Of all the things we expected Ubisoft to announce at E3, a snowboarding game wasn't one of them.
In the weeks leading up to the event, Ubisoft confirmed a brand new property would be unveiled, and that it would be another large-scale, online-connected world to explore. Naturally, we assumed it would be something else along the lines of Assassin's Creed or The Division, albeit with a new theme.
Nope. Steep is a snowboarding game – but it's also a skiing game, a paragliding game, and a soaring wingsuit experience. And when you strap on the GoPro perspective, things can get truly, absolutely insane.
So yes, Ubisoft is making an extreme sports game in 2016: will it be the one that thrusts this diminished genre back to the forefront? We went hands-on at E3 to investigate.
Steep aims to be a big, big winter sports paradise, delivering large, open mountains to explore one way or the other. You'll catch fresh powder in the Alps and Alaska, with loads of opportunities to grab air, pull off tricks, soar through the sky, and race down zippy trails.
We've seen some of these concepts in play before in games like 2012's SSX, the overlooked Stoked entries, and even Amped. But with Steep, Ubisoft may finally have the tech and knowhow to put it all together to create the ultimate social experience around snowboarding and shredding.
Using the learnings of its other open-world experiences, Ubisoft has turned Steep's mountains into one big party destination. You can battle it out in live ride challenges across the mountain, or share your best runs with friends (foes?) and see if they can match your line.
Seeing all the challenges peppered across the mountain is an inviting approach, as you can pop into whichever sounds most appealing at any given time – or simply move on and continue freely riding and exploring. And seeing other random riders on the mountain adds a lot of depth and realism to the environment. It's social play on a very large scale, which should be a blast.
What I loved the most about playing Steep was the ability to quickly shift from one experience to another without digging deep into menus or changing modes. Want to swap your snowboard for skis? Click in a shoulder button and swap on the selection wheel. Found yourself in the perfect spot for a leisurely paragliding tour? It won't take more than a second to set yourself up for the ride.
Even things like restarting a run and fast-traveling around the mountain seemed pretty easy and seamless, taking a lot less effort than you might expect for a game of this size. It has the potential to be overwhelming, sure, but from what I've played the navigation and interface both seem surprisingly manageable.
The GoPro generation
Easily one of the coolest things about Steep is the GoPro view – and yes, it's properly licensed – which provides the kind of in-the-moment, first-person perspective we're used to seeing from action cameras these days. Only you're the one living the digital experience.
While a standard third-person view might provide more context for lining up jumps and tricks and carving out perfect lines, the GoPro view's added immersion is absolutely unbelievable when you're whipping alongside a mountain wearing a wingsuit, trying to win an event by staying closest to the ground.
It's overwhelming and initially disorienting – but ultimately brilliant. And the game manages to look totally fantastic at that hyper pace, which doesn't hurt matters a bit. The first-person skiing in particular looks incredible… but also seems nearly impossible to maintain at high speeds. Worth a shot, right?
In fact, we're surprised that Ubisoft didn't announce VR support for the game, given the seemingly perfect transition the GoPro cam offers for the PlayStation VR or Oculus Rift. Then again, there will be a lot of tossed stomachs if and assumedly when Steep makes that leap. Still, we want to try it.
The GoPro tie-in also works well with the game's extensive replay editing engine, which lets you snip, tweak, and enhance your saved footage to create spectacularly shareable clips.
All coming together
My hands-on time at E3 was relatively limited, but even so, it was clear that the controls didn't just click right out of the gate: timing jumps and tricks didn't come easily at all, and when I inevitably landed face-first into the powder, there was a very slow and sluggish result that tended to pull me out of the game.
Some of that is surely the learning curve that comes with mastering the virtual slopes over time and learning from a proper tutorial. But I also can't help but wonder if Steep is ultimately a much more simulation-leaning game than something like SSX. It definitely has less of an in-your-face attitude, and potentially much less personality in general.
Whether or not that extends to the gameplay is hard to gauge from 15 minutes on the show floor with an incomplete build of a very large game, however. And a sim-style entry isn't necessarily bad news, although it could limit the fanbase somewhat and prevent this ambitious extreme sports entry from making as large of a dent as it seems eager to leave.
Given all of that, I walked away from the demo impressed and intrigued by some elements of Steep but also unsure about the game's overall tone and composition.
The wingsuit action is intense and fun, especially from the GoPro view, while paragliding offers a nicely chill break from the action and the social stuff is promising. On the ground, however, navigating jumps and tricks didn't come very naturally in the demo, and I'm a little concerned that Steep might lack the accessibility needed to pull the average player in deep.
Still, the overall balance right now is really promising, and Ubisoft has the tech and ambition to deliver on huge open-world experiences – albeit not always on the first go-round.
Here's hoping that Steep lives up to its lofty goals this time down the mountain. It's due out in the appropriately winter month of December for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. Ubisoft is planning a series of beta tests, too, which you can sign up for now.