Early access survival game Nether seems to have earned plenty of positive coverage in the past few months, and you can perhaps see why: an atmospheric apocalypse aesthetic, hordes of not-quite-zombie mutant things, and brutal PvP. It rings that survival combat bell pretty loudly. It does, however, bear an uncanny resemblance to a game which was not so popular, and was not particularly good - WarZ/Infestation Stories - which didn't go down well at all. Furthermore, a number of readers have pointed out to me that both Infestation and Nether trademarks were filed by the same person. What could it mean?
I decided to have a play and judge the game on its own spooky merits.
Well, it is rather similar to War Z, pretty much from the character screen onwards, despite being outwardly developed by a different studio. There's a strong family resemblance, even if this game doesn't feel quite as clumsy or shallow. It is definitely a different game, with a different setting and pace, and different items that you slot into... basically the same inventory system. And similar stats that you buff up via leveling. Hmm.
Yes, back to the point: rather than the now familiar zombie'd up wilderness, you are in a polluted, destroyed city in which there are teleporting quasi-zombie mega mutants called Nether. They're nasty, and you have to kill them with whatever you can find. All too often that's just a kitchen knife. They are, fortunately, pretty vulnerable to kitchen knife.
It's a moderately pretty game, if you like catastrophic urban decay (and I know you do). I certainly enjoyed my first hour of wholly aimless exploration (for the game offers no direction.) The large map is filled with visual detail and the sheer amount of trash and broken things is amazing. That said, it does begin to seem a little boxy and unimaginative once you've been exploring for a while. The trick with urban environments is so often to use the verticality and architectural honeycomb to create interesting spaces. Sadly, Nether doesn't manage to do that, despite creating some spectacular vistas and its artists so energetically daubing everything with the brush of trendy gloom. It's all ramps and square rooms, which I suppose make life easy for the Nether as they attempt to kill you with their splendid mutant powers. And gosh, the stamina bar only allowing you to dash for fifty or so metres means that you can effectively roleplay a guy recovering from serious respiratory illness.
So yeah: the game is open PvP, with a good helping of fighting NPC enemies. This is my favourite kind of game! I should be in for a treat. As it turns out, however, there's not a whole lot of interesting PvP action, even on a busy server, and I spent much of my time scavenging, killing monsters, and so forth. The actual person-fight stuff has so far been scarce and pointless, even whilst keeping a constant look out for armed players, who may or may not choose to murder me as they play.
No one really seems very interested in combat, which is an odd thing to see. They just run off, looking for more boxes on the floor.
Perhaps the disinterest is down to how little getting killed seems to matter to this game. Death, thanks to the global inventory system, means only losing what you have in your backpack, and if you've bought a special thug hat with game money, then you get to keep it. This means that any tension in PvP rapidly fades. Certainly it's a bit annoying to lose a gun when you just found one, but it somehow doesn't have that DayZ feeling of really having lost out on a backpack of stuff that was your backpack of stuff. It's disappointing that Nether isn't able to conjure that tension, even if I can't quite put my finger on why.
What's perhaps most disappointing about Nether is that it offers little in the way of player interaction, and it's a far cry from the weirdness-inspiring cruelties of that other popular game, or the formal chum-enabling systems of MMOs. Here you either group up (although I've yet to find anyone outside actual friends interested in grouping) in an MMO style, or you get murdered. It's a simple formula, and one that doesn't really inspire the kind of crazed tales we've heard emerging from other survival games.
The weird and tiny compass at the bottom right of the screen is, combined with a map, your main navigational tool. What would have been useful would be to have been the ability to place waypoints on the map screen, and it is frustrating to have to flick and back between the two in order to find my way to the safe zones. These safezones are peculiar places where, thanks to being on raised platforms above chainlink fences, you are immune to attack from either game enemies or other players. Whilst in there you can pick up fetch quests, buy things, or store stuff in your global inventory. Unintuitively, this is only accessible when standing next to the shop. It's a brutally artificial way of doing things - putting the shop in a caravan on sticks - and the negative side effect of that is that it feels less like an exciting survival game, and more like the shop part of Killing Floor. Perhaps if it had Killing Floor's combat, it would be great. But it doesn't.
In fact, looking to my right as I type this I can see that I made a note which reads "combat is pretty nob." I should probably expand on that a little: the melee, on which much of the game hangs, involves flailing about while "firing" a handheld weapon. Not much skill is required, and the audio-visual feedback from it doesn't have much cowbell. There's really not enough there to master, and the way it is tied to increased stats just seems to be mean weakness at the start of the game, and immense power later on, without an obvious balance. The enemies' ability to teleport around meanwhile is just awful. It sounds interesting in principle, but it's not threatening, just annoyingly like playing whack-a-mole. Guns too are shonky and without punch. I mean they're no worse than the are in a lot of games, which is to say they're uninteresting and forgettable.
And those last couple of adjectives are sadly what seems to be true of Nether as a game. Sure, it's in development and all that jazz, it's not terrible, and it will likely improve, but it simply doesn't have the hook that is binding people like cursed souls to Rust and DayZ. The core functions are lacking, and there's not enough else to do to really make it stick. That said, it does not seem like the same railroad to horribleness that War Z was - it has tuned down the Pay To Win a bit - but it does still have a real money cash shop while at the same time costing $20. So that's fun. When I say fun, I mean rubbish.
Also, some Steam-tagging do-gooder has tagged this game "massively-multiplayer", which is a description I arch my handsome eyebrow at. It's massively multiplayer in the same sort of way that Day Z is, which is to say that it isn't really, despite some character persistence. It's played on 64-man servers, and might as well be just another server-based game.