I miss the extreme sports genre of gaming really badly. During the noughties, they came in droves and were largely incredible games – Tony Hawk’s, SSX, Aggressive Inline, Skate, Mat Hoffman’s Pro BMX, Rolling, Jet Set Radio, Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX, Amped… I’m sure I’m still missing some out, but that is a list absolutely packed with quality. I grew up with these games, and grew to love them for their ability to provide moments of thrilling gameplay bliss that weren’t predefined in any way – landing your own ridiculous combo in SSX or Tony Hawk’s, or just breaking every bone in your body in Skate, was better than any “epic” cutscene I’ve ever seen.
Sadly, the genre has had it rough in the “tens”. Skate 3 kind of got into the decade, arriving in mid-2010. Since then, we’ve seen the SSX reboot of 2012 (decent game, but was fairly pared back from its predecessors, and did nothing to make me want to play it over SSX3, Tricky or even On Tour). Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD showed promise but was a glitchy disaster. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5, not to be done by the HD remix of the original games, was an even bigger glitchy disaster and a blatant cash grab on a license threatened by expiry. Indie gaming has dabbled with the genre, with games such as Olli Olli, which were fun but not what I want from an extreme sports game.
When Steep was announced, I was very excited. For the first time since SSX 2012 (THPS5 screamed “disaster” from its first announcement), Steep looked to be a reincarnation of the genre, finally bringing a new game to the table with a modern backbone and a wealth of features that the PS2 could only have dreamt of enabling. The idea of it being more of a simulation as opposed to SSX’s arcade styling were a little sad to hear, but I had the same feelings about Skate originally, and Skate turned out to be a cracking game that happily coexisted with Tony Hawk’s.
So with a large emotional investment and the highest of hopes for Steep, how was it?
Steep really does deliver on its promises of being a game that could only be done with the power of current systems. Featuring a gigantic map containing multiple mountains and being orders of magnitude larger than any snowboarding game that’s come before it, you can mindblowingly immediately teleport to totally different locations seamlessly – pushing the “mountain view” button zooms the camera up so you can see everything, pushing another button on a spawn location of your choice zooms it down to that spot where your player is sitting there ready to immediately begin runs. I’ve never seen this sort of thing done this beautifully before, and am assuming it’s a result of the low amount of detailed needed to render a snowy mountain, but it’s very welcome.
The core gameplay is good, too. With shades of SSX, Steep’s snowboarding and skiing both feel good to use once you’re used to them – although I favoured snowboarding purely because I found myself constantly skiing backwards. The wingsuit is responsive and fun to use as well.
Its big strength comes from being able to teleport to the top of Mont Blanc (or one of the other peaks of your choice, but MB is the highest and therefore the best), and then snowboard or ski down it for what seems like forever, in your own time, while casually doing tricks or speeding up or stopping to admire the view – it’s serene, cathartic, and superb in ways I’ve never seen from an extreme sports game before.
The Mountain Stories are interesting as well – well, the idea of them. Steep personifies its peaks – Mont Blanc is a husky-voiced woman that knows she’s the best mountain in the range. Matterhorn is a devilish aggressive bastard. They all have personalities that match the difficulty to traverse them, their size etc. It’s a really novel concept that provides a lot of life and a little bit of lore to the game world.
The online. All of it. Watch Dogs 2 did this too, but you could disable it all in that. In Steep, online crap is so embedded into Steep that it is an online-only game. The first time I booted it up, I was greeted with a 1GB patch. Bypassing it for my first session with the game, I “hit X to Start” on the game’s main menu, and… nope! Couldn’t play it until my horrid internet connection had downloaded and installed the patch.
The forced online is grim. If my connection flaked out, BAM booted from the game. If I shared a video from the game to YouTube or Twitter, or stuck a video service on for a bit and then returned to Steep… once again, totally kicked. If that’s not bad enough, even if you lose connection, even just pausing the game will kick you from your current run back to its beginning, presumably so other people can’t see you hovering in statis. Infuriating if you’re looking to do one massive run from the peak of a mountain to the map’s low points, more so if you’re on the tedious “paraglide up an entire mountain” challenge that has a bronze medal time of 25 MINUTES – if you have to stop on minute 24, kiss all of that progress goodbye.
More annoyances with the online is that, while finding other people outside of challenges is fun in an almost Journey way (like in Journey, you can hit a button in Steep to say random enthusiastic lines, and it becomes a rudimentary way of communicating with people), having them in missions is screen clutter at the best of times and excessive extra difficulty at the worst. Several of Steep’s wingsuit missions require you to fly through very, very tight sections of cave and rock formations. More than a few times, I died because online players, through no fault of their own, were in the same coordinates as the game camera and all I could see was another person’s arse in wingsuit latex… followed shortly by my corpse rolling down a hill.
