Preview: Fight The Horror With “Friends” In Nether

There’s a seemingly abandoned city, an apocalyptic disaster of biblical magnitude that has wiped a majority of humanity from existence, and once-human abominations roaming free. The handful of survivors scattered about the landscape are eager to shoot you in the face for a chance at a bag of stale chips, and the only friend you have is your knife. That’s Nether, the ambitious, open-world-ish survival-horror by Phosphor Games. It’s currently available on Steam through Early Access, and it’s terrifying.

Nether is, for better of worse, a potluck of mismatched genres and ideas. There’s a first-person shooter, a survival horror, and hints of massive multiplayer entangled in its seams, each combating for superiority within the experience. The meshing of different mechanics can feel conflicting at times, with survival fitting a more auxiliary role that mostly subserves the poorly optimized FPS. Despite this, as well as its Early Access state, Nether does boast an impressive feature set.

There’s a marginally sprawling city to explore, encouraging both vertical scaling by allowing players to climb atop a good chunk of the mini-skyscrapers, and delving into the depths of its damp, monster-ridden subways. Equipment can be crafted to better prepare you for the nightmares outside of Safe Zones — which too can be attacked — and there are a handful of missions geared toward solo and group play respectively. The aforementioned Safe Zones, in which weapons cannot be utilized, offer a marketplace for unloading junk you’ve gathered while scavenging, too.

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The story, which according to the developer will eventually find its way to newspapers, posters, corpses and other such sources around the city, isn’t immediately apparent. The world and its state aren’t currently provided much context outside of the knowledge that a majority of the human race was wiped from earth. It’s a shame, too, because given the powers the various creatures are equipped with, such as the ability to teleport, there’s surely an interesting backstory ready to be explored. Unfortunately, information is scarce, and the only noteworthy bit of text I came across was about the wonders of internet usage in a deserted office.

While enemies aren’t quite the bread and butter of Nether’s terror sandwich, they do play a large role in the scheme of survival. On your quest to die another day, you’ll encounter a variety of abhorrent beasts and humanoid-horrors; most of which will teleport in your face and slaughter first — probably never consider asking questions at all, later. They aren’t your typical zombie-fare, either. Sure, there are similarities, such as their reliance on sound to pin-point your location, but they’re hardly slow, sluggish, or in any shape lacking in agility. For that matter, a few are downright acrobatic.

Monsters in Nether can, and likely will, scare the s*** out of you. Several types exist, too, including Prius-sized brutes that require a group to take down, as well as speedy, screeching flesh-bags that spit poison, and inside-out dog looking monsters — all of which are scary in their own right. One on one, the lion’s share of encounters are manageable, as dodging isn’t terribly difficult. Most creatures will teleport behind you before attacking, leaving much of your survivability to hand-eye-coordination. In groups, however, even the weakest of beasts are devastating. They’re relentless too, so running only means you’ll die prideless.

Monsters aren’t, however, the true horror in Nether’s repertoire of savagery. Indeed, encounters can be intense and provide the occasional fright — especially in the subway’s without a flashlight. But the real scares come about when silence creeps in, and you realize that your health is low, supplies are limited, and the nearest drop site is patrolled by other, better equipped players. This is where Nether shines: making you feel utterly helpless in its dark, dreary world. You’ll scavenge for scraps, visit Safe Zones to craft them into usable items such as weapons, medical kits, trinkets and other sorts of gear, but you’ll never truly be safe.

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Danger is around every corner in Nether, and even well-equipped players — which I was for a short spell after tricking a fellow explorer — are constantly inches from death. You begin the game with a knife and a map; nothing more, nothing less. From that point onward, the world is essentially your oyster — the pearls being cans of food, parts of broken weapons and assorted creature innards. It didn’t take long for me to die with my first character, either. I’ll be generous and say that I survived for an hour before a teleporting beast downed me with its projectile toxic-vomit.

