Ubisoft's wayward winter sports game is at its best in moments of solitude and exploration.
This mountain has stories. That's what someone in Steep told me early on in the adventure, although I may be paraphrasing.
And I thought: Sure, stories, blah blah blah. The time I spun off that jump at a wonky angle and landed, inelegantly, in the open embrace of a tree. The time I found the only patch of rock on a smooth downhill run and landed, inelegantly, in the open embrace of a tree.
But this is Ubisoft, remember? So the mountain actually does have stories. I found one on a night jaunt in my first hour or so playing, already deep inside the game's astonishing open world, a huge map filled with peaks and valleys and absolutely no loading times between them. I was following a skier down a slope, and the mountain started talking to me, spinning up a veritable Kate Bush lyric about how it was ancient and primal and would speak its truths if it I asked it to. Steep, then, is not SSX or any other winter sports game I might have imagined it would be at first. Steep is weird. And it's often wonderful.
In fact, Steep is entirely wonderful on paper - wonderful to me, at least, and anybody else in the mood for a big, daringly aimless game set in a vast stretch of wilderness. Ubisoft's latest drops you onto the side of a massive Alpine range, a huge and surprisingly diverse landscape over which is spread a pleasantly simple-minded extreme sports game. There are four varieties of sport to choose from - snowboarding, skiing, wingsuiting and paragliding, and they can be switched pretty much on the fly via the Sports Wheel as you take on different challenges or just explore. Because this is Ubisoft, there are plenty of competing progression methods to steer you through the thicket of possibilities: there's an XP system at the core, and a variety of different fields of expertise to boost stats in beyond that. (These are essentially different player archetypes, ranging from Explorers, who just want to see everything, to Bone Collectors, who just want to get hurt in amusing ways.)
There are tricks offered across some sports (they're pretty basic, mind, and they seemed wooly until I understood Steep's peculiar sense of timing), and there are those challenges to unlock everywhere, forming the spine of the campaign, from simple downhill races to trick-runs and opportunities to float through glowing hoops in the sky. And if you needed any more of a reminder that this is Ubisoft, you open up fast travel hot spots around the mountain, called Drop Zones, by tagging them with your binoculars once you're close enough. Throw in specific missions that help define each peak, unlocked by hitting the level requirement, and you have a game that offers a friendly muddle of things to do - and a mountain that, once you pull back, has been heavily carpet-bombed by the Ubisoft map machine, icons and doodads littering the landscape, timeless natural beauty buried under a sharp-edged UI. In screenshots, it is almost self-parody, but it's a generous self-parody at least.
Some sports are more interesting than others. Snowboarding is clearly the king here, with a lovely downhill momentum, an elegant way with curves, and tricks which provide a little spectacle. Wingsuiting is similarly good as you leap from the roof of the world and then duck and dive, juke to the left and right to slot yourself through pylons or rock arches, or hug the ground to score points. (It's great when it goes wrong, too, and you ragdoll down an entire mountain until your skeleton, presumably, resembles the gritty dregs at the bottom of a Cornflakes packet.) Skiing is fine, but why bother skiing when you've got a board? Are you Prince Charles or something? Do you want to be Prince Charles? Does he seem particularly happy to you? Paragliding feels like a bit of a dud. It's a real gear-change compared to the other treats on offer, and even the stunts can't really jolt it back to life for me. Still, it is nice to dial the clock forward and go for a gentle float at sunset. A park bench in the sky. Steep is like a box of chocolates.
Those sunsets are worth seeing. Despite a lingering blandness to the detailing, Steep is very beautiful, maybe because the world it is capturing is so unavoidably beautiful in the first place. The slopes allow for a surprising range of sights, from thickets of spindly silver-skinned trees set on lofty peaks, to snow-clogged villages and dark ravines where huge slabs of blue ice rise out of the ground. The snow crunches beautifully beneath you, carved into lines and abstract tangles, and the time of day is yours to control, shifting from the smoky greys of night rides under a full moon, to the candied orange snow of sunrise.
All of this, the bespoke races and trick runs, the open mountain, yours to explore, can be experienced with other people. You can save any stretch of mountain you've traversed and turn it into a challenge to share with friends, or you can partner up with the randoms you find spotted around and tackle things together. Weirdly, neither of these options is entirely convincing.
Here's the thing, though: multiplayer isn't really the focus in a game like this anyway. Steep's so big that it's easy to assume you'll want to explore it with other people, but the best moments here are all solo affairs. It's at its best when you're on your own, either racing to beat a time or score and leaning on the instant restart, or simply blasting around this huge, craggy wilderness, maybe stumbling across something great out there in the depths, and maybe not. Steep's best multiplayer moments are not team races of trick challenges, incidentally. They're actually when I've been on my own for an age, and I've just spotted someone in the distance, doing their own thing.
At its worst, Steep's everything that's slightly naff about some Ubisoft games: there's a micro-transactions shop - it's not very intrusive, thankfully - and sponsored events by the usual suspects. Throw in a bit of odd physics - sometimes too arcadey, sometimes too eager to leave you landlocked on a piece of jutting rock - and some fiddly, over-conceived menus and it can sound like a right pain. But Steep isn't a right pain, and it's rarely at its worst. Instead, it's strange and lonesome and deeply transporting. It gives you genuine freedom, even if that's the freedom that comes from developers who are not quite sure what to do with the landscape they have made.
Often it sings. Where it truly comes alive is a freerider event, say, with seven minutes on the clock for a bronze and no checkpoint gates between you and the simple instruction: reach the finish line. A lone bar of orange light rises on the distant horizon, and you suddenly realise that you have a destination, a snowboard, and a huge expanse of mountain ahead of you with no set way to cross it. Glorious.
Or maybe it's a moment when you wingsuit through a craggy canyon, darting around spikes and spits of jutting rock while the gentle rumble pebbling through the pad tells you that you are close enough to the ground to be earning major points all the way.
Or it's a long run down into a glacier. Clear ice pokes through the thick snow as you go deeper and deeper, further than you can imagine this channel reaching, multiplier knocked up to its maximum so you're being rewarded gratuitously for doing even the quietest of tricks while you just lean forward to see what comes next.
That's Steep. Early on, I was told by Steep's intrusive narrator to pretty much ignore the unlockable challenges and carve the mountain up in search of hidden lines and lonely spaces. This was good advice, even if the narrator immediately contradicted it, and now I pass it on to you. Again and again, it's quietly thrilling to leap from the mountainside and the board beneath my feet, up to the overhead view of the entire mountain range, in which my rider is suddenly a dot, lost amongst the rumpled whiteness, and then instantly warp to a distant drop zone. As an extreme sports game, Steep is fine. As a place, it's frequently amazing.