Virtual reality promises to be many things to many people, offering immersive new forms of gameplay, interactive cinema, virtual tourism. What I hadn't anticipated however (and what Crytek's new VR game, The Climb, delivers) is virtual reality as bubble-wrapped escapism for wimps like me that have always been attracted to the danger of extreme sports, but are too sheepish to risk their brittle bones in real life.
The aim of The Climb is simple – from a lowly outcrop looking at a summit high above, you'll have to make the death-defying climb to the topmost point. Birds fly past as the wind whistles around you, small wooden shacks reflect in the lagoon far below. Set up a fan on your desk, point it at your head and you could almost feel the elevation.
Though Crytek is planning Oculus Touch motion-based controls for The Climb (I can imagine my little virtual hands faffing around in front of me know), the game still works surprisingly well with just a regular Xbox 360 pad. Each trigger represents your left or right hand respectively, while the bumpers are used to chalk your digits between movements. Look at a handhold (usually highlighted by a chalky indentation) by pointing your head in its direction, pull a trigger and you'll start pulling yourself upwards. It's very intuitive. I quickly fell into a natural rhythm, and within minutes was trying complicated moves like crossing one hand over the other (the sort of technique that will need to be mastered in order to succeed in the final full game).
The Climb makes good use of the current Oculus headset's depth-perception, too – I played whilst seated the entire time, but was able to lean in and out to peek around corners and plan my next ascent. Fail to keep your hands well chalked and you'll fall to your doom – which will happen quite a lot, especially when many points require you to take a leap of faith with the A button, frantically grabbing at hand holds in mid air.
And that's when things start to feel really horrible – and I mean that in the most engrossing way possible. Though I thankfully have never fell from a great height whilst out on some extreme sports pursuit, The Climb instilled such a great sense of verticality and danger that I think it's probably turned me off the prospect of doing it for real for good. Missing a risky leap and falling to your doom, then looking down at the approaching VR ground hurtling towards you? It's enough to make you faint, and the sort of experience – that much-lauded sense of "presence" that Oculus founder Palmer Luckey is always going on about – that can only be felt when playing a virtual reality game.
How much longevity there will be to The Climb remains to be seen. This is going to be a full-price, full-length game, Crytek's representatives reassure me, and there's plenty more to see beyond my 45 minute climb across two levels. But, it will essentially be doing the same thing over and over, climbing hand over hand, rocky outcrop over stony ledge. An asynchronous time trial race mode will test multiplayer risk takers, and each of the levels (the amount of which remains as-yet-unannounced) will have many multiple paths of differing difficulty to explore. Exploration is described as being a key pillar of the game too – so expect to be tasked with hunting down well-hidden trinkets halfway up a mountainside. But as for a story, or some conflict? It seems this will be simply a man-vs-nature battle of wills.
For me, variation in level design and art will be key – the sunkissed pan-Asian locales I climbed around were pretty (if not quite as photoreal as some of Crytek's other locations), but I'd like to see what the sensation of climbing up an icy Everest-like mountainside would be like, complete with avalanches and slippery trick-grip spots. Or even the foggy, rainy cliff sides of somewhere closer to home, like Ben Nevis or Snowdon.
We won't have much longer to wait to see what else The Climb holds, though. Launching as an Oculus Rift exclusive, it should be ready to play in time for the headset's consumer release, which is now slated for the first quarter of 2016.