Begging developers for Nintendo Switch ports isn’t cool, but I’m still very upset that Ubisoft cancelled Steep on Switch.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve moved away from team sports, sports in general, and outdoor activities. Going to the gym is a bit of a necessary evil, but other than that (including occasional games of tennis and squash with my wife for cardio) I don’t really participate in sports any more.
But there’s one outdoor activity I still can’t get enough of – skiing.
Maybe it’s the adrenaline of it all, the sense of speed and danger. Maybe it’s the freedom and the fresh mountain air, then curling up in front of a roaring fire. Or perhaps it’s simply time away from work, combined with socially sanctioned beer drinking, dancing on tables, and eating your own bodyweight in raclette.
Whatever it is, I love to ski. What I dislike most about skiing – other than Satan’s boot-shaped, podiatric torture devices – is the frequency with which we get to do it. It’s not a cheap activity, and you typically have to travel a long way from the valleys and dells of England to find enough of the powdery white stuff, along with sufficiently vertiginous slopes and competent infrastructure, to actually enjoy it. Fun fact: I once won a year’s free membership to a UK skiing centre in a contest, one of the only competitions I ever won, and not a single flake fell that year.
And with travel comes a lot of sitting on your arse. Whether that’s three or four hours on a plane to the Alps or Scandinavia – preceded by three hours in an airport lounge, and likely followed by a couple more on a horrible coach transfer – or closer to 9 hours in the air to North America, that’s a lot of waiting around. If you take the Eurostar snow train directly to the French Alps it’s a more relaxed way to travel, but door to door, it’s still going to take you 12 hours or more.
That’s where the Nintendo Switch comes in.
I’ve explored Hyrule at 40,000 feet in Breath of the Wild. I’ve raced Mario Kart 8 on the train. I’ve played Gris curled up in bed and Fortnite on the toilet! So what I really want to do, on a day filled with travel and waiting around en route to a ski resort, is play Steep.
Steep, in case you missed it, is the open world snowsports playground from Ubisoft Annecy, an Ubi-studio situated in the shadow of the French Alps. And it’s bloody brilliant. Not only is it the greatest snowsports game by some distance – and one of the best winter video games of all time – but it’s also the best open world game Ubisoft has ever made.
Nope. I’m not kidding. Steep is better than Assassin’s Creed 2. It’s better than Watch Dogs 2. It’s better than The Crew 2. It’s better than all of the Far Cry games put together. All of that stuff that seems fun at first, but can grow to be a bit annoying in other Ubisoft open worlds? The tower climbing and eagle vision and maps filled with an obscene number of icons representing things to do? That’s all just brilliant in Steep.
You’re up a mountain, knee deep in powder. Off-piste slopes splinter in every direction. Then the controller buzzes, to let you know a new drop-zone is nearby. You pull out your trusty binoculars and mark the drop zone, then put in a call to the ever-present Red Bull-branded (because of course, it’s Red Bull) chopper, who whisks you away to the new drop zone. New runs, new areas, new adventures. It makes a lot more sense than having to climb up a church spire before you’re allowed to head into the next area of the map, that’s for sure.
And then there’s the combination of free exploration and fun you’re presented with in Steep. It’s a fizzing, effervescent joy of a game, allowing you to feel superhumanly brilliant and regular-humanly average all at once, and that’s part of the fun of skiing.
One minute you’re whipping down a blue run at what feels like Super-G speeds, or jumping off manageable ramps feeling like an X-Games hero, or wending off-piste through powder and trees like an alpine adventurer. Then a black run makes you feel like a terrified deer on ice, or you take on too big a jump and eat snow, or wade into powder too thick and with not enough momentum, and sink into the forest.
Steep manages to capture all of these feelings. It combines them into a perfect little package. I can think of no better way to pass the time on the journey to a ski resort, or to while away an hour or two après-Après ski, curled up before bed with a mug of hot chocolate, than playing Steep.
So why, after it was all over early Nintendo promotional material, haven’t we got Steep on Switch?
Steep on Switch was cancelled – quietly, and without announcement – sometime prior to August 2018. We only found out because a user on Twitter asked the official Steep account, and got the following response:
That doesn’t really clear up why Steep on Switch was cancelled, other than the PR-friendly message that Ubisoft Annecy was refocusing their attention on the existing platforms, to bring more live events and new content to the game.
There’s every chance Ubisoft simply couldn’t get Steep to run well enough. The Nintendo Switch is the little console that could, and the fact it can play games like 2016’s Doom and 2017’s Wolfenstein 2 is frankly remarkable. But it’s not outside the realms of possibility that it just didn’t perform well enough to pass Ubisoft’s quality control and, in spite of what fools on Reddit and Twitter think, no developer wants to release a poor incarnation of the game they’ve poured their heart and soul into.
But there is another possibility: is the always-connected, online nature of Steep simply incompatible with the nomadic Nintendo Switch?
Steep’s online mingleplayer is actually excellent. In a fine game, it’s another example of top drawer implementation of a feature that can be irritating under other circumstances. There are just enough people on the mountain to make it feel like a living resort – and to allow fun little stories to evolve on their own terms – but it’s not so intrusive as to get in the way of the solo experience.
But how would Steep work without a constant internet connection? There would be no leaderboards, no daily challenges, no ghosts to outrun, and crucially, no other players on the mountain. And how would I be playing Steep on a ski holiday? In an airport. On a plane. On a resort transfer. In a chalet, halfway up a mountain, with (I suspect) no wireless internet and (probably) no 4G signal for tethering, either.
The trouble with creating always online, perma-connected games is that, when that connectivity is removed, they falter and fall. It’s why older online games and services close down with metronomic regularity, and without any way to preserve them? They’re lost forever, just fragments in our memory.
Steep on Switch might just have been a pre-emptive example of this. A game that can’t cope without a persistent internet connection is fundamentally incompatible with a console that spends most of its life away from one: in your bag; on the bus; in the car; on the Tube; on a plane; living its best carefree, wandering life.
It’s such a shame that a game based on exploring the mountains can’t be played on the only console that can.