Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
I’ve always joked that I would love to play an apocalypse game centered wholly around scavenging. It was my pleasure, for example, to wander the fields of Red Dead Redemption and pick flowers or shoot buffalo to collect their hides. I happily foraged for supplies in The Last of Us and sought out every last nook and cranny of Far Cry 3 and the BioShock games.
So I should be happy with Nether, right? It’s a horror-themed survival MMO. Think Day Z mixed with FallOut 3 without the zombies. As a survivor, you battle with people and Half-Life-esque alien creatures in a dilapidated, grimy wasteland. This place makes Ravenholm seem like a sunny, bustling metropolis.
The fact that I came away feeling sort of ambivalent has more to do with the game’s stage-of-development than the actual gaming experience. As a whole, it has some problems. Severe, game-breaking bugs and a lack of mission types and public instances hamper a game that could be really quite interesting. Like plenty of PC titles (and I guess console games, at this point), Nether was released without being entirely done, so you might have to take a wait-and-see approach to playing it. With some continued development and support, it could be a viable PVP roguelike MMO. At present, though, it’s kind of underwhelming.
Nether revolves around a giant solar flare that wiped out society nine years ago, save for the few remaining people left to pick over what’s left of supplies and weapons. Players fight the Nether – evolved (infected) humans that look like headcrab zombies from Half-Life – but mostly they just struggle to survive. Die and, well, all weapons and supplies are lost, along with a chunk of earned money. In that way it’s close to a roguelike, which is kind of a fantastic idea. Leveling up through combat and looting means so much when the consequences are dire, so it would seem to make trekking through the wasteland more immediate and harrowing.
As you acquire skill points, you can apply them to a variety of standard character traits, like Stealth, Melee, and Survival, but because the world is so chaotic and unforgiving, you’ll likely end up dying in one way or another before you hit max level. Other humans are far more dangerous than their mutated AI counterparts, and on more than one occasion I stumbled onto someone who plugged me before I managed to reach a high level. It can be super frustrating, but if you buy into the world, it’s not that big a deal.
The problem is that there’s not much to do in Nether. Items are few and far between – an element that is expected – and combat can best be described as “occasional.” It wouldn’t be so bad if there were a variety of mission types to keep you busy during lulls between the exciting bits, kind of like being a cop in a small town. However, as a player, you’ll spend much more time wandering around, looking for glowing trash bins and soda machines than you will doing anything of significance.
They’ve begun to add the option to play as members of the Nether, which is a nice touch, but still the game feels woefully underpopulated. For veteran players, there’s plenty to do, but for novices and beginners, it’s darkness, emptiness, and – likely – death. I don’t know that most people would put enough time into Nether to be able to see the fruits of their labor manifest.
Not to mention the fact that the combat can be frustrating and imprecise, which reinforces the idea that avoidance is a key component of traversing the world of Nether. I’ve not found a weapon I feel comfortable wielding or firing – though the shotgun comes close – but the crafting system allows for players to build weapons that fit whatever play-style with which you’re most comfortable.
Combat isn’t generally what is good here, though. The real fun and fear come from avoiding other players. In the hours I’ve put into the game, no single computer-generated enemy has elicited even a fraction of the fear that someone dressed in military garb does. Hearing the crack of a rifle and glancing around frantically is way more heart-stopping than, say, happening upon a gaggle of monsters. In that way, the “evolved” Nethers are merely a backdrop for the PVP struggle, and if there aren’t very many people online or you don’t happen upon them during play, the game can be quite anticlimactic.
The widespread problem with servers has also plagued Nether’s release. Until that gets updated and fixed, many people might have trouble finding their way onto a stable server. I’ve only had minor problems with getting into a game, but I have experienced several game-crashing bugs. None have been permanent, but they are also predictable. Once I tried to exit but got hung up in-world and had to end the game via Task Manager. Another time I spawned in as a HUD-less floating character with no agency, though it was neat to fly around the world sans combat. For a game that is contingent upon the danger of the immediate experience, enduring game-ending glitches definitely hurts playability, since you might also have trouble getting back into a game.
However, I haven’t grown bored with wandering around, hunting for loot and hiding from the Nether. Survival bonuses help with leveling up quickly, and the game is pretty generous with XP, so even though everything disappears upon dying it doesn’t ruin the game. I died with a Level 7 character and was back to Level 3 in another fifteen minutes, and that was with fighting off only a handful of Nether.
The game couldn’t require a ton of grinding and still be viable, but also there just isn’t that much to grind out. My strategy revolves around mere survival, so the price of that is avoiding huge encounters. The benefit of playing a game where quest progression is not necessary means that you can sandbox the world in a way that interests you. If you’re not having fun tracking down the Nether or other players, then you can do something else entirely.
Consequently, players have decided to make their own fun in the game, not entirely unlike Day Z or S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and I would be remiss not to mention those games as passing analogues in terms of expectations. However, Nether is far smaller in size, scope, and complexity. Even in terms of itself, the game falls below expectations and yet could benefit from continuous updates and development, a criticism I feel I could copy and paste throughout the review to reiterate its validity.
All issues aside, Nether is not an inherently bad game; it just feels incomplete, which makes it a difficult game to review. It is changing even as I type this, so who really knows what it will look or play like in a month.
If the community continues to flood in – the servers seem to be broken due to an abundance of players – then popularity will drive the game’s development and evolution. If, however, the game doesn’t fill its world with enough content, or else the devs cannot keep up with the community’s demand for content, then it may wither on the vine. Despite its problems, I still kind of recommend Nether, if only to wander around and try to avoid dying for a few hours.
Again, I’m a sucker for traipsing through vast worlds and picking items from garbage cans, so even without combat this game would do something for me.
The Final Word: At full price, it’s a dubious buy, but discounted on Steam Nether seems to be worth it, if you’re interested in peeking around under the hood for a little while. Otherwise, keep an eye on the community and maybe pick up the game when it is more stable.