Steep open beta: Great mountains, infuriating controls

The world has been in want of a good snowboarding game for a while. Having spent a few hours with the beta of Steep [official site] over the weekend, I’m not yet sure that it is the successor to SSX and Cool Boarders that we’re looking for. But that’s okay, because there are three other extreme sports rolled into it. And one of them involves donning a wingsuit and flying at hundreds of miles per hour towards your inevitable death.

Of course, you don’t really die when you slam face-first into a rock, or ski off the wrong ledge into a ravine. You simply get knocked unconscious. A giant, cartoonish “KO!” plasters itself across the bottom of the screen, and you hold down ‘Y’ to retry the flight or ski course from your first position. Then your sportsperson magically reappears at the top of a mountain and says something like “I should be more careful!” or “That one really hurt!” It feels like a comedy game sometimes. It’s hard not to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, when you are tumbling down the side of a mountain with rag doll glee. At other times, the only feeling these mountains inspire is sheer, vertiginous horror. In these moments, it’s a wincing simulator.

There’s a lot to like. The alps are recreated with fine detail. There are towns, woodlands, and slopes aplenty. Sunsets and sunrises drench everything in picturesque light. And the snow deserves its own walking simulator. It glitters in the light and crunches under your feet, leaving long trails behind and warping to fit whatever shape your board or skis make. Often, you will leave a big human-shaped snow angel in it, because you will fall over a lot.

Partly, this is down to the game’s freeing nature, it’s easy to go off track and find yourself trying to ski down a hard stone surface, completely free of snow. From the earliest moments (after the tutorial) you can wander about and fast travel to newly unlocked summits or starting positions, high in the slopes. To get new starting points you have to get close – within a few hundred metres – and whip out your binoculars, spotting them as if they were a bad guy in Far Cry. Mercifully, there are no towers to climb.

You can choose from a wheel of sports equipment at any time – skis, snowboard, wingsuit or paraglider. Then barrel down the mountainside in whatever fashion you want. This isn’t an on-the-fly change though – you need to be standing still – so unfortunately you can’t leap off a cliff, wingsuit down and then change to a snowboard in the final seconds, transferring straight to the slopes with action movie bravado. It’s more sensible than that. There are set events and “lines” on the mountains, ranging in difficulty. Some of these are straight-up races to the finish line against AI, some want you to fly through a specific hole in a cliffside, while others demand tricks for the trick gods. Sadly, this is where Steep’s beta falls flat on its face in the snow, along with your character.

The pain is mostly down to the controls. When you snowboard or ski toward a ramp, you have to hold down the right trigger on a gamepad (this is not a keyboard and mouse game) then let go and immediately twist the left stick in a certain way to rotate, flip or do some combination of the two. It looks great when you pull it off, but the point at which you have to release the R trigger is so unintuitive (at the beginning of the ramp) that it’s far too easy to mess up your jump.

More than this, most of the places from which you could jump aren’t standard-looking ramps with helpful markers. They are snowdrifts, ledges, bumps – thousands of little natural rises that are ripe for the hopping. Yet jumping successfully from these feels like a roll of the dice. Where is the “beginning” of these natural ramps? In games with similar control schemes, like the Skate series or OlliOlli, the jumping is hard to master but instinctively understandable. When you bail after a trick, or when you fluff a jump, you know why you’ve screwed up. You can almost feel it in the way your fingers moved.

Here, it’s the game itself that feels unresponsive and uncooperative. The window for both jumping and “assigning” a trick is far too slim, both sticks are used to control one board, and often your speed will drop dramatically when you hit a natural ramp – a snowy rise that you thought you could leap off often turns out to be too much for the game to allow. Obviously, this is the beta, and I hope that Ubisoft Annecy can somehow widen this trick window, because during my rides more than half of the jumps were relegated to flaccid bunny hops, and that doesn’t really make you feel like an extreeeeeme snow bro.

It’s a frustration that should be easily fixed and it tarnishes the rest of an otherwise carefree sports game. The paragliding events I mostly left alone, because compared to the others they are slow-paced and uninteresting. But the other three sports can be as high-octane as they are ludicrous. Some of the harder ski events see you leaping from huge heights, your character screaming all the way down, while simultaneously trying to finish their spin in mid-air. And if you do screw up, you’re only a single button press away from a nippy restart. Some of the events start you in air balloons, where you can dive straight at the ground like a human bomb, then glide with your squirrel suit in the final moments. Or fail to.

One of the strangest joys I had with the beta was taking off all the sports gear and simply walking up a mountain. There’s no way this is a viable mode of transport in the game – it is a huge area. But scrambling up a mountain face and having a look around did help me appreciate the craftsmanship of the environment. Even if your character can walk through snow at impossible 80 degree angles.

