Thursday, June 26, 2014

Steam Summer Sale Review: Nether

As I accumulate yet more games on the Steam Summer Sale I thought I'd provide some mini-reviews on the stuff I grab for those interested. Keep in mind these "reviews" are based off of a few hours' play but when talking about games on sale for $1-$6 apiece that may be all you need to decide:


I started Nether thinking I would possibly deeply regret spending $3 on it. The Steam forums are rife with people pissed off because they can't get the game to work, and they are not wrong: the process from making an account to playing the actual game is where Nether needs the most work, and clearly whoever is making this game has a lot more energy invested in the graphics and play experience than the user-hostile interface.

Once you make it into the game, however, you're in for an immersive post-apocalyptic treat of surprisingly high magnitude. Nether places you as a survivor in a hostile ruined city, in a future where civilization has collapsed after (I guess) an alien invasion of creatures from the nether, warping/teleporting monsters of various types that like to hunt you. Surviving these creatures requires stealth, patience and occasional furious button mashing or escape skills (but they are dogged pursuers, being teleporters and all). Avoiding combat is usually the smartest action.

The game is a permadeath experience. They worked around some of the permadeath problem by letting you level on two tiers: character (the guy who might die) and account (the meta-character, you). By level 2 on the account I gained a permanent health boost that affects all characters, for example. The character leveling is a skill-based expansion that I really like, but it all goes away, messily, if you die while playing. So....don't die. Surprisingly I had no problem with this; when the game makes permadeath the default, it's pretty much just something you either accept for what it is or pass on to other games.

There is a problem with the permadeath approach, and that is that my understanding is Nether is full on PvP, anything goes. Most of the forum complaints seem to boil down to "I was going along and got head-shotted, WTF!" type stuff. I can see how on a permadeath game that would be frustrating. My entire Nether play experience so far has been to log on to a server offering zero population and enjoying it as a solo experience. I the time I played no one showed up on the server to start hunting me; it looked like those players clustered on high-pop servers, which was fine with me. If I can, I'll make a new character and drop into a high-pop server (it looks like one server can support 64 players), and let you know how that goes. Resources are scarce and necessary to build weapons, so I can see how the temptation to kill a fellow human for his nice machine gun must be overwhelming to some people, even at the cost of their own lives.

Again, I'll comment on the awesome, insanely well-done audio and visual ambiance of the game: creeping around in the ruined city was a real pleasure, and it was strongly reminiscent of Fallout 3 or other equivalent games like Metro 2033. In fact it sort of felt to me what a true open-world version of Metro 2033 would feel like. Even the monsters remind me a bit of Metro 2033.

Now for some of the issues and problems:

Getting in to the game is a huge ordeal. It prompts you for a login and you set up an account. Then you watch the game go to a server screen which appears to be loading from an old spool-tape player. The first two or three times I thought it was crashing and freezing; I'd back out, see Task Screen showed Nether was no responding, and kill it. After the third time I decided to let the server screen pop up and just left it alone for a long time (several minutes). When I checked back it appeared to have loaded up and was now working. My guess is they have an overlay that's not loading first, but is bouncing between server data and overlay load...or something. This is a hideous optimization issue and if the creators of Nether are serious about making money they should fix the server screen ASAP. Too many people in the forums clearly got to this point and gave up, either because it really did freeze on their rigs or they didn't have the patience to wait for the thing to load.

Once you're in the game runs well. There was motion blur that I turned off because it was annoying, but the game ran smoothly after that. If you're used to really polished FPSes you will notice occasional oddities in movement of your character, but beyond that it's surprisingly smooth. I don't know if the servers demonstrate lag with large player pops yet, but I'll find out; on a 1 player : 1 server basis I was having no issues.

The game has a story, but it's not obvious. The team making this game is strong in graphics and design, but weak on script and user interface. The in-game interfaces are all okay, but when talking to vendors its possible to start moving your character while trying to click on the menu options. As for the story: they need a decent writer who can take the bland mission text and clean it up; no one should have a mission or courier package that says "Take the CRT to the MDR" while one is left scratching their head at what that all means.

The game in the first few hours is all about grabbing packages and hauling them to merchants in other safe zones. Occasionally a boss monster shows up and starts trashing a safe zone, or marauding through a region. World events get announced, and much braver souls than I have the option to respond. From reading through the wiki there are solo-friendly and group focuses tasks and objectives. I never ran into group objectives, but possibly because those are obviously things to avoid when you're armed with a butter knife.

In terms of open-world content, just exploring was a cool experience. There's stuff to be found if you'll look for it. Curiously it all appears to be stuff at the same locations, so when you see abandoned ambulances you can periodically return to re-loot those areas, they will always have new random content. There are occasional locked locations (cars I ran into) that require keys. Which gets to the next issue....

There's a pay store. It suggests that the end result of Nether is to be a F2P experience, one in which you then buy in-game gold to get cosmetic and other items (some useful, I think). I haven't explored the pricing yet, but I've heard accusations that Nether is P2W (pay to win). If this is true, then it could be problematic....if you're not playing on an empty server, anyway. I'll follow up on this when I look at the high-pop servers; if the game is rigged to make money on the need to advance artificially through RMTs then that's a huge problem for Nether; it needs to place players on more equal footing, or it will never live up to its potential. Hell, if it was designed specifically to be a single player or co-op experience with a more detailed storyline I'd put down $40 to play this.....but if it's geared toward P2W PvP gaming then I consider $3 worth it for as long as I can find empty servers or get lucky and play with friendlies.

Bottom Line So Far: If you can get it for sale like I did and the thought of a multiplayer Fallout 3/Metro 2033 environment tantalizes you, then this is a must-buy. But prepare to be very patient trying to get to the server screen. However, if a permadeath open-world game with possible PvP sounds painful, then beware! But I'll report on the pvp/high-pop server side of it all tomorrow.

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