capture and edit footage of your exploits, switching between various camera-angles including a GoPro attached to your helmet.

Manceau explains what Ubisoft Annecy is trying to achieve with the grouping ability: “When you’re grouped, then you go even further. We call it synchronous and asynchronous, because you’re not forced to start at the same moment. When we’re grouped, we also share our progression. Which basically means that all the world which you’ve discovered, all the challenges, all the drop-zones, I will get access to.”

Manceau concedes that the user-generation element mainly kicks in when punters have played the game extensively on their own: “We’ve seen in closed alpha what people are doing. Depending on the profile, the players do different stuff. Some of them are going for completion: it takes a very long time. Then, at some point, they get into a more competitive element, where they do create challenges. My ability to create a challenge and push it to my friends is definitely the loop that comes after.”

Ubisoft

Naturally, given Steep’s open-world nature, Ubisoft Annecy will assiduously add content post-launch. Manceau says that in January 2017, an update will add a whole new play-area – Alaska – “which will be the same size as Europe.”

“We’d like to treat Steep as we did the Crew or Rainbow Six: Siege, where live content is really important. So we plan to release a new challenge every week. You will be able to participate in the Freeride World Tour, and we are pretty much mimicking the way [the real-life Freeride World Tour] works. So you can participate in selection, be selected, get to level two and then reach the final: we’ll have one every two weeks, which is pretty intense.”

First Impressions

With Steep, Ubisoft has eschewed the tried and tested blueprint for winter sports games, and its attempt to drag such games into the 21st century is pretty ambitious.

After our play time with the game, we can’t definitively say whether or not it will manage to achieve what it set out to do. There’s a big question-mark over whether those who play it will take to the user-generation side and maintain interest once they’ve explored the game-world fully.

It will undoubtedly strike a chord with keen snowboarders and skiers who fancy getting their winter fix vicariously without running the risk of injury or having to lash out vast amounts of cash. But whether it will capture the imagination of the wider gaming public remains to be seen.

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