Platform: PC (Steam Early Access)
Developer: Phosphor Games
Publisher: Nether Productions
It took me five minutes to hate Nether with a passion. Taking its cues from the likes of DayZ and Rust, this Unreal-powered indie effort threw me straight into a grim grey world with little more than a butter knife and a mysterious parcel. I wandered around the vast empty expanse for what felt like an eternity, surveying the ruined cityscape and initially-mediocre visuals, hacked up a teleporting fiend and took its tongue, then got my face ripped off by a massive bat creature. New character. Reload. My next avatar fared little better, surviving for a few minutes until a malicious player shot me in the back of the head and didn't even bother to loot my pathetic possessions. The urge to ragequit was overwhelming.
Then, suddenly, everything clicked and I realised that I wasn't just surviving - I was loving every silly, unpolished, harrowing player-driven second of it.
Two things happened. First off, I blundered into the options menu and enabled anti-aliasing like the dolt I am. It was like receiving cataract surgery as the world resolved into a softer, sharper, more hauntingly beautiful place. Though no graphical powerhouse and lousy with visual quirks, Nether is a cut above its peers.
But, more importantly, I started playing with Carl over VOIP... at which point I discovered that Phosphor Games are creating a unique take on the sandbox survival genre that allows you to make your own fun in some interesting ways, and gives you a reason to play beyond just living another day.
Nether may be a familiar setup: a big open world full of beasties and potentially hostile players that hates your guts, but it does a better job at providing context than its predecessors and inspirations. At the start, you're told to deliver a package to the nearest safe zone, which acts as a tutorial that introduces you to trading, weaponcrafting and combat in a relatively stress-free environment. It sets up your place in the world, encourages you to ferry supplies between safe zones for spending money and allows you to meet new players who might -- might -- be willing to team up. Or at least pretend to, before knifing you in the back.
Better yet, it introduces you to the Clan system, which is Nether's biggest and most exciting new feature. Each server is split into numerous zones contested by various clans, which you can join in any of the safe zones. Securing capture points (much like a game of domination on a truly enormous scale) grants your clan ownership of a particularly territory, confering global bonuses such as increased cash pickups, more ammunition, extra vehicles -- yes, there are vehicles! -- and other potentially life-saving benefits. As such, not only are players encouraged to fight in tense shifting urban battles for real estate, but joining a clan suddenly means that a portion of players on each server are on your side and have a good reason not to kill you on sight. Indeed, clan mates are incentivised to help each other out whenever they cross paths, or even team up in safe zones before organising a raiding run.
This neat balance between competition and cooperation makes Nether feel unique, and more importantly gives you a reason to exist beyond... well, just existing.
Of course, survival is still very much a key focus of the game - and you'll doubtlessly want to set forth into the wastes to find new weapons, level up your character with varying skills and abilities and engage in PvEvP combat. Bikes and buggies let you hoon around in style, while the urban landscape lends itself to slow and tense crawls through hostile terrain, slinking through alleys, rooftops and cellars to avoid attracting attention from griefers and the terrifying Nether themselves. Instead of zombies, Nether's titular horrors are fast-moving monsters with teleportation abilities, hunting in packs and using their unique skills to appear behind or above you at inopportune moments. Living more than a few seconds requires wqual parts stealth and decisive action.
As you explore, you'll also discover that the world is nicely curated and full of fun little asides, indeed, it's designed to let you make your own fun. As Carl and I set out, we eventually discovered a katana sword and assault rifle, cutting through the hordes with abandon, before deliving into the labyrinthine tunnels of the metro system.
This is what we found buried beneath the city streets. What the hell happened here?!
No, seriously, what the actual flip.
Then Carl performed a chicken dance while being vomited on by a nightmarish horror, we got blown up by kamikaze exploding demons, separated, finished off by sharpshooting faction rivals and watched helplessly as our lovely gear was merrily carted away. Never mind, though, because persistent account experience and levels means that we start out with just a touch more health and money next time, making each dead character feel like a little victory.
It's the same boss as before, but feels a little more well-rounded experience with optional objectives and goals, not just a dirty sandpit full of sharp objects and evil b*stards with semi-automatic weapons.
As with any early access title, Nether is worth approaching with both excitement and caution - perhaps with an emphasis on the latter. Glitches abound, cheater reports are rife and the entire thing is crying out for much more polish, not to mention more meat to its bones. It's still a work in progress and more progress will necessary to deserve a recommendation from us.
But excitement? Yes. Nether more than deserves your interest at this stage, not just for being one of the shinest DayZ-a-likes on the block, but also being a game that's trying to be different, and give players more reason to live than its peers.
Before killing you, because it hates every single one of us. We can't help but love it in kind in all its slightly shonky, hardcore, silly glory. We'll keep an eye on the situation... and keep on delving into the wastes for your viewing pleasure.