Once when my little sister was nervous about flying, I tried to reassure her by explaining that when planes land, they’re literally falling. Planes generate lift by moving forward, with the amount of lift proportional to their speed (I might have even used the word “Bernoulli” while explaining this; I can be a bit of a show-off). If a plane doesn’t have enough speed, it stops generating lift. That’s called stalling. So when a pilot lands an airplane, he doesn’t fire up the engines and point the nose at the runway. That’s called crashing. Instead, he reduces speed until the plane isn’t generating enough lift to stay airborne. Now the plane is falling. Ideally gradually. And ideally onto a surface amenable to airplanes, like a runway. But falling nevertheless. It’s the easiest thing in the world. Falling.
“That’s not reassuring,” she noted. Probably because falling and crashing are synonyms more than falling and landing are synonyms.
I had intended to convey that the physics involved in landing a plane are foolproof, unlike the physics involved in getting a plane into the air, which require working engines and therefore all sorts of stuff about turbines and combustible fuel and torque and thermodynamics. It’s easier to work with gravity than against gravity, because falling is the natural state of things.
In fact, you would be falling right now if it wasn’t for the ground. That’s the principle of Steep: things naturally fall, so when the ground is steep — and covered in snow to reduce friction — you fall, albeit diagonally. Otherwise known as skiing. It’s another variation on falling, just like landing an airplane. Easiest things in the world, especially in a videogame that assumes you intend to stay upright. My experience with real world skiing has taught me that staying upright isn’t a given. But Ubisoft knows I don’t want to fuss with that part. So they just let me ride gravity down the side of a mountain, like a rollercoasters without rails. I’m an unfettered rollercoaster in a winter wonderland, pure and simple, just physics and alpine vistas and the shush and crunch of fancy videogame snow. No shooting, no parkour, no inventory, no crafting, no stats, no leveling up, no collectibles. Steep is as pure as driven snow.
Okay, I got a little carried away. There is leveling up. There are unlockable bits of costumes that you technically collect. There are plenty of challenges to be unfogged and points of interest to be discovered and areas to be one-hundred-percented. But it’s not the usual Ubistuff, like feathers in Assassin’s Creed or campfires in Far Cry or whatever I know I’m going to spend hours collecting in Ghost Recon: Wildlands. Dog tags, I bet. Steep does something that open-world games tend to avoid: empty openness. There’s a crisp confidence in Steep’s willingness to let me glide through its alpine landscapes with no goal other than to see what’s at the bottom. Normally, you climb mountains to attain some sort of enlightenment, whether you’re looking for a guru or just a bear wanting to see what he can see. But Steep is about the part after where you ride those lovely landscapes down, down, down, at one with the inevitability of gravity.
I know what you’re thinking: “Dude, didn’t you ever play SSX?” The difference is that Ubisoft is terrified no one will play a game that isn’t also a never ending open-world. So they took the engine they’ve been using for Assassin’s Creeds and they crafted a range of mountains with varied visual styles, fancy lighting effects for high altitude sunlight, and gratuitous snow physics. And they then had the courage to let it be almost as vast and almost as empty as an actual mountain range. This isn’t a set of tracks or levels. Your trysts with gravity will never be interrupted by a loading screen. A finish line never has to be a stopping point. At worst, you’ll hit a quick cinematic of your character hopping off a helicopter and downing a Red Bull while the helicopter waits for you to finish. It’s waiting because you’re going to put the empty can back on the helicopter before you ski off. Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, all that.
Ubisoft furthermore didn’t turn Steep into a skill-based stunt-oriented skateboarding game with Shaun Norton’s name on the box. As if they knew that I no longer have any desire to perfect a bunch of goddamnable finger choreography to trigger the animation for a 360 booger flip ollie flicker reverse. The people who would play a skateboarding game about trying over and over and over to land a trick against the same curb are probably playing Street Fighter, or Overwatch, or League of Legends. Some game I’m not playing because I’d rather explore a virtual mountain range than bang my toes against the same curb for the tenth time. Been there, done that, got the Bam Margera T-shirt for my avatar. Steep is not a game you play to get better at Steep.
