Climbing hasn’t always been well represented in video games. While the growth of virtual reality technology offers video game developers new angles to explore climbing with games like The Climb, the genre of “climbing video games” overall is generally rife with janky mechanics, unrealistic movement, and downright dull gameplay — at least as far as real climbers are concerned.
Why is that? Well, maybe climbing just doesn’t translate that well to the video game medium, unlike, say, snowboarding, skateboarding, or football. And, as rock climbers, it’s easy to critique the climbing mechanics in video games since we know the realities of our practice.
When we see a video game character free solo dynoing their way up a 1,000-foot face in hiking boots and thick leather gloves, with an unused rope coiled mountaineer-style over their shoulder, we tend to cringe a bit, and we aren’t alone. Military veterans have similarly disparaged the realism and mechanics in many shoot-em-up video games, though this isn’t always the case.
All that said, while climbing-centered video games may often be something of a letdown, there are countless self-contained climbing sequences in video games that are downright badass.
Let’s break down a few of ‘em.
5. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater: The Ladder Climb
No list would be complete without the “ladder climb” from 2004’s Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. You control protagonist Naked Snake as he climbs… well, a ladder. We aren’t talking just any ladder, though. The climb takes nearly two minutes (if you haven’t played this game, do yourself a favor and click the video above).
Climbing ladders may not have that much in common with rock climbing, at least mechanically, but if you’ve ever been stuck doing laps on the kiddie wall during a crowded day at the rock gym, waiting for a route to open up, you know Naked Snake’s pain here. Right arm. Left arm. Right leg. Left leg. Repeat. Bleh. Just imagine all the V3 gym bros trying to campus this thing if they set one up in your gym…
4. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: The Throat of the World
More a mountaineering expedition than a rock climb, the ascent of the Throat of the World in Skyrim is one of the classic big mountain expeditions in recent video game years. Your character must reach the remote monastery High Hrothgar, high atop the largest mountain in the kingdom, by ascending a route known as the “Seven Thousand Steps.”
By mountaineering standards this climb is the epitome of a walk-up, considering that there’s literally a staircase the entire way. That said, the snow, ice, wind, and general slogging nature of the trip to High Hrothgar does have quite a bit in common with an off-season trek up Whitney or Longs (if you substitute the frost trolls for thieving marmots, that is).
How tall is the Throat of the World, exactly? Well, it’s never officially stated in the game. An enterprising Redditor estimated the mountain’s height according to lore as 7,212 meters (23,661 feet). However, a UESP wiki poster used measurements in the game’s Creation Kit and found that the accurate in-game elevation of the Throat of the World is somewhere closer to a mere 766.5 meters (2,515 feet).
Pretty small for the largest mountain in all the land, eh? Maybe Skyrim’s developers learned a lesson from the MGS 3 ladder climb (i.e. make climbing sequences short and sweet).
3. Assassin’s Creed 2: Giotto’s Campanile
Assassin’s Creed is perhaps the most widely known game series that has a substantial climbing mechanic. Its initial entry played a large role in the popularization of parkour and “freerunning” culture in the mid-2000s. There are hundreds of classic climbs in the Assassin’s Creed series, from towers to cliff faces to cave walls, but Giotto’s Campanile in Assassin’s Creed 2 (arguably the best entry in the series), stands out as one of the most iconic.
The Campanile, the free-standing bell tower of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, is the highest viewpoint in the game and perhaps the game’s most difficult climb. Like the best AC climbs, ascending the Campanile is like deciphering a puzzle. YouTube is rife with tutorials showing stumped gamers how to make their way up. Finding the correct route up the tower (which stands 278 feet high in real life) can take patience and careful consideration, much like a difficult rock line.
2. Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain: Crack Climbing
Ironically, (given the monotonous ladder climb in MGS3) the Metal Gear series’ fifth entry, The Phantom Pain, features the most realistic climbing mechanics in any modern video game. This isn’t a “climbing sequence,” specifically, but it’s worth mentioning simply for its realism.
While the usual pipe climbing and vaulting mechanics are in play here, you also get to climb cracks in a surprisingly believable fashion. To climb cracks, your character (Punished “Venom” Snake) uses hand jamming techniques identical to any you’d find in practice at Indian Creek. The oft-hidden rock cracks generally provide shortcuts through enemy territory or allow you to get to a vantage point to easily surveil the terrain or take out some enemies.
It’s not exactly thrilling climbing, just your usual hand-over-hand jamming, but it stands out as one of the few realistic rock climbing interpretations in any video game universe.
1. Modern Warfare 2: Cliffhanger
The Cliffhanger mission from Modern Warfare 2 is perhaps the most recognizable climbing sequence in modern video games, simply due to the sheer amount of people that have played it. The 2009 action game marked the biggest entertainment launch in history at the time, with over 8 million people online within five days of launch.
The mission sees your character, Gary “Roach” Sanderson, following John “Soap” MacTavish up an ice face in remote Kazakhstan. From the Goldeneye-esque “Come out or I shoot your partner!” scene to the utterly insane 130-meter (425 ft) snowmobile jump at the end (yes, I measured it), Cliffhanger is an all-around classic.
The climbing sequence, which opens the level, is preposterous, with the characters squatting, unanchored, on a foot-wide ice ledge smoking a cigarette before soloing up the vertical ice face. “Stay here and spot me,” Soap says as he pulls onto the pitch, unroped. It’s unclear what he wants your character to do in case of a fall (jump off the ledge, tackle him out of the air, then somehow land on the ledge again?).
You begin to follow unroped only a few feet below Soap, so if he does fall, he’ll knock you off too. Your companion carries what appears to be an 1800s-era hemp rope over his shoulder, but never uses it. The only thing that could make this sequence wackier is if you decided to use a piton as a throwing knife.
You and Soap top out this initial pitch, then decide to make a fifteen-foot lateral jump across a chasm for no apparent reason (the above pitch of ice looks equally solid). Naturally, you almost fall to your death and are saved at the last moment… but I digress.
The opening of the Cliffhanger mission is a classic climbing scene that introduced 2000s-era teens, including yours truly, to the sport of ice climbing (however fantastical the techniques employed). It deserves to go down in the history books, as ludicrous as it is.