It’s quiet on the side of the mountain, and I’m alone. I also know better than to look down. From the rapidly depleting stamina bar on my wrist, though, I know I need to move, and move soon. Otherwise, the drop I’m trying to avoid looking at will become a bigger problem than just something to fear.
The Climb 2 on Oculus Quest 2 is Crytek’s second pass at bringing solo climbing to virtual reality, and it’s a doozy. The first game focused on natural features located in a mostly static environment, but the sequel introduces cityscapes and livens up the experience with interactive animals and other distractions, surprises, or delights. During one particularly surprising moment, I found myself face to face with a rattlesnake, which promptly bit me, causing me to lose my grip and fall to my virtual death.
That calm from being so far up, and so far away from other people and the distractions of modern life, combined with the sweat-inducing fear of falling, creates an appealing escape if you have the stomach for it.
Climbing in VR is mostly a simple process of looking around for handholds — which are usually marked by the difference in color from their immediate surroundings — and then moving from one to the next, always making sure you have at least one hand keeping you from falling.
Unless you’re trying to jump from one group of handholds to the next, of course, which is a distressingly common requirement during most runs, and when I felt the most vulnerable. It doesn’t help that one button on your controller causes you to jump, and another shows you the best route, or routes, forward.
You’ll want to practice which is which, to avoid my first hour of unexpectedly flinging myself into oblivion when I thought I was just looking for the next step. I sometimes had to figure out where I needed to go next and reach out as far as I could with one hand, getting ready to grab on, while holding onto my current perch with the other hand before taking the jump.
Hanging on with only one hand takes away stamina, though, and you also fall if you run out of it. You replenish your supply by holding on with two hands; by making sure you keep your hands chalked, which entails shaking the controller with the right button held down; or by learning how to only press down on the grip button halfway.
This half-grip technique requires a fair amount of muscle memory to get right if you don’t want to be looking at the indicator on your hands the entire time. But putting the effort in is worth it if you’re chasing high scores and low completion time.
Finding your rhythm in the climb is crucial if you’re hoping to do either, because the only thing that will kill you as often as rushing a climb is being indecisive. Watching your stamina; knowing where to go next; learning how to spot shortcuts, branching paths, or secrets — all of that is key to doing your best, but you’ll have to keep moving. Learning how to move at the correct cadence, where you’re always a few steps ahead of your stamina gauge without being reckless about your choices, is a joy, and brings with it that coveted state of flow where time and “real life” disappear. While the risk of doing this sort of thing in real life seems bonkers to me, The Climb 2 showed me a bit of what I imagine to be the draw of the sport: When you succeed, you have no one to thank but yourself. When you fail, you likewise have no one else to blame. It’s just you, whatever you’re trying to climb, and the view.
Which is fine, because the view is almost always spectacular. Looking down is a bad idea if you’re scared of heights, and if you want to avoid as much vertigo as possible, the game is still playable by focusing only on the climbing surface directly ahead of you and your next move. But getting to the very top of each challenge rewards you with an amazing view, and I often find myself safe somewhere halfway up the mountain or building, hanging on for dear life with both hands, just looking around and enjoying the danger and solitude, two feelings that The Climb series helped me realize are often just two sides of the same coin.
The Climb 2 is also a surprisingly capable workout, especially if you put weights on your wrists. The downside to the game’s design is that it’s a nightmare for accessibility. You can play sitting down, sure, but you’re going to be at a huge disadvantage if you don’t have the full range of motion of both arms, and I often found myself straining to reach a handhold that was just out of reach. If you have joint or back pain, I would be very careful with this one; you need to be even more ready to move and react than in the first game.
The addition of human-made environments and a need for Crytek to up the stakes from the last game have led to a few additions: ziplines to help you zoom from one cliff face to another, ropes and hanging structures that react to your weight and momentum when you grab them, and angled handholds to slide down. Moving from a secure perch to one of those slides is a commitment; once you’re moving, your choices are either to find the next handhold to jump to before you reach the end of the support, or fall to your death.
Developers often tell me that the tragedy of game development is that you only know how to make the game you want to make after it’s done; that the act of development itself is the way you figure out how to achieve your goals. This is why the second game in a series is often so strong: The development team learned its lessons from the creation of the first game, knows what to build on and what to cut, and how to make the player feel the desired emotions. The Climb 2 is certainly an iteration of the first game, but so many of these additions work together to elevate the entire experience, making it easier to believe that you’re really up there, trying like hell to figure out how to stay alive.
Or you can remove the stress altogether and play on the lowest difficulty setting, which eliminates the stamina meter, allowing the player to zoom up the side of each environment and focus on enjoying the view and the experience. You do have to play the climbs in each environment in order of difficulty to unlock them in the scored modes where you unlock new gear. But every single climb is available to try on the casual setting from the jump, a welcome feature for anyone who just wants to be a virtual tourist on these mountains and structures.
The Climb 2 will no doubt be too intense for many people, regardless of the difficulty options. But it’s a smart, well-crafted update to the first game that feels much more alive and “real,” even if you are playing as two disembodied hands. Crytek realized that rock climbing was only one facet of the sport, and tapped into pop culture’s collective love of high-flying Hollywood stunts and viral videos of urban free climbers to expand on the fantasies that it can offer to players. The result is a game that delivers stillness and a racing heartbeat in equal measures, where the player is always their own best friend, or their own worst enemy.
The Climb 2 is out now on Oculus Quest 2. The game was reviewed using a download code provided by Crytek. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.