I am absolutely ready for Steep, and I have high hopes that Steep is ready for us. I've been ready for absolutely ages, in fact, desperate for a game that gives me a snowboard, a weighty sense of downhill pelt and an entire freakin mountain to play with. What I am after - and here I suspect Steep might diverge from my hopes very slightly - is Burnout Paradise stuck to the side of a giant bloody Alp. SSX? I've given up waiting for a new one. Maybe I just haven't been good enough to deserve it. Snow? I had a brief flirtation, but it was very early days. Steep? Yes please!
The open beta, which I dived into a little bit over the weekend, has left me cautiously optimistic. Until snowboarding game designers abandon reality entirely and wrap a craggy open-world around some manner of Möbius-like Impossible Mountain Pretzel that allows you to loop endlessly, turning every lofty peak into something you can always race down towards if you find the right path? Until then, that Burnout Paradise snowsports game is never really going to happen. Mountainous open worlds are drawn towards some kind of inevitable restart by the sheer force of gravity: you can have a whole valley, but sooner or later you're going to have to get in a ski lift. Still, Steep gets around that by offering really seamless fast travel. Since it's Ubisoft, of course, you fast travel between spots with a coolish name - Drop Zones - that are unlocked with a familiar bit of interaction. When you're looking for something new to do, bust out your binoculars and scan the mountains for places where a tingling sound effect tells you that you're onto something. Voila: a new Drop Zone unlocked, and with it a new challenge.
The challenges themselves seem fine, although I've been spoilt with the crazy excess of SSX, I think, and now find Steep's slightly more realistic peaks lacking in sugar rush. (To put it succinctly, I have yet to smash my way out of an ice cave, chased by an avalanche, just as a chopper passes overhead.) I haven't played too many of these challenges yet, however, so that stuff might be waiting for me. Besides, the ones I have seen have had quieter virtues anyway, like neat lines hidden in unlikely places. Overall, there is enough in Steep's open beta to leave me feeling hopeful. I'm prepared for bugs, but I reckon this mountain might be a lovely place to waste a lot of time over Christmas.The console shooter that changed everything A Digital Foundry Halo retrospective.
And then there's the one thing Steep does absolutely brilliantly.
It's so simple, too. You know weapons wheels in games? Steep has a Sports Wheel. Say you're racing along on your snowboard and you start to get a bit tired of it. A stab of the right bumper brings up the Sports Wheel - I appreciate that this sounds like the kind of thing Jon Bon Jovi might end up pitching in a late night exercise infomercial - and you can suddenly choose between walking, wingsuiting, paragliding and skiing. Pick the wrong one and you could end up face down in the snow, but that's not the important thing. The important thing is that Steep is an open-world sports game that wants to put all of the sports within reach all the time, and is pretty helpful when it comes to allowing you to change your mind on the fly.
This, perhaps, is where Ubisoft's experience with vast gaming landscapes pays off. The developers know from the start that their mountain is also a playground, and also a chemistry set. It's a place to experiment with sports, rather than be hamstrung by reality. That Sports Wheel, in fact, gives me hope that some of the excess of SSX may have found a new home after all.