Three fallacies I'm occasionally guilty of believing:
1) The Oculus Rift does not involve any of the physicality of the HTC Vive
2) VR gaming is riding a cart to minigame hell
3) There's a ceiling on how good VR games can look
It's a rock-climbing game, basically, but it's neither the forgiving auto-mantling of an Assassin's Creed or Uncharted or the torture-physics of GIRP. You've got each hand bound to one of a gamepad's two triggers, and need to grab, lean and lunge your way up and around various mountains and cliffs looming out of beautifully Cryengine-rendered environments.
The key challenge is not running out of stamina in either arm. This expires rapidly if you're dangling from just one hand, but replenishes when hanging by both, so you need to both know in advance where the other hand is going to go and have a certain amount of accuracy in making that happen. If you're only hanging on by one hand and that hand runs out of stamina, it's goodnight, sweetheart. This creates both mental and physical tension - the reason The Climb becomes a true VR game as opposed to just first-person climbing on a dramatic scale is that is asks you to use your body, rather than a targeting reticule, to navigate around the rocks.
Quite instinctively, I'm using my actual human head, encased as it is in a sweaty shoebox of plastic and polyester, to look at the grip I want to lunge to, it's taking my torso with it. If the grip is just that little bit out of reach, or around a corner, I strain over to it, my avatar's hands stretching upwards or to one side even though my own remain firmly clamped to the gamepad. I am trying to get to that grip myself, and I am clenching and stretching muscles to do it; even though all I'm really doing is pressing buttons on a gamepad, the rest of my upper body seems to be working hard. It's the strangest thing: I barely move but I feel sweaty and achey after reaching a summit.
I won't be so foolish as to pretend this is actually analogous to real-world free-climbing, because for one thing I'd be a jam puddle within 12 seconds if I tried that, but it's a surprising workout. I believe I am climbing up a mountain, and parts of my body respond accordingly.
The strange thing is that I don't spend much time gazing at the dramatic scenery: American canyons, Alpine peaks, Far Eastern bays. It's a bit like a greatest hits of Cryengine games, really. These were, after all, what I'd signed up for when I installed The Climb, stay-at-home tourist that I am. I wanted to be on top of a mountain in a far-off place, rather than a small, musty bedroom in a bitterly divided country that rains for 350 days a year.
Though they offer some of the prettiest photoreal-intended scenery I've seen in any VR title, and put paid to any concerns that the graphics processing requirements for 90 frames a second of virtual reality places stark limitations on what's possible (thank you, asynchronous timewarp), the reality is that I'm starting at rocks. Or, to be more accurate, too busy clinging onto rocks for dear life to look around. Even when I'm safe - i.e. I've got both hands on secure grips, so stamina isn't draining and I'm not about to do a Wilhelm-soundtracked plummet to my death - it all feels a bit too life and death to start gazing around.
There's also the pull to get the top, the trophy, the achievement, a very real sense of accomplishment: made it. No time to waste, there's a mountain to climb. Some game-y elements help promote this mentality, points awarded for rapidly mantling from grip to grip rather than fearfully pausing between each one, but really it's just that I want to beat the mountain. The game knows this full well. At the summit, when you've hauled yourself upwards for a climactic time, the view opens up, 360 degrees of sweeping prettiness, and your character's hands throw upwards as he bellows "woooooo!" Me, I'm quietly exhaling for what feels like the first time in forever, but the sentiment is the same. I feel like I've done something, and gazing out at all that wonderful 360, 3D scenery is my reward for it.
Oddly, when I take the headset off, I realise I've moved around the room a hell of a lot too - contrary to the fairly static stereotypes of Rift usage (as opposed to Vive usage). This is standing game, not a sitting game, but I find that I've moved quite some distance back from my desk unknowingly - further back, even, than I thought the Oculus sensor could cope with. As I play, I'm unconsciously tapping the 'reset camera' button quite often to cope with my shifted position, as I've shuffled and sloped almost unwittingly, trying to shift my body into positions I feel are safe. All that said, I don't experience vertigo in The Climb - I'd expected to, but falls are so brief and respawns so quick that the sense of threat dissipates all to quickly. Maybe that's for the best, though.
I also haven't suffered the motion sickness issues I do in many Rift games, which I think is because there isn't that much in the way of rapid turns. The camera moves smoothly with hand position, rather than rotating or twitching, but despite the abstraction of my character only being a pair of hands, it all feels very natural.
A final ace in the hole is that, yes, this is a VR game I want to go back to, as opposed to feeling as though I've seen all it's got to offer after an hour or two with it. There are harder challenges - crumbling ledges, grips with poisonous plants growing out of them, harrowing jumps, a greater reliance on rapid hand-over-hand movements, speed trials, secret paths - myriad ways to feel as though I have conquered the mountain all over again.
This is good VR. Let there be more of it.
The Climb is out now on the Oculus Store. At £40 it is frankly far too expensive, but let's hope for a price cut or sale soon.