Hasn't it been a while since we've had a good extreme sports game? Around the time of the Playstation 1 you could barely move for the things, and every which way you looked, there was with a Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Dave Mirra's Freestyle BMX, or Extreme Pro Freestyle Walking Simulator waiting for you to pick it off the shelf, whack it in the disc drive, and shred your way across a variety of conveniently placed objects, pulling off tricks you could never dream of landing in real life. But then, one day, they all but disappeared.
For nigh on a decade, we've had an almost total drought - until recently, a few companies have started to try and revive the genre, with somewhat mixed results. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 was just about OK, and as Mark McMorris' Infinite Air put all its emphasis on being realistic, at the expense of its control scheme, Steep's been left with a pretty much open goal, as it set out to become king of the reborn extreme sports genre. And really, it kind of hits the woodwork.
An extreme sports game set across an open world recreation of the Alps, Steep is not just a snowboarding game - instead, it covers a collection of snow-related extreme sports, all rolled into one neat package. The four included are snowboarding, skiing, paragliding and wingsuiting, while a bonus fifth "sport" lets you cross the mountains in that most extreme of manners - walking. In a pretty neat option, you can actually switch between any of the sports styles at the touch of a button, as you explore the French/Swiss Alps - which certainly makes getting around the game's dramatic (yet often empty) world a lot easier.
While you could be forgiven for thinking that trying to cram in as many sports as possible would make Steep a jack of all trades, and master of none, we're pleased to say the opposite is actually true. Rather than treading on each other's toes, each of the sports (or I guess, methods of transportation) included tend to compliment each other, are are used in game in a very different way, with each feeling very different to the last - bar, perhaps, skiing and snowboarding, which can be used pretty much interchangeably. Here, paragliding is used as a means of getting from A to B across long distances, without losing too much height; skiing and snowboarding are used for tackling the vast majority of the game's downhill challenges; while the wingsuit is reserved for only the nuttiest of nutters (fitting for something that makes you look like a flying squirrel), as you hurtle along at breakneck speed, skimming the surface of the snow.
When you first get started in Steep, you'll be presented with a giant mountain map, which is peppered with a number of markers. These markers all represent different challenges you can take on, with each challenge having its own difficulty rating (from 1-3), and a general category they come under, to tell you what to expect. And there's a heck of a lot of variety to what you'll be asked to do. Some see you having to navigate your snowboard through a crowded and busy course, only scoring points when you come close to obstacles, while some are basic trick-based, point scoring challenges, where you'll have to hit jumps, and perform grabs, spins and flips to clock up a high score. Some are races, where you'll have to face off against a number of other, computer controlled opponents to reach the finish line, while others still simply give you an objective marker, and ask you get there however you see fit, whether you're running, skiing, boarding, wingsuiting it up or paragliding - or a mixture of all five.
And it's this variety that's one of the game's strongest points. Each event feels different to the last, and each asks you to master a different style of riding. Races focus on speed, where planning your lines, and avoiding as many bumps, ramps and upward slopes as possible is key, while the trick based events are all about doing the exact opposite - hitting as many ramps, and doing as many tricks as you possibly can.
If anything though, the trick system is one of the few parts of Steep's basic gameplay that feels a bit disappointing. For starters, there's no grinding, manuals, or carving (essentially, a "trick" that involves throwing up snow with your board), which leaves quite the hole in your arsenal of moves - especially as grinding has been a staple in almost every extreme sports game since the beginning of time. It also means there's less fun to be had linking tricks together to get crazy multipliers.
The tricks system also places quite a lot of emphasis on timing, which makes it that little bit trickier (sorry) to get to grips with. Jumps are handled by pulling the right trigger (as are grabs), while spins and flips are on the left stick. If you time your jump too late (or too early), you'll barely leave the ground, and either crash into a rock, or have no room left for a trick - while for flips and spins, you'll need to time it so you push the stick just as you're taking off, lest you end up with a really low power spin that barely sees you rotate at all.
There's undoubtedly a learning curve here - one that isn't made any easier by the fact you can't filter the map view to only see easy, or "low level" events - but when it all comes together, it can be pretty magical. Pulling off the perfect wingsuit run, skimming the surface of the snow, and diving in between trees to rack up the points can make you feel like a real pro, while nailing that big flip is every bit as rewarding. Equally handily, you can instantly retry any event without the need for loading times, so if you do cock up your run, you can get right back into the swing of things. When combined with some gorgeous vistas, and incredible sunsets, you can have a lot of fun exploring the world, and clearing the challenges.
