Ubisoft's extreme winter sports game, Steep, finally comes up for air on 2 December, on PC, PS4 and Xbox One, and it has been widely reported that review copies, like black ice, are thin on the ground.
As the game requires many players interacting on hosted servers, the publisher decided against releasing code to reviewers until the game world could be ably populated, so we won't be able to review it in time for release.
We will, however, be playing it like mad as soon as we get our hands on a copy to bring you our in-depth first impressions of the full release and then our review.
In the meantime, we checked out a pre-release build earlier this year so here are our thoughts so far. In addition, as a little treat, we've also embedded a bit of fun shenanigans Ubisoft got up to with British legend Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards. He also got to play the game, albeit while flying inside a wind tunnel and competing against two videogames fans who happen to be skydiving instructors. You can see how he got on here in the "Steep Challenge".
Now on with our initial impressions.
What is Steep?
Steep is definitely an ambitious game – it clearly aims to set a new, 21st-century-style agenda for winter sports games, as it is determinedly open-world and multiplayer.
Ubisoft Annecy creative director Igor Manceau says: "One of the things we wanted to do was to celebrate the mountains: we felt there was an opportunity to do something fresh and new in that segment, which was kind of abandoned for a while".
It's also very much a winter sports game. Although it lets you snowboard, you can switch for skis, wingsuit and paragliding at any point. And in order to complete its challenges, you'll have to sample all four sports.
What is Steep like as a game?
The first thing we noticed about Steep is that, even at the pre-release stage, it looked and felt pretty good – it came on a lot in visual terms since E3, when it looked a bit pixelated, even though it was shown on the PC.
The snow looks convincing, the sounds you make when you carve through it (or transition to ice) also convince and when, say, you're wingsuiting, there is plenty of feeling and a proper sense of speed - as Eddie "The Eagle" can attest.
The fact that Steep has got the basics right brings a grin to the face, as it's the first mountain-set game we've come across that operates on the current crop of consoles, with their ability to run sophisticated particle effects and so on.
Steep starts off pretty gently, with what is essentially a tutorial that introduces you to its key concepts. You start off at a base camp (which you can return to at any time), and are invited to hit L1, which brings out a pair of binoculars; scanning with those brings up new drop-zones to investigate. If you then go to the map-style Mountain View, you can teleport straight to them and then scan for activities. Activities also crop up as you sashay down the mountains, so it doesn't take long before you have plenty to do.
Does Steep have a single player campaign?
There is also a narrative element of sorts. Dotted around the game-world are 30 so-called Mountain Stories. In terms of storyline, they are basic, to say the least.
One we played set up the premise of a snowboarding-equipment company wanting you to participate in a night-shoot, so we had to follow another boarder, pulling off tricks as spectacularly as possible.
Another one involved traversing from one peak to another distant one, which proved to be a pretty epic paraglide, taking about 15-minutes, during which a rather cheesy voiceover extolling the glory of the mountains kept us entertained.
What tricks can you pull off in Steep?
Control-wise, Steep keeps things commendably simple. When skiing or snowboarding, R2 lets you jump when you hit a ramp, while both sticks let you pull off rotational tricks, and R2 and L2 perform grabs with different hands.
Trick-wise, it's all about nailing your animations before you land, then getting your stance right in the process of landing; you can't do tricks which are anything like as elaborate as those in Shaun Palmer's Pro Snowboarder, say, but if you time your jumps over elevated ramps correctly, you can still pull off some breathtaking manoeuvres.
When you're wingsuiting or paragliding, it's all about feeling the air-currents and making tiny orientation adjustments; pushing the left stick up when wingsuiting essentially stalls you, helping to preserve height, and you can roll left or right with the right stick. When paragliding, you have to follow contours, otherwise you'll lose height quickly; R2 lets you pull off extra-tight turns.
