There’s a reason the fear of heights exists. Falling a great distance, as it turns out, can break your bones, smoosh up your organs, and make your insides your outsides. As such, I’ve made no great effort to conquer my fear, opting to treat its function as assurance that things are running smoothly up top. But since VR’s arrival, it seems every other VR game is meant to poke and prod at that fear (or adrenal lust, you monsters) and Crytek’s latest Oculus Rift exclusive is no exception. I have to go up, and yes, I also have to look down. Cool.
The Climb is a decidedly restrained game compared to the likes of Crysis or Ryse. It’s exactly what the name describes: you use two disembodied hands to climb slightly surreal cliffsides based on real world locales. Look around to point your face hands at a nearby hold in the wall and they’ll snap to the correct location if they’re close enough. Pull the left and right triggers on the gamepad—each assigned to a hand—to grab. If you’re gripping a wall with only one hand, the stamina in that hand will deplete over time until you fall. Grip with both hands and stamina recharges. Pull the trigger on a lone-gripping hand halfway and you’ll hit a sweet spot where stamina stops draining (and your pointers learn the definition of pain, baby). Hold on with one hand so you can slow stamina drain by pressing a bumper to chalk up the other, which also dissipates over time. It’s a simple resource management system that punishes reckless climbing and forces unexperienced players to stop and smell the rockwall roses from time to time.
During my first ascent in a lush tropical setting, I reach what looks like a dead end. I can only see a sheer wall above and some dense vegetation far below. Looking down is a strange sensation. A small surge of vertigo subsides after I realize that my legs are, in fact, standing on solid ground. I recover and lean around the edge of the wall, tip-toed, and reach with my head to find a grip on the other side. Using my head to look with my hands isn’t strange—they essentially function as a creepy rock wall cursor—but using my head to reach is awkward. I duck and dive and lean every which way (a coworker describes me as ‘swimming through the air’) in order to find my way up, but since reach tracks using the highest part of my body, I nearly fall over often. I like that my body is literally strained to make long, difficult holds, but all of this would be so much easier (and less dangerous) with hand-tracking control, like with the Oculus Touch controllers releasing later this year, which The Climb will support.
Navigation of a given wall is best when open to player interpretation. When The Climb keeps the routes varied, indirect, and within reasonable enough reach of a person’s neck, the simple act planning out a potential route and executing that route while keeping your stamina in check can be a good time. In the Swiss Alps ‘hard’ stage, an entire cliffside opens up to me. I have to shimmy my way horizontally across the cliffside until I can find a checkpoint or a way up around the corner. Crags pockmark the rock face and I hold my grip for a good minute, plotting out what path through the handholds is in line with my capabilities. It’s great. My hands are sweating, I’m taking risks, and methodically making my way up. For a moment, I wonder if I should find a climbing gym to see how far I can chase this feeling.
But then The Climb’s more troublesome handholds are introduced. One breaks away after a very short time, one is covered in poisonous vines that drain your stamina, and another needs to be swept off by tapping the corresponding trigger several times before gripping. A segment of the Swiss wall is a dangerous cocktail of these new handholds. The disconnect between my head and disembodied hands grows every time I attempt to dash through a gauntlet of crumbling holds and struggle through a series of poison ledges that drain one hand’s stamina while I hurriedly scrape the debris off another.
My hands won’t snap to the positions I’m aiming for and my stamina bars blur, impossible to decipher as I look around frantically for the next hold, only to fall again and again. I’m no longer swimming through the air. I’m a fish out of water, flopping around and calling it walking.
Climbing arm-over-arm on the side of a mountain in a utilitarian rendition of the Swiss Alps hasn’t dulled my fear of heights. Instead, it made me more aware of the $600 goggles on my head and the chair brushing against my butt and co-worker Tom Marks’ arguably evil presence plotting to shake me when I fall. The Climb is at odds with the Oculus Rift technology. Its design aims too high for what the Rift is capable of right now, highlighting detailed vistas blurred into nothing by the limited resolution and difficult climbing segments totally undermined by imprecise head-to-hand controls. The Climb strives to make a simple concept a thrilling VR experience, but it can’t do that—or erase my fear of heights—until the Rift technology meets Crytek at the top.