Much is being made of the multiplayer and it is possible to group up with people simply by being near them and tapping a button. Your character will then say something like “Hey, wanna hit the slopes with me?” and send an invite to that person. It’s strangely childish and while I commend the simplicity behind it, I also made zero friends and had to resort to following people around like a psychopath and dive-bombing them from above in a wingsuit to see how they react (they did not care). I was also sad to note that when you hit players, you simply “ghost” right through them.

You can set challenges – routes that you’ve taken, recorded and timed – for other players to take up. But it’s not very clear how these work. I have set one up, but never seen anyone attempting it, nor have I ever seen challenges belonging to other players in the wild. This may be a UI thing (it could be hidden in the map, which periodically spasms and seems to want to show you things you don’t care about). Or it may be a friends-only thing. I have no Uplay friends.

To sum up my Steep feelings: it’s promising. The Alps are gorgeous and well-made, the wingsuiting alone is tremendous fun, and when you aren’t wrestling with the mad controls of the other sports, you can indulge in all sorts of snow-based lunacy. It can also be strangely tranquil. I’m not sure the progression system is inviting or compelling enough to keep you going and going (you level up and unlock new starting points as well as earning money to buy clothes, equipment and cosmetic gear) but much of the pleasure comes from forgetting about the gamey side of things and just going for a random ride down the slopes until you hit the edge of the map.

I can see it being one for enthusiasts. The small set of people who remember SSX with fondness and want to relive some of that in an open world. In that sense, it’s working up to be an impressive thing. But the developers really, really need to address the controls. It’s one thing to have beautiful snow, it’s another thing if that snow feels like glue.

Steep is due for release on December 2. You can try the open beta now.

From this site

32 Comments

  1. FurryLippedSquid says:

    The mountains weren’t even that great.

    It all felt a bit… pointless.

  2. infovore says:

    I rather enjoyed it. It brought to mind my favourite of all the mountain sports franchises (all four of them), Amped, mainly because it was content to just let you enjoy carving down the mountain. It didn’t borrow the third games’ “one trick, done well, scores better than silly flipping” idea, which is a shame, because it would have suited the mellowness of this quite well.

    The jump trigger felt like it needed finessing, but I was largely fine with the Skate-esque “one trigger per hand, right stick to finesse” controls.

    My main downers were the shonkiness of “mountain view” – great idea in principle, ropey in execution – and the bizarre fun vacuum that was paragliding: so vague, so hard to find thermals, and just bizarre in its relation to physics.

    Easily the best challenge was the cross-country one – seven minutes to get from A to B down a mountain; the open world is great not for its openness, but the sheer time you can spend carving from top to bottom.

    • Kullendorff says:

      The Salomon one?

      We spent some time there before we got the gold. The key being using flags in the mountainview and plan the ride. Was good fun!

  3. dongsweep says:

    I spent 3 hours this weekend in Steep and I liked a lot of it but the controls were very iffy. I never felt like I was in complete control which is terrible for a game that is all about how well you control your character on so many unique mountain trails.

    The one thing you briefly touched on that I really loved was how fast everything loaded. You fail and want to restart? Hold the button down for 3 seconds and it is restarted. Want to try another location? Open the map and select it, you are there instantly.

    I don’t know if that can be fixed, but I do hope it will be. If so, I may buy it, but if not then it is sadly a deal breaker. In the end I think I liked the idea of playing it more than playing it.

    Also, only one button for tricks? That is pretty awful for an XTREME GAME BRO.

    • infovore says:

      At least four controls for tricks! Left trigger grabs with left hand, right trigger grabs with right – and yes, you can grab with both. Right stick to finesse – tweaks the grab left/right on the snowboard, or crosses up skis. Plus both flip and barrel roll on the two sticks.

      It’s a hybrid of Skate’s “hands + motions” controls with Amped’s “tweaking”, and lets you get at most tricks without the Tony Hawk/Mortal Kombat button hammering.

      • dongsweep says:

        Thanks for the info! I will need to try this out. I played with a M+K and the tutorial only gives one key for doing tricks, if it is more like Skate then that makes me doubly excited.

  4. davebo says:

    I wish SNOW had these graphics and the wingsuit. Then at least it’d be the right price for the amount of depth you’re getting.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Kemuel says:

    This is looking a lot like FUEL to me. A beautiful place to prat about in that starts to fall apart if you focus on any of the actual game mechanics too hard.

  6. Kullendorff says:

    I must say I liked it alot, and I havent played any other of the games like this. And the controls being hard I cant really get what you aimed that at. Just ditch the whole “press button then release” and just tap it when u wanna jump (my 8-yr old daughter taught me that).

    Spent close to 20 hours on the game over the early access and the open beta. Played alot together with my kids aged 5 and 8 – they LOVED it.

    If you play it with friends its bloody nice to just freeride for a few hours. Pick a peak and just ride – perfect between DOTA-games, WoW-raids or EvE-fleets. Its a very, very, easygoing game.

    • Unclepauly says:

      You should introduce your daughter to some e-sports games. If she can master something so un-intuitive(sp) like this so fast, the sky’s the limit.

