Steep is open-world as it should be: an unlimited personal playground.
Snowboarding is cool. Sailing off a cliff in a wingsuit is cool. Watching a GoPro video of someone triumphantly launching off a ski jump is cool. Steep lets you get a taste of that cool without the frostbite or bruising, and never holds you back from experiencing it just the way you want it.
Steep is blessed by a lack of linear progression. There are no mandatory challenges to complete, no content locked away only if you manage to succeed at what came before it. If you find something fun to do on the mountain, you can do it, making Steeprewarding for the clumsy-thumbed and quick-reflexed alike.
MASTERING SKILLS CAN BE A CHALLENGE
There’s no time wasted in Steep. After a disclaimer warning from Ubis1sfoft to not try any of this at home, your spunky snow-sports avatar is dropped down on the fresh Alpine snow and immediately given all the tools you’ll need to make the most of falling down a mountain. Hitting the R1 button opens up the “sports wheel,” which allows you to switch instantly between snowboarding, skiing, wingsuiting and paragliding.
Challenges unlock quickly as you explore the mountain, and succeeding at them all depends on your style of play. While I’d occasionally try my hand at the Freestyler challenges, which reward big scores to sick stunts, precision button handling isn’t my forte. Instead, I kept myself very happily occupied with the Extreme Rider and Freerider challenges. My skills and style were much better suited to wingsuit flying dangerously close to sharp rocks and finding the fastest and most creative way down a line. When going downhill fast and furious got stale, I’d find one of the Bone Collector challenges, which ask for nothing more than for you to throw your body down a cliff as messily and painfully as possible. Whatever my mood of the moment was, I could find something that suited it.
Steep also has some challenges outside of the usual categories called “Mountain Stories” — some of which involve the different Alpine mountain peaks speaking to you, literally telling you their stories as you follow ghostly riders down through their terrain. Other Mountain Stories give more motivation for your adventures than just “record yourself doing cool stunts.” One had me destroying evil snowmen; another tasked me with looking for mountain elf treasure; in one, I had to fly into a church bell to summon a singing fir tree. The Mountain Stories are an odd tonal switch, but made for a fun variation in ways to hone and use my sporting skills.
Picking up those skills is easy enough, but mastering them can be a challenge. The ground-based methods, skiing and snowboarding, felt essentially the same, with just slightly more control and finesse on skis — though I didn’t recognize this difference immediately. My first time swapping to skis I ended up sailing down the mountain backwards while wearing a SASSY SINCE BIRTH hoodie.
The snowboard is a little more speedy and fluid in its handling. It took me a while to get the hang of just how to do jumps and spins, but the first time I successfully nailed one, I let out a genuine “woohoo!” into my empty apartment. I’m still working on perfecting my stunts, but it’s easy enough to pull off impressive-looking moves. And failing at them has its own satisfaction, too, as I watch my rider flail through a badly launched jump while she yells, “Not in the face!”
The riders in Steep are fortunately very resilient, presumably all little Red Bull-fueled Wolverines out there on the powder with unbreakable bones and quick healing to get them back on their feet. And this works more than just for the entertainment factor of watching your avatar tumble over a ridiculous number of rocks and still get up afterwards to brush off and keep skiing. Stopping just because in reality you’d be extremely dead isn’t fun. Steep is all about perpetual motion; it gets in your way as little as possible. Restarting a challenge is as simple as holding a button, and you can zip to another part of the mountain by opening your map and pointing. Steep prevents a lot of the frustration that can be found in other racing or challenge-based games; when you’re bored or sick of one goal, you can hop to something else within seconds.
There’s joy to be found in Steep even if you’re not one for cool snowboard tricks. The sixth style of play is Explorer, and it’s where I ended up racking up most of my experience points. While some challenges are unlocked automatically as you gain levels, the majority have to be discovered. Scanning the landscape with your binoculars allows you to mark new drop zones, most of which are the start of challenges. I enjoyed the process of just finding these zones even more than the challenges they opened up. This process reminded me of fellow Ubisoft series Assassin’s Creed — I see where I want to go, now the fun is figuring out how to get there.
For as enjoyable and stylish as the stunts can be, I had the most fun in Steep when ignoring races and objectives to do my own thing. I’d find a high point on the map and work my way down the mountain in whichever direction and by whatever means I felt like. This lead to some really beautiful organic moments — speeding down the slopes pointed toward the sunset as it crept down over the surrounding mountains, for ten unbroken minutes, only stopped when I hit the limits of the map. It was an experience that felt uniquely my own; another player might do something similar, but that ride was mine alone.
HITTING HIGH NOTES
These incredible moments in Steep were often accompanied by sweeping instrumental music. The game supplies its own soundtrack fit for every occasion. In addition to epic free-roaming instrumentals, Steep has an assortment of licensed tracks that fit the mood of whatever challenge you’re undertaking — from shredding guitars when you’re shredding the slopes, to more soothing indie rock vibes while you’re coasting through the peaks on your paraglider. In a very memorable moment, Steep sets your attempts to wingsuit glide down the Matterhorn to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. While some of the licensed tracks grew repetitive on extended play, overall the default music choices heightened my experience.
STEEP IS ALL ABOUT FLOWBut you’re never alone on the mountain; unless you’ve found yourself on a particularly obscure exploration path, Steep‘s online play means you’ll always see other players wandering the slopes with you — and occasionally spawning directly on top of your face. Theoretically, you can send an invitation to group up with strangers you meet in the Alps, but in actual experience, all of my invitations were ignored or denied. Was it that I was wearing a helmet that had a meat cleaver jammed in it? Who can say? If you have in-network friends also playing Steep you can group up with them to race, create races of your own to challenge them with and share videos of your coolest stunts or most dramatic failures.
Even though I wasn’t able to hook up and actually play with other mountaintop randos, their existence improved my play experience. At one point I was standing on a cliff’s edge, considering what method would be the best way to get to the next checkpoint in my challenge. Another player taking on the same challenge came past me while I was pondering, and I watched them use the paraglider to achieve the goal I was aiming for. I followed suit, and sure enough, it worked perfectly.
The downside to Steep‘s emphasis on online play is that, well, you have to be online to play. I ran into a few instances where the server would not connect at all, leaving me unable to do anything but stare at the start menu. In addition I ran into several errors that shut down the game entirely, kicking me back to the PS4 menu. Each time this happened, when I returned to the game, any customization I’d done to my rider was removed and their appearance was back to default. As game crashes go, it was a mild annoyance, but still one that interrupted the flow of play.
STEEP NEVER HOLDS PLAYERS BACK OR SLOWS THEM DOWN
In the end, that flow is what Steep is all about. Too many extreme-sports video games gate the fun of exploring what they offer behind endless challenges, forcing players to retry over and over until they get bored and move on. Steep sets itself apart by never holding players back and never slowing down. Across hours spent with the game, I was free to throw myself down the mountain as many times and in as many ways as I wanted. As it turns out, that made for a damn good time.