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Soaring to new heights with The Climb and Free Solo

El Cap is calling.

2020 was a strange year for us all but, speaking personally, I didn't have "start to appreciate rock climbing" on my bingo card. You'd have never caught me doing it; heights are not my friend and that's especially true outdoors. When that cold wind hits, consider me gone. Actually, that might explain this new fascination with climbing athletes, who wouldn't even blink at the sudden chill. With no means (or will) to try rock climbing directly, I took a different approach. I bought Crytek's The Climb.

Having gotten an Oculus Quest 2 last month, games were needed for my fancy new tech. Granted, a Quest port of a four-year-old Oculus Rift game is an odd choice, considering it didn't even launch with motion controls initially, but it set a high bar early for what VR could offer. Back in 2016, modern VR was finding its feet and VR games felt more like tech demos, not full experiences - a situation which has long since improved.

For game design, strength lies in simplicity and The Climb executes its concept well, utilising an extreme form of free solo climbing to advance. For the unaware, free soloing is a niche of its own in climbing circles, practised by very few athletes. Making their climb without protective equipment like ropes or harnesses, you can immediately see why. Despite being an incredibly dangerous approach, it translates well into a video game.

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Set across four environments with some stunning scenery, I climbed between gentler ascents within the Bay to hanging off cable car ropes around the Alps. Nerve-racking doesn't quite cut it. Some segments require leaps to advance, catching onto the nearby ledge - but if you misjudge that jump, game over. The Climb could never truly replicate the real sport, and Crytek took this to an absurd level in places, but I wondered if that scenery and adrenaline rush are part of the appeal.

Soon after playing The Climb, I watched Free Solo, National Geographic's documentary about Alex Honnold and his successful free solo of El Capitan. The story completely went past me in 2018 and honestly, I still can't get my head around it. Climbing 3,000ft up without safety equipment and surviving, what drives someone to take such heavy risks for sport? The film made the danger clear and, although his climb was an impressive achievement, Free Solo doesn't completely glorify it.

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During the build-up before his ascent, Alex discusses this candidly, speaking of fatalities amongst free solo climbers like a fact of life. It was an incredibly sobering moment to witness. Many people define themselves through sport and, career or hobby, we challenge ourselves to grow through it, pushing our own physical boundaries. I'll never truly understand Alex's mindset but at the least, The Climb gave me a viewpoint into this once alien world.

Though it's exaggerated at times, the experience was an eye opener. And when life calms down, I'm tempted to finally give climbing a try. Whilst I'm confined to home life though, I'll settle for The Climb 2 when it launches.

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