Nether Preview

Nether say Nether.

Since the rising popularity of DayZ and Rust, I had been tempted to enter the cruel world of a survival game but had not permitted myself the opportunity. I’m a whiner who likes to play on easy mode, so the idea of losing everything every time I die was a tough pill to swallow. I mean, even Demon’s Souls was not that hard.

Enter Nether by Phosphor Games, described as a first-person urban survival gaming experience, my chance to foray into this genre. I’ll be honest in saying that my experience was something of a mixed bag, but I do think there’s something here.

From the start, you’d be easily fooled into believe that this isn’t a beta. The environment of the restrictive cityscape Nether drops you into looks quite impressive at first glance, almost beautiful at certain times of day. Buildings can be seen towering in the distance, and plumes of smoke rise from areas of interest. Abandoned emergency vehicles slowly come into view with their lights still undulating in the haze.

However, it is up close where the illusion breaks. Environments, notably interiors, are repeated ad nauseam, and without consulting the map, it can be hard to tell if you looked through that gas station already. Going through the subway, which almost no other players seem to frequent, reveals the exact same tipped-over rail car near each station stop. Dumpsters are sealed with Mincecraft-esque blocks with the images of locks on them.

The titular enemies teleport in and out of the ground as they pursue you, and as you battle them, you notice that their little portals hover above ground. When you kill them, their flat blood puddles will hang off the edge of nearby surfaces almost comically, and their loot will float in the air until you grab it. This wonkiness aside, their actual designs are well=done. Some of them are convincingly spooky, particularly the one that screams loudly before covering you in its black goo. They’re kind of like the enemies from Doom, only you’re not badass.

Oddly enough, it was those moments when I wasn’t fighting enemies that I found the creepiest. Being alone as night falls upon the city and a slight fog rolls in reinforces a sense of isolation as you rummage through buildings for food, healing items, and weaponry. Screams and other noises echo through the empty subway tunnels, and enemies moan painfully outside the main cathedral.

The experience playing alone is rather prohibitive, though. You begin Nether with only a large butcher’s knife to defend yourself, and until you earn your first skill point, you cannot block enemy attacks. Thus, finding and fighting your first enemy can be an intense experience the first few times. It is typically a medium fleshy dog-like thing running around. If you manage to come across one on its own, you’re on your way to getting a skill point towards blocking. If he has friends, you may as well give up. And enemies never give up the chase, so it’s really over if you’re outnumbered.

Obviously, it is preferable to play with a friend, but there are even some challenges to that. You can’t warp into Nether’s map together. In the span of time it would take to find each other on the map and meet, it’s pretty likely you’re going to die unless you’re particularly stealthy on the way, and no other players notice you.

Teaming up with other inhabitants of the world feels practically impossible. None of the servers were ever at even half capacity when I played, and when you do come across someone, he will kill you. (You can only play as a male.) Many sit outside safe zones waiting to steal everything you have even if it is quite apparent that you’re level 1 and only have a knife to your name. The few missions available in the city require teamwork, and I didn’t get to witness any, just folks looking out for number one.

In one of the odder interactions I’ve ever had online, one player invited me into his group as soon as I spawned. I accepted because I was looking forward to finally playing with a bunch of people to tackle these beasts. What I experienced when I met my leader face to face was rather moronic. Being in groups doesn’t disable friendly fire, and admittedly, he didn’t try to kill me at first. Instead, he orbited me as I walked around, typing “FIGHT ME” repeatedly in chat. Despite telling him I can’t even block, he pressed on until he dropped a gun for me to use. Sure enough, I picked it up and landed a few headshots. As I picked up his stuff, I saw he taunted someone else to fight him until he died shortly afterwards.

I don’t know what to make of this idiocy. But then, the majority of the time I played, I literally witnessed nothing. Enemies are sparsely placed, and I rarely came across other players while venturing away from safe zones. It is possible to scale a number of the buildings via fire escapes and random ramps, but too often, reaching the top meant finding nothing and a further-depleted hunger meter. I’ll take an idiot over nothing.

Lacking even enemy experiences and sufficient team-oriented players filling up servers, even if they are all teamed against a noob, Nether feels like pieces of a good game but not a good game yet. I’m actually rather intrigued with where it will go because Phosphor Games has stated that it’s looking to the community to shape the game’s development.

It needs more than graphical polish, but that’s a given with a beta. I’d prefer more rewarding scavenging, better-grouped and more types of enemies, and more encouragement to work together. Perhaps players could start with more random weapons a lá Battle Royale to tip the starting experience in different ways. For now, it’s mostly just intriguing, and I’ll keep an eye on it as it grows as it comes out of beta.