Thankfully, my crafting materials were limited to several severed limbs and a single 9mm barrel at the time. You see, once you die in Nether, whether to another player or through a random encounter, you lose everything. Death in Nether is the end, and seeing how it looms around every corner, Nether is at its best when you’re unaware. The emphasis on death is only increased by your character’s vulnerability, lack of shelter, equipment and a myriad of other crippling disabilities. This makes Nether less about living, and more about learning how to live just a little bit longer each time.

Once I discovered that Subway’s contained weapons, food, and other valuable resources, my first instinct was to find the nearest entry and explore. It wasn’t long before I was overwhelmed by powerful creatures, though the next few rounds I didn’t let greed get the best of me. After that point, I began every new game with, at the very least, a pistol and enough ammunition to make it through a drop point. There are plenty of strategies like this to discover, and constantly adjusting your own can make each reset feel fresh.

The combat, which can be a tad wonky as hits don’t feel very heavy, and movement is stiff during hectic encounters, is perfectly suited to Nether’s harsh reality. You’re not powerful, and you don’t ever feel as if you are. Even when gripping a shotgun, ammo is limited to an extent that firing the gun seems foolish, even as you’re being ambushed by a group of monsters miles from a Safe Zone. While I do hope that improvements are made to the hit-detection, which can be hit or miss (no pun intended), there’s a certain helplessness to the combat that feels appropriate.

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Naturally, as you defeat creatures or other players on the server, you gain experience. In a typical RPG fashion, these points can be applied toward different skills, ranging from the ability to block — because including that essential tidbit in your starting set of skills wouldn’t be hardcore enough — to weapon usage enhancements, such as aim and stability. It’s not a particularly extensive system, but it’s a nice addition that allows for a sense of progression.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to test any team based missions. This is because, as expected, everyone on my server — and every other server I tested — was an asshole. As soon as I approached any ‘real’ person, I was either shot or had to sprint to safety. Grouping seems like the way to experience Nether, however. Having a partner — or partners — in crime could greatly enhance the experience, and perhaps even yield some nifty mission rewards. Indeed, you can simply enter a group menu and select folks you’d like to team with, but the requests are rarely accepted. Hell, even when they are accepted they’re usually meaningless. Killing group mates isn’t restricted, and more often than not grouping is a ploy to bring you close enough to the barrel — easy and free equipment for the bigger man.

I was killed in this fashion twice before abandoning my search for a friend in the wasteland. The current state of player interaction is counter productive, as people are building a wall around much of the game’s most interesting content. Missions you tackle solo are currently limited to the escorting types, and drop points — which are randomized and timed on your map — are rarely anything but a bullet to the face. It would have been nice to face the world as a team, but alas, people suck. With a proper system in place, there’s potential for some interesting mechanics to unfurl.

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From a technical standpoint, Nether isn’t particularly impressive. Sure, it’s pretty at first glance, but its limited layout soon becomes an exercise in boredom. Not long after beginning my session, I realized that nearly every building is identical, and every road is littered with the same cars, puddles, shrubbery and muddy textures. There’s a large map on display, too, but only a portion seems to be available. Nevertheless, it’s still a nice-enough looking game, in spite of its underwhelming visuals. Lights flicker in the background as night sets, the world is colorful enough to capture an awe or two while retaining its “end of the world” vibes consummately, and there some nice views from various vantage points.

In the end, Nether provides an uncomfortable, eerie, and entertaining experience that can be both suspenseful and exciting. It’s buggy, the combat isn’t quite there yet, and there’s little to do in its assortment of abandoned buildings, but somehow losing hours exploring its world isn’t hard to do. It’s occasionally a sight to behold, despite every slice of landscape being reused generously, and there’s many pieces of an amazing game beneath its rough exterior. The story, while currently bare-bones, has potential to be gripping, or at the very least an interesting take on the apocalypse.

If you’re less interested in human interaction, strategic group play, and any sort of friendship, Nether might be the game for you. There’s a dog-eat-dog world to explore, players to fight, kill, and exploit, as well as monsters to encounter, materials to collect, crafts to be crafted and one hell of a survival game to be enjoyed if you can forgive its flaws. Yes, there are aspects that demand repair, but Nether is close to being the next best thing in its collective pool of genres.