Steep

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Stunningly gorgeous, right out of the gate. Wind howls dramatically through crisp snowflakes which blows aways to reveal Ubisoft’s logo, “I remember these lads” I think, “they did Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, I must be in for a real treat.” The show’s not over: beautifully detailed powdery snow, radiating the purest blues and whites that my mate’s 40-something inches of TV has ever had the pleasure of projecting is dynamically surrounding a written warning about epilepsy, then about not trying profesional sports at home, then about the dangers of turning of the console during the auto-saving process. Never have needless and obvious written cautionaries looked this good.

And then, my word, the title screen. The crisp black Steep (or stEEP if you’re being pedantic) title is carried by cross fading slow pans of mountain ranges, coated with snow, glistening under various moods of sun. Romantic orange sunsets, spectrums of lens flares, pure white noon sun, a subtle, moody purple sunrise, it has it all. And all set to a bed of soft piano and sparse strings so tasteful they would make Forrest Gump’s theme tune blush. “My god,” me and my friend silently say to each other, using only our slack-jawed, tear-filled attempts at facial expression, “this will truly be the pinnacle of our gaming lives.”

A mere 90 minutes later, my bored friend yawns and reaches for his phone. “It’s late” he lies, “time for bed I think.” It’s only 10:30pm and neither of us have work the next day but I gratefully play along. I turn off the PS4, swipe the last chocolate biscuit and get the hell outta there. What went wrong?

This is the story of Steep’s first impression not lasting.

Following the title screen I recounted so fondly, the new player is dropped into the action pretty quick. The controls are minimal and clear. The first challenge – a wingsuit dive – is an enjoyable and simple debut, with no tricks, it’s all in the right thumbstick. As the game progresses (there’s a campaign of sorts, with just enough of a story to give context to all the falling and sliding about), more sports are introduced, and also increasingly nuanced tutorials for jumping, tricks, etc. Good tutorials are something sports games can get away with much more than most genres. The game can be very transparent about technique and tell you what buttons to press without having to worry about breaking character, it’s a welcome change for me.

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Steep is an open world game, which, while a nice additional to the genre, feels a bit unnecessary and even pointless a lot of the time. I guess it’s nice to be able to stop skiing, walk very slowly to a distant inviting ledge and throw yourself from a clifftop for a bit of a hoon on the wingsuit. The core function of the open world though, seems to be walking about and looking through binoculars to discover new drop points (fast travel points). At any point you can hold O for a second to be taken to the map and fast travel to any of these locations.

When zoomed out to the map, the already really, really good-looking snowscapes become near photorealistic. While the standard playing view isn’t quite as nice, it’s staggeringly beautiful in daylight, though I found myself hitting the up directional button to skip through the hours whenever night fell. Playing in the dull night setting is significantly less interesting than the gloriously glowing days – and therein lies my primary criticism of the game: it relies heavily on its very impressive graphics to maintain interest. Whether it’s playing in the blackened night setting, on a smaller TV, or simply playing long enough to overcome the novelty of the initially immersive graphics, the gameplay doesn’t rise to keep your attention.

After around an hour, the action often feels a tad slow, like the player is racing and even falling at a sightseeing pace, keeping the with game’s apparent alignment with a sense of wonder over a sense of edge-of-the-seat-extreme-sporting-fun. Sure, peak speed can be exhilarating, especially in a wingsuit, skimming barely over the ground or between trees, or snowboarding down one of the more vertical tracks, but these moments happen much less frequently than you might expect from a game literally called Steep.

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The trick system is fairly simple, barely more than pointing a joystick and pressing or releasing R2. When it looks great, it feels fun, like you’re creating a terrifically exciting movie that maybe GoPro might retweet. And then once you’ve completed your run on your chosen sport there is even a very customisable replay feature, complete with fast-forward, rewind, multiangles, zoom – I’m sure there’s slow motion but I couldn’t find it myself. There are only so many times you can muck around with replays before interest wanes a little and you remember that there are even more photorealistic extreme sports videos out there – actual live footage. With the realisation that perhaps the best feature trumped by a 20 minute jaunt on Red Bull’s Youtube channel, Steep really starts to feel a little lacking.

It could be that the actual best bit is competing against your friends. And I say “could be” because despite numerous prompts to join with people online, it never happened. Accepting the prompts’ kind offers was always followed by being gently reminded that I wasn’t a paid-up member of PSPlus. I don’t want to delve into a full-blown sour grapes rant about this modern age of paid multiplayer, but I know that the monthly fee is a bit, well, steep, for people other than me. So this review is for the folks who can’t or won’t fork out, on top of getting the game and console. On that note though – even if you’re planning on a purely single player excursion, you need an internet connection – the game won’t start without one.

I think the main thing this game lacks is progress. It’s meant to be a simulation, not an RPG, and I get that. But then I think of what kept me addicted to one of the more popular sporting simulations out there: Gran Turismo. Without the ability to endlessly improve and tweak a garage of cars, I don’t think I would have played for more than a few races. Maybe a devoted sports fan will stay interested simply for the action, but I don’t know how many devoted sports fans sit for hours in front of a screen. Give me some level of progress, some illusion of having achieved something. Simply finding new fast travel locations isn’t quite enough I’m afraid.

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There is some customisation – a few different riders to choose from, and a good amount of wardrobe and equipment to purchase with in-game currency. But it doesn’t do anything. There are no stats to improve, no special tricks to unlock, nothing affects gameplay at all. It’s all window dressing, much like the rest of the game.

If you wish your favourite extreme sports videos were interactive, this is for you. If you like walking painfully slowly between a snowboard track and a good place to paraglide, this is for you. If you’re the kind of GTA player who would devote a lot of time to stealing helicopters, ascending as high as possible and then jumping out for the hell of it, this may be for you. After reapproaching the game several times since that first night that went downhill so fast you’d think it was fixed to skis, I still can’t work out if this game just isn’t for me, or if it’s objectively lacking in real substance. I’ll admit now, I haven’t finished it. But the fact that I don’t want to, speaks volumes. This is a great looking new game that I want to like, yet it manages to feel like a chore to play after the first few runs of each session.

Those first few runs though. Very fun. And beautiful. Every time.

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