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Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Sports
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Annecy
Release Date: Dec. 2, 2016

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.


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Xbox One Review - 'Steep'

by Brian Dumlao on Dec. 8, 2016 @ 12:00 a.m. PST

Ride a massive open world of the Alps and Alaska, where the powder is always fresh and the run never ends.

Buy Steep

If you're the owner of an Xbox One and a fan of winter action sports, the field for that genre is almost nonexistent. Snow is still coming to the platform, and the only other title to fit the bill is the problematic Infinite Air with Mark McMorris. There is salvation in the form of SSX, an Xbox 360 game playable via the system's backward compatibility, but that isn't much if you've already played through it before. This is why Steep is interesting, a winter sports game from Ubisoft. It's a title that they were confident enough with to close out their E3 press conference. The game went through a few betas, and we have the final release copy. Even with all that previous exposure, Steep remains surprising.

The marketing heavily hyped that you're going to play through four different disciplines instead of one, and the tutorial throws you in those sports quite early. Gamers will be most familiar with snowboarding and skiing. Aside from the obvious differences between them, such as poles and one board instead of two planks, they are fundamentally the same in the game. Both are capable of letting you pull off grabs and flips, and the speed coming down the mountain can be borderline tremendous. It's easy to say that this is probably the best skiing or snowboarding game thus far to capture that sense of near-blackout speed when going down the slope.

Aside from the speed, another thing that Steep gets right with skiing and snowboarding is the trick system. Similar to Skate and Infinite Air, Steep uses up both analog stick and both triggers. The trick system may feel limited, but it's more grounded in realistic physics. Rotations are only endless if you keep holding down the buttons and sticks, and the game has the good sense to auto-adjust, so you aren't going to take a bad spill if you aren't precise. Tricks gets executed exactly as you input them, and while you can still make good jumps from small distances, going at full bore ensures you'll really launch into loads of air. Beyond this, you'll always have forward momentum in all but the most extreme circumstances, like trying to go uphill. While flat lands aren't a constant, you won't suddenly get stuck. It generally feels good, especially since it isn't from the Montreal studio that worked Shaun White Snowboarding.

Wingsuit traversal is the next sport in the game, and it feels both new and familiar. After selecting a base to jump from, you see how far the winds will take you before hitting the ground. It controls like a plane, where tilting up on the analog stick straightens your body, so you dive faster to the ground while tilting down spreads your wings to increase or maintain elevation. Scoring is based on how close you can glide above the ground without actually hitting it, and landing safely is completely dependent on you deploying the parachute around some clear ground.

After snowboarding and skiing, using a wingsuit is the most exciting part of the game. While you can use the suit at very high altitudes to practically fly from one peak to another, the more exciting runs come from going through tight mountain passes and barely missing rocky spires and outcroppings. It's up there with skiing and snowboarding in terms of providing some tense moments and a heady rush.

The final sport in the package is paragliding, where you use your parachute to fly over large swaths of the mountainside. As with the wingsuit, you must find a good peak or base from which to jump. Navigating is similar but not as fast due to the nature of the chute. If anything, you'll be more concerned with altitude rather than speed; you might just take in the mountain view rather than think of anything else.

Paragliding is perhaps the least exciting sport in the game. It covers large swaths of land at a time, but the experience is more calming since you don't have any sense of speed attached. The lack of obstacles in the air further dampens the excitement, while the tricks you can pull off don't look that impressive. Some players will find its inclusion to be cool because they're more attuned to the sport, but to the casual observer, it feels like an odd addition to a package that focuses on adrenaline.

All of these things can be done on one portion of the Alps, which are large enough to be considered an open world. The mountain can potentially be difficult to traverse,  but Steep has several ways to mitigate this. Starting at the beginning of your last run is easily accomplished by holding down the Y button, a good precaution since a simple button press would make accidental restarts too easy to accomplish. Holding down the B button instead gets you back to the mountain map, where you can pick a spot to start a new run. In both cases, the transitions to new spots are quick, so you're encouraged to warp from spot to spot without consequence.

