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Nether impressions

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Nether is a first-person urban survival MMO game currently in its beta testing phase. Developed by Phosphor Studios, the game looks to ambitiously blend the player versus player elements that we've all come to know and perhaps dread in a survival game with more cooperative elements that encourage players to group up and work together.

The player enters the world of Nether and is immediately confronted with a broken and decaying city based off of Chicago. The city is inhabited by creatures referred to as "Nether", which are essentially mutated humans that arose from a cataclysmic solar flare known as "The Cull". Nether are unlike the traditional zombie archetypes that the genre is littered with already. Nether come in a variety of shapes, from the dog-like Crawlers to the always annoying Shriekers who enjoy letting everyone know where you are. Most of your mutated enemies will have the ability to teleport short distances, making the killing of them to be quite difficult at times.

The game doesn't have the best graphics in the world but I've found that the resources used have been used effectively. The city has a constant sepia tone in daylight and quickly changes to pure blackness. Foliage and plant growth make for situations where a nether or another player can be feet away and you'd never know it. While it's obvious that Phosphor's city isn't entirely unique they've done a good job at using the pieces they've got to form fresh buildings and interesting settings. Nether's environment currently only uses a small section of the entire city and already it feels massive and nuanced. I can't wait until they release the other sections of the city, which include a large downtown metropolis full of skyscrapers that will hopefully be completely accessible.

Nether cultivates a world of vulnerability. You'll spend most of your time combing through the city, looking for food, munitions, and medical supplies. Food is a constant concern, as neglecting your hunger meter will eventually lead to a slow and desperate death. More likely than not though, you'll either be taken out by a group of nether or another player, and death is quite permanent in Nether. How players interact in this game could almost be studied as a legitimate social experiment.

Nether also does a good job of molding the player to the world. While your character can grow through an RPG style perk system all of it can be lost in the blink of an eye. Move too loudly in an area, alert enemies with a careless gunshot, or make yourself too visible and you'll find yourself dead. Nether rewards patience and caution while punishing risky players with hordes of angry mutants and bandits looking for easy loot.

When you die in Nether, that character is gone, and you'll be given an option to bring in a different character if you want to keep playing. The skill tree allows for increases to stealth, survival (utilizing food resources), firearms, health, melee, etc. Even with upgrades to a character you'll never find yourself as an invincible super-soldier. Because of this, the game is pretty realistic in the way players act. People tend to duck through buildings, crouching to create less noise in key areas. Players who find each other in the ravaged wastes of the city tend to either attempt to annihilate each other out of sheer fear or run for the hills.

The game currently suffers a split identity which has been the cause of numerous in-game and forum-based arguments. Nether is built in an environment which encourages and often necessitates the killing of other players, but it also wants to nudge people to group up. Phosphor has placed several safe zones throughout the city where players physically cannot use their weapons. Within these zones players can use markets, talk, and organize with each other. There's a handy global inventory located at these zones which allows you to stash your loot and access it again at any time on any server. You'll want to use that often otherwise you'll be losing a lot of nice items to your inevitable and untimely deaths.

The largest of the safe zones will also occasionally become swarmed with baddies, encouraging players to team up and fix six devices that will reactive the zone. Generally it's very hard to accomplish this by yourself. Bringing along a couple friends makes for a very tactical and rewarding challenge. For instance, with two buddies I found myself sneaking through the compound, repairing devices while one friend providing cover from a nearby sniper nest and another watched my back. This type of experience happens quite often, and it probably the most fun and interesting part of the game.

You tend to get two camps of people in Nether, those that acknowledge and practice killing others on sight and those that are much more virtuous and team oriented. Personally, I'm a fan of the duality that the developers are trying to balance but right now its markedly harder to be a good person in the game. Though it's being worked on, there's currently no party or clan support, making it hard to identify your buddies. Voice chat is mildly sucky and the distance that you can view another players name has been drastically reduced. Most players at the moment are generally choosing third-party voice applications and purchasing matching helmets from the market for easy identification.

Nether could greatly use a system where it would be easier to recognize players that are choosing to be bandits. In terms of realism, if you come into a city of fellow survivors and start murdering people eventually the word is going to get around that you are in fact a murderer. The same would be nice for players who are actively helping each other. Since there are only a dozen or so servers it is not uncommon for players to recognize each other by name, as well as that player's tendency to be helpful or not. Players who habitually kill others also, by logic, probably

If you're interested in knowing just how buggy an experience you'll be getting if you buy into Nether the answer is that you'll be getting a healthy amount. The game has a host of little bugs that need stamping, but nothing that is really game breaking at the moment. Collisions remain a constant issue, with an occasional nether being able to hit you through a wall or finding yourself stuck trying to walk down a ramp. Server stability is also an issue that is currently being worked on, especially in regards to Nether's tendency to boot players from the server who have been playing for an hour or two. Considering the game randomly spawns you into the world, finding any friends you've managed to acquire can often be annoying after this happens. There's also continuing issues related to gun lag, where firing a weapon is often accompanied by a second of nothing before the projectile exits the barrel.

Overall Nether is shaping up well, and it's encouraging to see the developers implementing so many changes in their patch notes based on community feedback. Nether's current price however is a tad high. At $29.99 my suggestion would be to wait a bit for the game to go on sale around the winter holidays on Steam if you're on the fence about it. If you're a survival fan by all means pick up the game, the experience is definitely playable and can get quite engrossing if you bring a couple friends along for the ride.

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