Mountains are far from uncommon in open-world exploration games, but even in the most impressive ones, they're normally little more than pretty white fences encircling a greener playfield. Steep reverses this concept with some success. Here, it's the valleys and green spots of the world that trigger the invisible walls and the mighty Alps that fill its rocky, snowy sandbox. Steep's gameplay unfortunately falls short of matching the grandeur of its open world, but it's a tough act to follow.
Steep lets you seamlessly zip down mountain ranges via snowboards, skis, wingsuits, or paragliders with a quick click of a radial menu. At any time, you can leap from below the treeline to miles-high "drop points" you've discovered--either by walking or taking a helicopter--and partake in events and challenges that pepper the slopes. The races and time trials you find are fun ways to test your skill against everything from smooth powder to tougher rocky paths. Meanwhile, the freestyle events celebrate and grant experience points for general showmanship, and the "Bone Collector" events add some humor by inviting you to throw your body off a cliff as spectacularly as an avalanche.
The trouble with Steep is that beyond the gratification you get from simply moving about it's impressive world, the best rewards it offers are cosmetic items, like fluffy bunny suits, and newly unlocked events that closely resemble ones you've already played before. The gameplay itself never changes: Your wingsuit might eventually look cooler with that sleek GoPro branding, but it always handles the same way regardless of how it looks. Nor does Steep actually embrace its "play as you want" philosophy as thoroughly as initial appearances suggest; you'll need to rank well in most events in order to level up, even if you find the paragliding events as appealing as a snowman might find the Bahamas.
That wouldn't be such a problem if some equipment wasn't considerably more enjoyable to use than others. Snowboarding is the best by far--performing spins, flips, and short glides off rocky prominences remains thrilling even hours in, as does navigating through narrow snowy chasms and deserted, half-buried villages. Skiing comes in a close second, although with a slightly more ponderous sensation of weight.
Whether you snowboard or ski, you're bound to encounter frustrating controls. Even after hours of experience, timing jumps remains more of an art than a science, and sometimes your character may refuse to respond to commands that should have sent them flipping through the air for tricks that generate more points.
Steep often comes off feeling like the collaborative effort of two wildly divergent personalities--a John Muir-like wilderness sage, say, and a loud-mouthed Red Bull announcer.
The wingsuit supplies a different brand of excitement, allowing you to jump off piers far up in the peaks and hurtle yourself face-first near powerlines and mere inches above jagged slopes for greater points. The physics involved sometimes seem wonky and fantastical, but they're never impossible to master and the wingsuit events yield an entertaining alternative to the ground-based trials. Steep also allows you to paraglide, but from a mechanical perspective, this approach comes off as painfully dull. Watching Europe's grandest mountains pass below as you glide overhead is initially awesome, but the paragliding suit's simple controls leaves a lot to be desired; it demands little more than occasionally steering toward pockets of air in humdrum events that can drag on for a quarter of an hour. They're not even particularly challenging--in many cases, you can skip off the designated course, over a neighboring peak, and glide right down to the finish line.
Taking everything into account, Steep often comes off feeling like the collaborative effort of two wildly divergent personalities--a John Muir-like wilderness sage, say, and a loud-mouthed Red Bull announcer. In its finest moments, swishing past the pines over a landscape awash in varying shades of white for long stretches at a time, it invites slipping into the meditative trance. But then, without fail (unless you turn him off in settings), the extreme announcer butts into that tranquility and drags you back to garish corporate reality, complete with Red Bull logos emblazoned on the sides of helicopters. The HUD itself sometimes ruins the mood, as the gaudy markers showing the locations of the many events stand out as starkly as billboards might in an Ansel Adams photo.
Some of Steep's commendable exploratory features can tend toward the goofy, as in the "mountain stories" that personify peaks like France's Pointe Percée by giving them voice actors who brag about how they're "the showman, the bombastic" and how "you'll shred snow-caked ruins below my summit." There are lingering bugs to contend with as well, which usually amount to mere inconvenience, but might send you falling under the mountain like Gandalf and the Balrog.
Still, Steep's reflective moments and the sheer joy of its exploration can outweigh some of its rougher points, and some of the most fun it offers comes from simply traveling to undiscovered locations--just you against the mountain. Most players on the slopes seem to favor this playstyle despite Steep's easy grouping options and its insistence on online play; time and time again, it's challenging to find people interested in grouping up. Most of the time, unless you have some friends to invite along for some real competition, the multiplayer implementation seems best for watching others pull off complicated tricks.
Steep is a game that's never really sure what it is, and its vagueness and lack of meaningful rewards causes it to suffer in any comparisons to the likes of SSX. But there's a quiet thrill to exploring the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc, and snowed-in Alpine villages. It's a strangely attractive approach for all its qualifications, and there's a constant sense that Ubisoft is channeling George Mallory's famous response when asked why he wanted to scramble up Mount Everest: "Because it's there."