But it’s okay, because most of the challenges are dire anyway. Steep is essentially Superman from the N64, that game that’s infamous for making you fly through rings… continuously. Well, Steep is that as well. The predominant challenge variety, the races, aren’t really races – they’re time trials through rings. You do see three other people racing you, but they’re not really racing dynamically, they’re on set paths that demonstrate gold, silver and bronze medal times. Steep manages to be worse than Superman with its ring challenges, by the way, thanks to the downhill nature of snow sports. There is no correcting yourself, if you miss a ring by a millimetre your run is dead.
The rings manage to permeate other challenge types and ruin them as well. “Tricksmaster” has it worst of all – it’s a “score by doing tricks” challenge set in a snow park. But for some infuriating, baffling reason, you have to go through rings while doing it. And the rings are ON TOP of the ramps. And thanks to how gravity and hills work together, you CANNOT get on top of the ramps if you didn’t get onto them in the first place. All of this leaves the challenge completely destroyed and devoid of any fun it might have had.
The one time rings are tolerable is when they pop up during Mountain Story missions, because those allow you to get off your board and walk through the rings rather than potentially missing them – it’s slow, but I’d rather that than one small mistake forcing me to redo masses of previous rings. In any case, they still suck though – the epic reveal of the Matterhorn is dampened dramatically when its evil presence is followed up by rings.
It really does feel like someone at the development team behind Steep had an ace idea for a game, then deferred the job of designing the game’s challenges to a clueless imbecile. The missions in Steep are insulting to its excellent backbone, dragging it down from a potentially awe-inspiring experience down to a piss-poor wet fart of a game. With such a magnificent open world, and how great the missions are when they only have a singular goal at the end and let you perfect your own racing route (a system that Burnout Paradise managed to perfect nine years ago, and other games like Mirror’s Edge Catalyst have also recently used successfully – no ring in sight in either of those games).
Everything is rings in Steep, and even when a challenge isn’t a series of rings, the end point still is. Even on a snowboarding/skiing trick challenge, it is completely possible to clear the gold medal threshold, and then slightly miss the ring at the finish, nullifying the run entirely. Why not just a big line of “if you go past this point, you’ve finished”? Why not two flags like, you know, skiing uses? Or, novel idea, if I’m in a challenge and you want me to keep it to a certain area, cordon off that area during the challenge – I’ll put up with the loading time if it means I’m not being bombarded with miserable design decisions, and as an added bonus, you could then stick an audience in too!
Late-game missions ramp up difficulty by making the course more difficult to traverse than requiring actual skill, which is also kind of irritating. One of the trick challenges I had to do later on only had one usable ramp – it was easy to get a gold medal score from the single ramp no problem, but then you spent a couple of minutes hoping to your deity of choice that you didn’t fall over down the rest of it – even when I managed to win the challenge, I was very close to being KOed (which nullifies your run) thanks to lifelessly falling down most of the course – just being lucky that I didn’t take more rocks to the bonce.
A couple of minor complaints spring to mind as well, although in the grand scheme of things, they’re not things I really mind any more. The world geography is quite lumpy and makes some runs a little unenjoyable – I’m guessing this is a result of them using existing heightmap data for the real-world locations. Could really have done with a little bit of smoothening, though. Paragliding is pretty tedious – I avoided doing it unless mountain stories required it. And I didn’t like that licensed music was tied exclusively to challenges – the game has a great soundtrack, tying it to challenges that are frequently well under a minute in length, rather than exploring the open world, is insanity. I never managed to hear the chorus of Bomfunk MCs’ “Freestyler” in Steep despite its inclusion in the soundtrack, and I love that tune!
I really hope Steep gets a sequel. It has an engine behind it that works to perfection. And then it’s agonisingly torn apart by terrible design decisions and tedious missions. I mentioned that free-roaming from the top of Mont Blanc is where the game is strongest – you don’t unlock that peak until you reach level 23. And for context on where that lies in the game, level 25 is the cap – you have to scrape your way through a barrage of crappy missions, and thousands of rings along the way, to hit it.
The backbone of Steep deserves better than this. I’ve never been more disappointed in my life by a game – this is the most significant case I’ve ever seen of a whole game being killed by one of its parts. I’m annoyed, I’m sad, and for now, it seems like the extreme sports genre remains on standby. But if Steep 2 comes out, I think it could easily fix everything wrong with the first.
For now though, I’ll be playing some more Steep now I’m free of the shackles of the challenges and have full access to the map, because I can enjoy myself with it in my own ways, and enjoy Steep’s strengths without suffering.