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Ubisoft is taking a risk with one of its newest blockbuster console properties, and it can do that because it spent so many years making Assassin’s Creed games over and over.
Steep is the publisher’s open-world winter-sports sim that it announced at the Electronic Entertainment Expo trade show earlier this month. It is coming to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC in December. It’s about snowboarding, skiing, parachuting, and jumping (in a wingsuit) down open-world snow-covered mountains. During a demo in Ubisoft’s booth, it struck me that while Steep doesn’t have guns, stealth, and explosions, it is still reminiscent of the company’s hits like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and Watch Dogs. And what I took away is that Ubisoft has refined a development process after releasing a new Assassin’s Creed every year from 2009 to 2015 that is enabling it to branch out into new genres and settings with its biggest releases.
Now, Ubisoft has never shied away from taking chances. It was one of the few big publishers that embraced the Wii and Kinect with Rabbids and Just Dance games, and it is now trying something similar with virtual reality. It has also produced smaller projects like platformer Grow Home in 2015 and the role-playing adventure Child of Light in 2014. But all of these efforts are smaller and inherently less risky than the expensive productions that hold up Ubisoft’s entire fiscal year. The aforementioned Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and Watch Dogs represent a much bigger chunk of Ubisoft’s costs than any Raving Rabbids game.
What’s different here is that Steep combines Ubisoft’s willingness to make something new with the design and style that define its biggest annual releases.
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Steep is a connected world where you can group up with friends and strangers to take on objectives and set challenges for one another. It is in an early state right now, and it has some rough edges — but the core of racing and trying to perform tricks on an open mountain is solid. I was already getting into trying to set a top time for a wingsuit challenge, where you need to get to the finish line while sailing as close to the ground as possible for maximum points. I can also see myself losing hours trying to set times on certain paths and asking my friends to try to beat them.
Ubisoft has done this kind of connected multiplayer world before with The Crew, Watch Dogs, and The Division, and it makes a lot of sense in Steep. Real-world skiing is often about sharing a slope with other people that you may or may not know. It’s a social experience, and Steep feels alive because it captures this.
At the same time, what might not make as much sense is unlock towers. An Ubisoft-game cliche in recent years is the tower that players have to climb or hack to unlock missions in a certain part of the map. Steep has something similar. In its exploration mode, you fly around the mountain using a parachute (trying to hit thermal lifts to stay in the air), looking for new spots to unlock. Once you discover them with your binoculars, you can then teleport to it and find the missions and objectives associated with that spot. It is all familiar, but it also all fits.
Ubisoft is not making a new Assassin’s Creed for release in 2016, but with Steep, it is making something new that uses a lot of the same ideas. And that’s exciting.
It’s easy to look at the publisher and assume it is risk-averse in the blockbuster space because it trots out the same franchises over and over. And when its tentpole releases do deviate from Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, they typically stick to shooters like Watch Dogs and The Division.
But following The Crew, Steep signifies that Ubisoft is willing to try something different. It’s still going to use its core competencies of open-world, connected experiences with exploration and drop-in multiplayer, but it’s not afraid to put those things in a totally new setting with entirely different gameplay.
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