  7. Uberwolfe says:

    Those are some pretty horrible screenshots…

  8. fish99 says:

    The controls annoyed me in the 40 minutes I played it for, especially for doing tricks.

  9. Premium User Badge

    Sinomatic says:

    The best thing I could say about Steep was that the snow, and the sound of the snow, was very satisfying. The controls, as mentioned, felt shonky and unintuitive. The environment at large felt quite bland and not what I was expecting from a snowscape in a new game on ultra settings (not that I base a game’s value on the graphics…I was just expecting it to be what I call another ‘screenshot simulator’ and didn’t feel the need to take any). Those moments where I wandered off the beaten track and the controls responded in the fashion I expected them to? I could see myself enjoying that, but only perhaps if it was something from a bundle that I’d pop into here and there for a moment of quiet. As it stands it’s absolutely not worth the price of a full, new game for me.

  10. freiform says:

    I wanted to play, but in the tutorial the game crashed and wouldn’t let me in anymore. I tried a few things but apparently those minutes played didn’t motivate me enough to get it going again. Which by itself is interesting. Well, it cannot be helped. I would maybe get it for 15 payment units as a nice casual game.

  11. Blackrook says:

    I used kb/mouse rather than game pad and after I got the hang of it didn’t have that much problem with the stunts.

    I found it pretty enjoyable (playing with a friend and my daughter). We could see each others challenges np. I did have a lot of other people asking to group up especially after I was wearing a tiger costume, but apart from beating your friends score and sharing good routes it didn’t seem worth it.

    My main concern over the game was the size of the map being two small. Over the weekend we max’d out all the unlocked challenges out of 3 areas. I could see 7 areas altogether on the map for the alps. The store page says there is also there is another map in Alaska, but I can’t find anywhere which says how many areas in that map yet.

    I found some of the challenges frustrating from the difficulty level, ended up restarting the Squirrel wingsuit one about 80 times before I got it right. Yes lets fly a wing suit through dense trees – great idea.

    As mentioned the paraglider seemed a bit slow and boring but it was handy for finding new places to start from as you can use updraughts to go UP mountains as well.

    Also just going down a mountain and seeing where you ended up enjoyable in the same way as a random drive in the crew.
    Sit back and enjoy the scenery.

  12. -Spooky- says:

    I will wait for a cheap steal. 60 bucks on PC? Nope.

  13. The First Door says:

    I’ve not had a chance to give this a try yet, but do you really have to be standing still to change the mode? That sounds a bit rubbish if so. It’d be much more fun if you could ramp off of something, switch to wingsuit and then land on your board again à la SSX (2012). Also: bloody hell, was that really launched in 2012?

  14. Ross Angus says:

    I have no Uplay friend either. Nor Origin friends. Nor Rockstar Social Club friends. Nor GOG Galaxy friends.

    I know a few people on Steam though.

    • TheDyingScotsman says:

      Who needs friends to play a game though? You need uplay for certain games, same for origin….. I’m not sure your comment makes any sense at all.

  15. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    Spot on review, Brendy. Only thing I’d really add is, annoying as they were to start with, the trick controls did start to make some sense after a few hours. I think like you some kind of 1080 muscle memory kicked in and I was forever leaning on the jump button, and expecting to land one jump straight in to another. I think it’s trying to be more thoughtful than that, you have to plan your route and predict your jump (the animation for jumping does start when you release).

    Best part of the game is the crunch of the snow and the ability to ski/snowboard enormous, uninterrupted distances if you start high enough. Found a wonderful route that provoked a “you’ve spent 6 minutes without interruption” cheevo about 3/4s of the way down. And when you reach the end it’s a synch to save the route. Whether anyone else plays it or not its a nice feature that I could time attack the same homemade route again.

    All in all it was fun, think I’ll definitely pick it up, but probably not til it’s cheap.

  16. Turkey says:

    How gnarly are the trails in this game? Are the slopes thrashable? Will I be able to grab bits of tasty air? How fresh is the powder?

  17. Rhythm says:

    Spent about 20 hours in Steep in between the alpha and this beta, ended up pre-ordering (£40 for the Gold edition from Ubi Store).

    Comparisons to SSX are a bit jarring because, well, it’s not that. It’s more akin to Amped or Skate in so much as it’s more about exploration and chilling than pure tricks. Upcoming DLC promises sledging, base jumping, rocket packs…. great for dossing about aimlessly :-)

    And maybe it’s my love of other “extreme” sports games but the tricks gave me no issues at all, although you’re not the first I’ve heard mention the “problem” controls.

    As for those graphics, the engine is *great*. Setting everything to high gives 1440p60 using a GTX970. Very happy with that :-)

  18. vahnn says:

    I uninstalled it after 30 minutes.

  19. TheDyingScotsman says:

    Horrid interface, horrible controls and absolutely horrid camera (which cannot be changed) Played for 30 min and uninstalled.

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