No matter what winter sport you're engaging in, the tricking aspect is geared towards what you would be able to do in real life. So some may criticise it for not being sufficiently elaborate. That's kind of Tony Hawk's fault.
Steep preview: XP, rewards and medals
There's a simple XP system predicated on how well you do in races, challenges and the like: you'll be awarded bronze, silver or gold medals, and you're given awards like flash new helmets and snowboards.
When you start levelling up, you gain access to previously locked events. The challenges are mostly self-explanatory – races through gates or designated mid-air circles if you're wingsuiting or paragliding, or events that require you to pass a threshold of points via pulling off tricks. They are split into freeride and freestyle categories, and there are plenty of snow-parks dotted around the game-world.
How big is the Steep game world?
And that game-world is impressively big: Manceau says it covers 256 square kilometres and is split into seven regions, among which are Switzerland, Aiguilles and Tyrol.
Ubisoft Annecy didn't go for a lifelike reconstruction of the Alps, choosing instead to pick out areas that would be fun to explore and mash them together. Although you encounter the odd village, they are basically there to provide different terrain through which to ski or board, they are empty of people and there's nothing you can do in them. Nor are there any ski-resorts with formally delineated pistes: Steep is all about back-country exploration.
Manceau explains that design policy: "We could have gone for GPS data and realism, but that wasn't an avenue we followed, because the real world doesn't offer large playgrounds: some places are good for practice, but not that many.
"The way we did it was to go for interpretations of some regions that we thought were interesting. We know, for instance, that you can't see the Matterhorn from Mont Blanc, but we thought it was cool to give you the possibility to ride the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc."
Steep multi-player challenges explained
Manceau was keen to push the online side of Steep, which represents a first for a winter-sports game. User-generated content looms large: it's very easy, when randomly exploring, to take whatever new line down the mountain you have discovered, save it and post it to the Steep community as a challenge (you can even choose whether to base that challenge on speed, tricking and so on).
You can also create and join groups of other players, bringing about what feels like the sort of experience you would enjoy on a real-life winter sports holiday – exploring together, racing against each other and taking each other on in snow-parks.
Likewise, you can capture and edit footage of your exploits, switching between various camera-angles including a GoPro attached to your helmet.
Manceau explains what Ubisoft Annecy is trying to achieve with the grouping ability: "When you're grouped, then you go even further. We call it synchronous and asynchronous, because you're not forced to start at the same moment. When we're grouped, we also share our progression. Which basically means that all the world which you've discovered, all the challenges, all the drop-zones, I will get access to."
Manceau concedes that the user-generation element mainly kicks in when punters have played the game extensively on their own: "We've seen in closed alpha what people are doing. Depending on the profile, the players do different stuff. Some of them are going for completion: it takes a very long time. Then, at some point, they get into a more competitive element, where they do create challenges. My ability to create a challenge and push it to my friends is definitely the loop that comes after."
Naturally, given Steep's open-world nature, Ubisoft Annecy will assiduously add content post-launch. Manceau says that in January 2017, an update will add a whole new play-area – Alaska – "which will be the same size as Europe."
"We'd like to treat Steep as we did the Crew or Rainbow Six: Siege, where live content is really important. So we plan to release a new challenge every week. You will be able to participate in the Freeride World Tour, and we are pretty much mimicking the way [the real-life Freeride World Tour] works. So you can participate in selection, be selected, get to level two and then reach the final: we'll have one every two weeks, which is pretty intense."
With Steep, Ubisoft has eschewed the tried and tested blueprint for winter sports games, and its attempt to drag such games into the 21st century is pretty ambitious.
After our initial play time with the game, we can't definitively say whether or not it will manage to achieve what it set out to do, although we'll find out more very soon when review code is available.
It will undoubtedly strike a chord with keen snowboarders and skiers who fancy getting their winter fix vicariously without running the risk of injury or having to lash out vast amounts of cash. But whether it will capture the imagination of the wider gaming public is currently up in the air.
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