The open-world action sports game Steep might have caught you off guard when Assassin's Creed publisher Ubisoft announced it during their E3 briefing on Monday. Is there a market for action sports games in 2016, you might have wondered. That remains to be seen. But after spending some time with Steep and speaking with its developers during a recent event, all I wanted to do was come back and play more after my demo ended.
Steep is being made by Ubisoft Annecy, one of Ubisoft's three studios in France. Having contributed to a number of Ubisoft franchises, including The Division most recently, Steep is Annecy's first brand new game, and it was created by a passionate team. Just outside of Ubisoft Annecy's office are ski resorts; the team need only look out its window for inspiration. Some of them ski and snowboard together on weekends, and it was out of this passion for outdoor sports that Steep was born.
In Steep, you have a number of options for how you want to explore a mountain. You can zip down steep faces on skis or a snowboard, while airbound options include using a wingsuit or floating around in a paraglider. I tried all four during my demo, but I was most drawn to skiing and snowboarding, perhaps because they are the ones I know best from my own life.
Developers said Steep is being designed to be accessible, but also to provide depth for core players. In my time with the game, I struggled at the start, but could see the payoff down the road. Getting the hang of any of the four extreme sports takes time. Not only do you need to navigate around trees, rocks, and other objects, but coming out on top requires you to rack up a high enough score (pulling tricks and stunts) or getting to the bottom of the hill faster than everyone else. The other challenge is the controls--it took me a few runs to get into the swing of things.
On Xbox One, you squeeze the two triggers to get into an ollie stance and then release them to lift off. After that, further manipulations of the left and right triggers, as well as the thumbsticks, determines your roll and positioning. This is all to say, landing a big air spin trick takes some getting used to. But when you do pull it off, it feels great, and you'll be eager for your next chance to shred the nar, as the say.
After you complete a run, you can save your "trail" and then upload and share it for the community at large to try out. Given the open-endedness of the mountains, there stand to be countless trails that the community will create, in theory extending the game's replayability.
For the purpose of this demo, the mountains of Steep were populated by ghost characters, but for the full release, you'll zip and dive alongside other players. There will be "hundreds" of challenges to take on, set in mountain ranges across Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and France. Coming sometime after launch as a free update will be new mountains to explore in Alaska, complete with their own sets of challenges.
Another interesting element of Steep is its numerous camera modes and angles. By default, the camera is positioned from a third-person perspective. However, you can switch to first-person at any time, which brings you closer to the action. This is not always the best idea; for example, if you're careening out of control in first-person, the effect can be jarring. But when you catch big air, taking in the sights in first-person is an experience most of us will probably never get to feel.
There is also a replay mode where, at any time, you can pause and view your run in slow-motion. When performing big-time spin tricks and major drops, using this camera turn can make the game look like a Warren Miller movie. It will be exciting to see what people far more proficient than myself can do with these tools.
The most exciting element of Steep for me is the open-world of the mountain ranges. The game does not guide you down any one specific path--unless you are partaking in a pre-set challenge. Instead, you have the freedom to explore however you want. Also, at any time, you can switch between any of the four extreme sports activities. You can ski or board up to a cliff and then, with the press of a button, equip your wingsuit and soar down the mountain in an entirely new way.
While I left the Steep demo wanting to play more and more, I could not help but wonder just how long the feeling of escapism and thrill would last. However, if Ubisoft can deliver enough compelling challenges, and if the playerbase is big enough, I can see myself coming back for more.