Developer: Phosphor Games
Publisher: Nether Productions
I'd love to compare Nether to Fallout 3, STALKER or even Enemy Territory, but let's face facts: it's DayZ. Only shinier.
Which is to say that Phosphor Games developed another 'being shot in the back of the head by griefers simulator.' Zombies have been replaced by teleporting monsters (good luck escaping those) and there's a sprawling city to explore for supplies to replenish your dwindling hunger gauge, eking out a meagre living in a post-apocalyptic urban hellhole. You'll cobble together crude firearms, battle monstrosities and painstakingly gain character levels. And then get shot in the back of a head by a griefer. Repeat.
However, these murderous fellow survivors aren't making tough choices about whether it's acceptable to kill to survive. They're not even evil or depraved. They're just bored. Despite early potential, Nether is sadly half-cooked in almost every way, meaning that there isn't really anything to do after a handful of bleak and admittedly atmospheric hours.
Beyond finding a rifle, pointing it at the safe zone exit and wrangling yourself some newbies. To be honest, I can't say I blame them.
It's a shame, because Nether really did have exciting potential in early access, which I waxed lyrical about during beta. Its city is wide and tall, full of gutted interiors to crawl and sneak through during dynamic day/night transitions. Subways and rooftops can be explored, shops might hold a tin or bottle that stop you from starving to death, or perhaps a new blade or crafting components to put you on an even keel with the Nether themselves. An army of nightmarish horrors patrol the streets, requiring you to pick your battles and stay hidden when possible, especially since everyone you meet is more likely to shank you than help you out.
The Unreal 3-powered visuals are also impressive. Excellent lighting and some eyecatching environments make for one of the prettiest entries in DayZ's sub-genre so long as you remember to manually toggle the AA on, exuding a first impression of polish that you'll rarely see in the niche.
Alas, the polish is skin deep; spit-polish rather than a deep mirror shine. Squint and it's gorgeous, but get your eye in and it's clear that Phosphor lacked the manpower and experience to deliver on a game of this scope (seeing as their last big hit was the admittedly brilliant Dark Meadow on iOS). Textures are muddy and glitches are rife, from janky movement to water that just bugs out rather than allows you to swim or submerge. From textures that don't quite connect to invincible rats, horrible clipping issues and plants that hover a foot or so off the floor, Nether feels half-baked if not halfway through beta -- not Version 1.0.
It sadly sets the tone for the rest of the game. Half-cooked. The city might be a relatively interesting environment, but half of the play area is given over to an enormous expanse of sodden marshland in which there is literally nothing. No loot. Barely any enemies. Just a few admittedly beautiful landmarks to ogle at, a handful of trading outposts and glitchy water everywhere. Since you'll randomly spawn unless you elect to start out in
noob-murderer capital the central safe zone, there's every chance you'll end up in this swampy hellhole and die of hunger without encountering an enemy or player. What's more galling is that they added this zone post-launch rather than polishing up the content they had.
Nether was supposed to be better with friends, though, and a far cry from the miserable solo experience. The 'Tribes' system allows players to team up and capture territory like an enormous Domination match, with each area providing the controlling tribe with buffs and bonuses. But you can't make and police your own clans, meaning that each preset 'tribe' is more than likely full of murderous opportunists, while the whole thing boils down to striving for tiny bonuses for a character who probably won't be alive much longer. And for the tribesmen who likely killed you, meaning that it's difficult to summon up the nerve to start a new character and the whole cycle over again.
And why should you? I don't really know, because Nether is quite literally pointless. It's clear that something bad happened and now everything is ruined, the art direction makes that clear, but there's no storyline, end goal or anything to strive for beyond surviving long enough to kill someone else. Environmental storytelling is inconsistent -- a makeshift empty subway hospital implies a swift and shocking mass extinction event, yet all the ambulances still have working lights, meaning that the event only happened less than 48 hours ago. Again, it feels like a half-finished beta that's still awaiting its content.
More to the point, Nether has skeletal systems in place to promote teamwork -- the Tribes mechanic, levelling specialisation, courier missions and a handful of major events around the map that require input from several players -- but none are fleshed out enough to make a difference, and none really matter when you're likely to just permanently die at the hands of yet another griefer who has no reason to team up beyond... well, what exactly? Even if we bring friends along, we'll spawn miles away from each other and can't even set up our own tribe.
As a retooled PvE game that disables friendly fire, but activates it when you join a tribe (i.e. other tribesmen can damage you as the battle for territory rages, whereas you can't harm your own comrades), Nether could and should have been an interesting new twist on the DayZ formula. Players would be actively incentivised to group up and help each other out, especially if they could then create their own tribes and vie for control of servers.
But as it is, the most social event I encountered over 10 hours of play (after Together-For-Nether, of course, now that Carl is reviewing Wildstar 24/7) was two players threatening to "blow my f*cking head off" in the chat window if I didn't immediately turn tail. "Why?" I asked. "We're in the safe zone. There's no friendly fire in here."
"F*ck you" was the response. A minute later, they followed me out of the zone and killed me without even bothering to loot the meagre possessions from my corpse. At least they bothered to talk to me first.
Is it fair to criticise a sandbox game for the actions of its player base? Perhaps, perhaps not, but it's definitely fair to criticise a half-finished game in which randomly ganking other players even if they're in your tribe is literally the most fun you can have after the cycle of survival and permadeath becomes tedious. Take my advice and just play STALKER until Phosphor Games tunes Nether up or cans it completely. What impressed me in beta released far, far too soon -- even if there's still clear potential for a unique little game here.
- Tall and nuanced city to explore and sneak through
- PvE combat can be hectic; enemies are tough and versatile
- Tribes system could be refined into a game-defining idea
- Full of glitches, bugs, mechanical quirks and visual cut corners
- Half-cooked tribes system feels like a wasted opportunity at present
- Almost nothing to do beyond killing newbies, little reason to group or level up
- The wasteland swamp area is horribly empty; needs added content or complete removal
- Feels like an incomplete beta, released FAR too early
The Short Version: Nether had potential to add compelling cooperative and social features to the DayZ survival experience, but ends up half-baked in almost every way. Released far too soon and crying out for several more months of development, it's hard to recommend this glitchy cut-throat package.
The Tribes system has legs and the city area is initially fun to explore, but Phosphor will need to seriously retool the experience, add content and deliver extra polish before it's worth spending money on, let alone a £21.99 special edition. Being murdered by bored griefers gets boring after a couple of hours.