Not to say there’s a lack of activities. And not to say there isn’t a bunch of stunt nonsense about reverse ollie booger flip flicker kicks. But the activities, the challenges, the races are tastefully scattered, used as touchstones for exploration. They’re undemanding, waiting until you’re ready or even happy to be ignored. If you’re the kind of guy who wants to try ten times to fly your wingsuit through a tiny hole in the rocks, Steep will let you do that. And if you’re the kind of guy who wants to pay attention to the names of stunts, they’re discreetly mentioned in the lower left corner, alongside your score and multiplier. But Steep does something no self-respecting skateboarding game would ever do: it lets you turn off the scoring display.
The central fact of Steep is the exploration. Even that most insidiously effective tool of gamification, leveling up, is a measure of and a reward for exploration. My character can ski just as well at level 1 as at level 15. The difference is that I can instantly teleport to more places at level 15. It’s how Ubisoft reveals this mountain range. Instead of climbing to the top of a tower to unfog a swathe of the map, I do various activities to dump experience points into various buckets. One for stunts, one for just exploring, even one for wiping out. As these buckets fill, I level up and have more starting points for exploration, in addition to the ones I’ve discovered while exploring. For instance, to start on the peak of Denali in the new Alaska DLC, you have to be level 29. Alternatively, you can just use one of your readily available helicopter tickets. Once you’ve arrived, it’s unlocked. You can now freely teleport to the top of the Denali even though you’re not level 29. Steep’s gating is as laidback as the fundamental dynamic of letting gravity take you down a mountain. It’s your mountain range, dude. Steep shrugs affably and patiently waits while you mosey over to unlock a new drop-off point.
And although I keep saying “skiing”, we’re really talking about snowboarding. That seems to be the default mode of transportation. You can opt for less stable skis at any time, but I have yet to see any reason for the added challenge. Which is too bad, because I’d love an incentive to try the mild pushback of staying upright on skis. There are also paragliding and wingsuiting, other variations on falling that supposedly put Steep in the domain of extreme sports. It’s really not. Extreme sports shout. Steep whispers, knowing better than to disrupt the sometimes eerie winter hush. It has its occasional DJ Atomika outbursts, and I suspect the music is that kind of budget edgy that characterizes Ubisoft soundtracks. I wouldn’t know. I turned it off.
But the extreme wingsuiting is really just a short rush of speed, basically a slower mode of fast travel. It’s a way to go from here to down there, pronto. Wingsuit challenges are mostly challenging because you’re playing in third person and can’t really tell where you’re going to fly (the first person camera in Steep is too herky jerky to be helpful). But the wingsuiting is so unextreme that you will never fall out of the sky. “Bernoulli?” the wingsuits ask, “Never heard of him.” And the extreme “woo-hoo, I’m flying!” of paragliding is instead a cleverly engineered exploration mechanic. To keep the glider airborne, you have to fly near slopes to catch the updrift. In other words, you have to get in close and explore the nooks and crannies. The wingsuit is about rushing down the scenery. The paraglider is about hugging the scenery.
Again, I don’t mean to imply this is some dippy underdeveloped exploration game or glorified walking simulator. It’s not an alpine take on Aquanaut’s Holiday. Steep knows better. Steep knows how to keep you busy, how to show you just enough that you’ll want to go take a look yourself. It knows to give you lots of multiplayer grouping activities, exhaustive analysis tools, fancy replay options, friends challenges, leaderboards, ghosts, a G-force meter, sassy avatars, unlockable sasquatch costumes, backpack stickers, progression tracks, and even quests for each peak. But Steep also knows something Ubisoft seem to have forgotten since Far Cry 2: sometimes you just want to go someplace beautiful and chill the fuck out.
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The paradoxically relaxing thrill of skiing, without getting cold and wet, without having to travel up into some distant mountains, and without having to practice a bunch of stunt combos so you can beat this track to unlock the next one. This is the Far Cry 2 of extreme sports games.