If I see it, I can climb it
I’ve done a lot of climbing in recent video games, from Horizon Forbidden West to the Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves collection, and although both of those have stronger characters and significantly more stunning vistas to enjoy from the mountaintops, I can’t stop thinking about the best climbing experience I’ve had in a game so far this year. I’m talking about Dying Light 2 Stay Human.
I love to climb in games. I love to run and jump and grab a ledge and swing upwards onto a rooftop. It almost never feels like real-life rock-climbing — but that’s not the point; I don’t want to deal with the mundanities of finding the perfect hand-hold. I prefer to feel like an unstoppable god of parkour, careening across rickety roofs and scrambling up water pipes to reach crumbling alcoves and dilapidated balconies. Dying Light 2 doesn’t force me to step back and analyze each surface, scoping out architecture or terrain for a developer-determined set of prescriptive ledges. In Dying Light 2, if it looks like you can grab it, you very likely can, with scarcely any exceptions. It’s incredible.
Dying Light 2’s climbing controls are blessedly simple, too. It’s just one button – the right bumper on your controller – and it doubles as the button for both jumping and grabbing a handhold. The flow of leaping, climbing, and flinging yourself upwards to the next handhold before pulling yourself up onto the next rooftop is all so fluid and satisfying. There’s a stamina bar that stops you from climbing forever, but eventually, you’ll unlock power-ups to extend it. Later in the game, you’ll collect even more traversal tools (like a grappling hook), but the foundational mechanics already impressed me from the very start. The simple act of pressing one button to traverse anything in my path, needing only to keep an eye on my stamina bar if I happened to be ascending, gave me an immediate sense of agency and freedom – even as I was traversing a harsh, zombie-infested world.
By contrast, the climbing in Uncharted and Horizon games feels bizarrely limiting, despite the invitation of endless, joyful exploration implied by these games’ gorgeous locales. In Horizon Forbidden West, Aloy can only climb on specific handholds, using her Focus (her in-universe, futuristic Google Glass attachment) to scan and highlight safe ledges. In many puzzles, there is only one route available. Luckily for Aloy, there always happens to be a handhold or ladder or rope in just the right spot to get her to the next platform. Given that Aloy is usually exploring dilapidated ruins abandoned by civilization, it’s downright bizarre that she always manages to find a perfect path that appears to have been laid out by a rock climbing gym designer. She’ll leap from one convenient ladder to just one wooden ledge that happens to be within reach, and so on. Although the world may appear realistic, its artifice shows in the design of these climbing puzzles; there is nearly always just one path for Aloy to take.
Then there’s Aloy’s grappling hook, which is so limiting that it’s laughable. It has two different uses, each with a completely different button combination; one allows her to latch onto debris and remove it in order to access new areas, and the other allows her to pull herself towards highly specific grapple points and swing upwards. It’s complexity for the sake of complexity, and in practice, it actually feels more restrictive, rather than a clever incorporation of a new tool for traversal. In Dying Light 2, much like Insomniac’s Spider-Man games, you can use the grappling hook to swing from building to building, without having to worry as much about specific grapple points. It’s simple and smooth, and it truly feels like a power-up when you receive it, as opposed to Aloy’s grappling hook, which is more of an occasional nuisance (“Which button was it again?”).
Ever since Todd Howard supposedly said, “See that mountain? You can climb it,” I’ve wanted to play a game that fulfilled that promise. The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim does its best, of course, by letting the player approximate hiking by jumping over various rock textures and balancing on bits and pieces of jagged terrain. Breath of the Wild improved on that same sense of endless exploration, but with a stamina bar, making the experience of climbing all the more satisfying by introducing a surmountable but mildly stressful sense of restriction. Yet it’s Dying Light 2 Stay Human that does the job best of all, allowing the player to climb up almost any structure, while narrowing down the entire experience to one button press. This is as good as it gets. Well, at least until Breath of the Wild 2.