An early look at Phosphor's survival pseudo-MMO Nether

Phosphor Games' Nether
When I first learned I'd be jetting off to meet with Phosphor Games for a first look at its upcoming title Nether, I must admit I wasn't enthusiastic. I expected to see just another zombie-esque first-person shooter in a genre already overstuffed with shotguns and undead targets. But now that I've seen the demo in person, I might just have changed my mind. It's not really an MMO, not with 64 people on a map, but it's certainly skirting the boundaries; I'd consider it a happy marriage between Left 4 Dead and DayZ, so it's certainly the type of game fans of post-apocalyptic survival pseudo-MMOs will want to watch.

The game's backstory features a near-future world, about a decade after a major mutation event called "the Cull" in the game's lore. Thanks to the Cull, the majority of the population transformed into zombies violent mutated humanoid creatures. I guess there's an attempt to avoid the classic zombie trope in Nether, but who's fooled, really?
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Nether Gallery

The game world is a large, misty, gloomy urban setting with partially wrecked buildings, debris, smoke, disabled vehicles, and very limited resources. There is a great deal of vertical travel available, so players will be able to scale buildings for the amazing views and great sniping spots, but getting there quietly without attracting a hostile will be a challenging task.

Why? Well, while the not-zombie zombies are semi-blind, they do have exceptional hearing and the ability to teleport to the source of any sound within their hearing range. Even single creatures are exceptionally tough for a solo player to kill, meaning that multiplayer cooperation is essentially a requirement for survival. And since loud sounds will attract hostiles, stealth and silence are necessary elements as well.

Although there was just one type of enemy creature shown in my demo, there will be three categories of hostiles in the launch version of the game: Hunters, Hulks, and Shriekers. The demo offered only the example of a Hunter, but Phosphor explained that the Shrieker is a scout that will call in additional hostiles from a wide radius. The Hulk, on the other hand, is a slower-moving but heavy-hitting creature. Apparently a small number of the post-Cull population also devolved into shambling, non-aggressive, optionally attackable and lootable creatures; Phosphor plans to consider how to develop these neutrals based on community feedback. Finally, an even smaller portion of the population remains unaffected by the mutation and is struggling to survive in this otherwise hostile environment: That'd be you, the players of Nether, and you might not get along with your fellow survivors.

An early look at Nether
So far, I admit, this all sounds familiar and perhaps a little ho-hum, but during my demo, the multiplayer gameplay and quality of the Unreal 3 engine graphics provided a realistic, ominous environment with smooth and fluid player movement. The UI and mechanics are downright primitive compared to other FPS titles, but somehow that just adds to the realism and the suspense. For example, while there is in-game voice chat, there's no team health-o-meter, no endless streams of combat hit-point values or "critical" flags, no destructible structures, no auto-targeting or ranging, no overhead map, and no ignoring friendly-fire. All the player has is a weapon, a compass, and a health-state readout.

About that weapon: Ranged weapon use seemed very realistic with a mixture of basic aiming-sights and a notable amount of recoil following each shot. The weapons currently available are limited to mostly simple melee items, but eventually pistols, shotguns, and automatic rifles round out the player arsenal. These weapons, along with ammo, gear, and medpacks, are acquired from loot caches and monster loot drops but can be traded in-game to other players.

The game doesn't offer strict classes, but player stats can be improved via leveling, and the progression of certain traits will tend to dictate weapons and a preferred style of play. For example, a quick, stealthy, rifle-proficient, hunger-tolerant individual would make a great sniper, whereas a beefy, powerful, fast individual with a penchant for handheld weapons would be more useful as survivable bait whom his sniper buddy can cover. To satisfy PvE players, Phosphor's ensured there are loot caches, mission objectives, major loot zones (marked by smoke), and in-game story elements. Explicit separation of PvP and PvE may be adjusted depending on community feedback.

And since the game does feature PvP, you know command, control, and situational awareness will be of primary importance. Use of the in-game voice chat I mentioned earlier will make or break players' survival, and you'd better choose your PvP battles wisely, as making a noise -- even shooting at another player -- may attract hostile NPCs if you do not keep moving. Death in the game can be significant; when you die, all your carried gear and loot drops with your body, so having trusted buddies around to protect and retrieve your equipment is critical. If you're wondering just how brutal this PvP will be, let me describe a tactic suggested to me by members of the dev team itself: Just follow an enemy player around and wait until he's beset by hostiles, then cheaply take him down and snag his gear. I suppose it's lucrative for the victor! Players who just want a break from all that carnage can retreat to the designated "safe zone," which provides a place for safe trading or stashing loot and equipment.

An early look at Nether
Admittedly, many of these more hardcore features might not appeal to everyone, which is why Phosphor plans to let the game evolve and be guided by community feedback as it progresses through beta this fall. Currently, the studio is considering more weapon types, missions, PvP-only servers, additional map areas, crafting, custom servers, and management tools. Vehicles like motorcycles and helicopters have also made the player wish-list, though Phosphor's reps told me that should helicopters make it into the game, they might have some unintended consequences, like stranding their occupants on rooftops and leaving them with no recourse but to leap to their deaths to continue.

I was told the system requirements are considered relatively light and that the game should run on any recent dual-core PC or laptop platform, though as you might expect, the better the machine, the better the results. Still, my demo was running on what was described as a medium resolution, and it was quite impressive all the same.

Following the beta and early access release later this year, the game will hit Steam, accompanied by the usual gamification trophy salad of achievements. How much will you be paying to kill not-zombies and not-friends in Nether? There's no official price yet, but my suggestion in the $20-to-$40 range got a nod of agreement from the devs.

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?

Nether: Objective

This article was originally published on Massively.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.