The game just wants you to have fun on the mountain. Pick a spot, and ride with whatever you feel like. The mountain has interesting spots to explore, and the title further encourages this by letting you earn points and XP at any time. Pulling off tricks or flying close to the ground nets you points, as does doing something like sprinting up a mountain. The game also lets you build up your reputation in several different categories, earning even more XP along the way. Pulling off loads of trick chains or one big, high-scoring trick can earn you reputation in the freestyle category, while simply going down the mountain and discovering peaks and landmarks nets you points in the exploration category. Even taking really bad spills or hitting objects enough to knock you out earns points in the bone-breaking category.

Steep also realizes that those free-run moments are often when the best things happen. To that end, the game provides some really good methods to let you share those moments. The replay system can be brought up any time after your last run. Helmet cam, selfie cams and the drone cam are available to get a good shot. The replay system has tons of spots from which to start the recording, and it even gives you notes on the highlight-worthy parts so you don't waste time looking for them. If you want more than screenshots and replays, you have the ability to craft your own challenge out of those runs, complete with small leaderboards for each.

While the general freedom is appreciated, some players will crave something more organized. Luckily, the game has loads of premade challenges that cover all disciplines. For the most part, the events are split between standard point challenges or checkpoint races, although the latter more closely resemble time trials with additional people tagging along. There's also something called Mountain Stories, which have you doing challenges that are out of the ordinary, like passing through arches or running through snowmen. What makes these interesting is that the mountain gives you stories while you complete the challenges. It's something you'd expect from a fever dream. You'll appreciate the different challenges because they're fun, but the added commentary will often leave you scratching your head.

Even in the more organized events, it is fascinating to see the game maintain the chill vibe of the exploration sections. Beyond unlocking cosmetic items, being at a higher level doesn't contribute to any fundamental changes to your rider. Save for some of the Mountain Stories, you aren't locked out of anything just because you're at a low level. The lack of tangible progression can feel odd to the traditionalist, but at the same time, it ensures that no one will follow the same path to game completion.

The one part that could use some work is the actual navigation of events in the mountain map. The 3D representation of the mountain in the map is novel, and every spot you can access is visible, no matter the viewing distance. Moving around from one spot to another can be tricky because highlighting those parts can be rather finicky. It also doesn't help that the indicators about new events are so small that you may waste time focusing on a spot only to realize that you already received a gold medal for it.

One of the more interesting things about the title is that it is a completely multiplayer title. You can't play the game offline, and unless you're on a run, you'll be able to encounter others milling about or doing their own thing. Teaming up isn't necessary to enjoy the game, but it is fun. Tearing through the Alps with a crew and goofing off with an immediate audience in tow is enjoyable and feels natural when you realize that general exploration is one of the game's main selling points.

From a sound perspective, the musical selection is quite tame. There's the expected hip-hop and electronica, but there's also a good selection of classical and more mellow tracks. Exploring the mountain forests at high speeds with acoustic guitar playing in the background might not sound appealing, but the combination is very fitting. It would've been nice to have the ability to get a custom playlist going, but for now, you're stuck with playing everything, nothing, or selecting between themed playlists. Elsewhere, the sound effects add to the immersion factor, with the howling of the wind, hooting owls and crunching of snow contributing to the atmosphere.

For the most part, the graphics look nice. The mountain is very picturesque, and its different lighting modes are provided by the day and night cycle. Character models animate nicely due to details, like flapping clothing and snow accumulation when you take a fall. Speaking of snow, the small flurries that pass by the mountain are a sight, and the carving of the surface is well done to the point where the small rocks you kick up carve a path of their own as they slide down the fresh powder. With a mostly steady frame rate, it looks good overall, but the one sticking point is the constant pop-in. There's none of that as you go down the mountain, but warp from spot to spot, and you'll see every element quickly pop in, piece by piece. Considering the tradeoff is no loading times, this is fairly acceptable.

Steep is a very good game, especially for a genre that has gone by the wayside for a while. The paragliding may feel boring to most people, but the skiing, snowboarding and wingsuit diving are exciting and well implemented enough to make up for that inclusion. The emphasis on open-world traversal over conquering specific events makes this a game with a much more relaxed feel, but it still provides tons of exciting moments for those who are open to such a change from the action sports template. Even if the winter sports selection were much larger on the current console generation, Steep would still be worth checking out.

Score: 8.0/10

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