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Steep open beta: Great mountains, infuriating controls

It's snow SSX

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.

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