And fun is the key word here, as Steep isn't some stuffy snowboarding simulator - it's a game with a sense of humour. While it may not be quite as mental as the Xbox 360's seminal Amped 3, Steep's in game shop lets you spend in-game credits to buy all manner of new clothes - and, brilliantly, costumes. So if you want to race down a hill dressed as a giraffe, a panda, or a unicorn, you can - and it's great to see a game that doesn't take itself too seriously.
And this is all really good stuff. The base game here is actually a lot of fun, and one you'll definitely enjoy spending some time with. The only problem is, despite all its great moments, almost every irritating gaming bright idea from the past few years has been crowbarred in here - and almost every one of them makes the game worse. It's almost as if the developers wanted to just make a normal snowboarding game, only to be told "NON" with every move they made.
First off, it's an open world game. What isn't nowadays, right? But while it may be in vogue, it doesn't really make that much sense in a game where the only real method of transportation you have only takes you downhill, yet the game expects you to reach the peaks to unlock new challenges. Rather than simply adding challenges to the map as you level up (through completing the other challenges), you instead have to seek out a number of "drop point" peaks in the open world, which in turn will unlock any nearby challenges. Even then, you can't just pass by the drop points to unlock them, either. Instead, you have to wait until a little piece of text pops up saying you're close to a drop point, then stop (easier said than done), whip out your binoculars, and hope you're still within a 1000m of it - and it's in your line of sight - in order to unlock it, and the challenges it brings.
As you can probably tell, it's a little bit of a faff. Give me a snowmobile, and great - I'll happily shoot up and down the Alps all day looking for these drop zones. But with such a huge area to cover, and with the "undiscovered" drop zones only showing up on your map when you happen to have come close to them, it ends up being more of a chore than anything. It's indicative of a general lack of UI polish in the game, too, with objective markers not showing up if you're looking the other way (and nothing to tell you they're off screen), and a world map that makes it oddly tricky to actually select your next challenge (why can't you just press L1/R1 to cycle through them?)
Oh, and there are microtransactions too. It's not enough for the game to wang a giant Red Bull logo in your face every now and then, as your rider jumps out of a Red Bull branded helicopter, and chugs a Red Bull before even thinking about doing anything extreme (no, really) - there needs to be microtransactions too.
You see, although the game has the aforementioned shop, where you can buy various add ons, accessories, outfits, and costumes for your rider, everything is crazy expensive - and if you don't have enough money, you'll have a handy pop-up appear, prompting you to go and buy some Steep bucks for real cash. Call us crazy, but we miss the days when games used to get their in-game economies right, rather than trying to constantly push you towards spending even more. Oh, and there's a season pass available too, where for a whopping £20, you can get access to a handful of new events over the next few months. Huzzah.
But the killer issue here - the real killer issue - is that the game's always online. Why? We have no idea. There's literally no reason for Steep to require an internet connection - other than some high up decided that games that are always online are so 2016, and so therefore Steep must be always online too. Yet in reality, all it does is make Steep worse.
For starters, if you have a dodgy internet connection - or no internet connection for your console (which is still an issue for some people) - you either won't be able to play at all, or you'll find yourself being sent back to the main menu every time your connection drops out. Sounds fun, right?
It might be forgiveable if there was actually a reason for the game to require a connection - but there isn't. All it does is let you see other players in the game world, skiing down the mountain. You can run up to them, and taunt them (weirdly, the game doesn't put jump on X, but instead reserves that for the taunts, letting you shout insults at people as you run past them), and invite them to party up with you - but more often than not, they simply just get in the way. And as other players can appear during your challenge attempts, nothing throws you off your groove quite like having someone come shooting up from behind you, and hitting the ramp at the exact same time as you. Even though they effectively work as ghosts, so they can't collide with you, in the heat of the moment, you still end up thinking they can - and that can make you miss that crucial jump.
With no real reason to make the game online only, it seems like a bit of a crazy decision - especially as there are many people who, for one reason or another, infinitely prefer playing offline, where they don't have to worry about being accosted by random strangers and their seemingly infinite friend requests. And how long will it be before Ubisoft decide to turn the servers off, and then it's bye bye Steep forever?
Still, with its more questionable aspects put to one side, there's still a lot to like about Steep. It doesn't take itself too seriously, it's more on the arcade side of things than the simulation, and there's a wide, wide range of challenges to try your luck at. When paired with some genuinely spectacular vistas, and plenty of replay value, it makes an addictive prospect - just one that's let down by the daft always on requirement, the rough-round-the-edges-open-world, and the odd random bit of "Engrish" style hint text (only it's French, so... Frenglish?). There's still plenty of fun to be had here - but the sad fact remains, we've now gone more than 10 years, and we still have yet to have a snowboarding game better than Amped 3.