Post-apocalyptic worlds are becoming so common in video games if any more land in the world, the human race is going to forget how to function in the pre-apocalypse. Worldwide, thousands of gamers venture into the grim future on a daily basis. Whether it be the nuclear war which created the Capitol Wasteland, ground-dwelling albino Molemen emerging from their subterranean caves on Sera, or angry bees turning Los Perdidos into a zombie-infested cityscape; the dark and horrific future is too tempting for the gaming populace to ignore.
Recent success stories like DayZ and Rust have whet the appetites of PC adventurers for a new kind of future hell; one in which the greatest enemy of the human race is not whatever terrible disasters went before but its own insatiable greed. Nether, developed by Phosphor Games, is the latest doorway to the apocalypse. Does it stand up to its peers, or fall flat as just another victim of the End?
As far as settings go, Nether nails the atmosphere to a wall and drains every valuable fluid then drizzles it over the world. There’s no real explanation in the game when it comes to what actually happened adding to the charm of its world. Sometime in the very near future a devastating catastrophe rocks the world. Most of humanity simply disappears and of the few that are left, some are infected by some unknown ailment. No-one knows if it’s a virus or weapon. All that is clear is the human race has entered a new era. One where the world lies in ruins and all anyone can rely on is themselves.
From your first steps in this urban hell, the setting takes a powerful hold on you. Absolutely everything is covered in grime so thick gamers with OCD are going to want to buy a feather duster. Nowhere looks clean or friendly to the player. This is only in the ‘safezones’ (which aren’t as safe as you might think, more on that later) where you’ll find merchants able to turn parts into weapons or trade the body parts of strange creatures outside the walls. Daring to venture outside you’ll find a fairly large environment populated by a sprawling cityscape where nowhere is welcoming.
Oh unless it’s a shadow, they are your best friend.
What Nether does very well is integrating stealth gameplay at a core level to avoid the chittering creatures inhabiting the hellscape. Not that the system is deep or multifaceted. Sprinting around will attract the attention of the creatures in Nether but crouching or even crawling on the floor will allow you an easier passage when your gear isn’t quite up to direct combat. If you’re on a fairly high level character with a small arsenal in your backpack the creatures are not nearly as much of an issue. Instead diving into battle with them will grant you the parts you need to trade for better gear. The system might sound basic as a plank with nails in it but it stands apart from others as proof that simplicity can be the best way to go and quickly becomes the most enjoyable part of Nether. Going off into the savage wilderness and returning to a safezone alive to upgrade your guns is one of the best feelings in PC gaming right now.
It’s a shame then, that paired with this compelling activity is a PvP system which verges away from the difficult and towards unbalanced. Nether’s multistory buildings turn from a source of safety and loot into somewhere a single player can become a near-invincible sniper, covering great areas of the map alone. Even on the ground a solitary player can become a brick wall to new players as well as newly created characters. Now here is where views will branch. From a player who wants to explore the world this is a complete roadblock at times enticing the player to turn the game off and play something else, a sin when looking at a game which wants to keep you playing. On the flip side for a gamer who loves PvP competition, Nether has created an unforgiving arena for the best to be better and the strongest to survive over the weak.
Survival plays a powerful role in Nether. Of course there’s surviving the onslaught of creatures and players which takes precedence over everything but then the simple fact of hunger strikes. Keeping yourself fed with canned goods or just water grants the ability to passively regenerate any health lost in battle. It does foster some very tense moments though, something you’d not expect from a tin of beans. Myself and another survivor were deep in a standoff, she with an automatic assault rifle against me with a lowly pistol and debilitating hunger. If the hunger meter runs out you’re going to die so getting that food was incredibly important. Three options presented themselves in this standoff. The first was blazing towards her praying for a few lucky hits. Second was an abandoned food store no more than 30 seconds away across open ground. The third was the safezone, no more than 20 yards from my intended assailant but with me at the wrong side. These moments are tangibly terrifying. Non-player enemies are a threat but players can kill you in seconds should they get in range .
In essence, the chorus of creatures, players, and hunger build a trinity of factors which have the power to push the player out into the world and reward those who prepare for every eventuality.
Nether is still in early access though so bugs are a fact of life you’d think. Besides a memory leak or two and returning to the main menu after death freezing, Nether is a more structurally sound game than its Early Access peers. It does still need to be cleaned up a little though. The user interface at times is incredibly unresponsive but this is nothing compared to a veritable wall thrown up to players. Safezones are not always safe. In the context of Nether’s world the machines which hold the Nether at bay in these sanctuaries break down and the creatures invade, meaning that any trading comes to an instant end until they are repaired. For players currently in the world or elsewhere this is barely an issue, all they have to do is wander in then kill some nasty enemies before repairing everything. New characters though are left completely defenseless against the creatures and players (because when the machines go down, players can kill each other in these areas), unable to access the feature which could save their lives. At parts in the Safezones players can access a global inventory where the purchase of ammunition, basic weapons and food are possible. For experienced players these are nothing more than a bonus but for those who are new to the game this is necessary and when it’s broken down the game just feels like a hopeless endeavor for those green to this world.
Since survival in Nether is an exercise in futility there are two leveling systems, one which levels the character and one which levels the account. Character levels provide quick benefits for gameplay such as blocking with melee weapons and improved survivability while the account leveling system grants an overarching upgrade to all created characters. Without this feature, Nether would be way too hostile for most players but with it the game feels a little more like a long progression than a fast-track to victory.
Nether describes itself as a “first-person urban survival gaming experience unlike any other” and in fairness its an exact description. Yes you play in first person, yes its in an urban environment and yes you have to survive. Calling it an experience though lends itself to a cinematic epic or a thrill-ride at the Theme Park. The only experience which Nether really gives you though is one of tension and terror, without much of the joy. That isn’t to say though Nether is a total waste(land). After all Nether is still in Early Access and has the bedrock for what could be an amazing experience which is regularly updated by the development team. What it needs now though is a little more in the way of fiddling and perhaps some small design changes, PvE servers for one would be nice, to take it to the success it’s atmosphere tries to stymy in players.
This review was written based on the Steam Early Access (PC) version of Nether provided by Phosphor Games.