White Noise 2 is evocative of distant days – barely remembered – before the likes of Deal Or No Deal supplanted the Video Rental Store as the primary source of mindless entertainment for most people.
Of course I’m thinking back to the pre-internet heyday of Blockbuster and Ritz Video, where even in their pokiest suburban outposts you could find a copy of Hellgate going for 99p, so long as it was returned within 24 hours… I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d stumble bleary-eyed into my local VHS rental emporium, pick up a couple of bargain bin horror cassettes and return home to get through another day on a diet of shit movies, Wheat Crunchies and Death cigarettes.
Thankfully, White Noise 2 is reminiscent only of the terrible plotlines, rubber-masked creatures and cheap scares that were common to all straight-to-VHS horror movies, rather than the ennui of living in Poll Tax Britain. Take the premise, which sees a team of up to four dough-faced Investigators searching one of three rather prosaic locations (abandoned hospital, spooky crypt, cursed abbey) for a number of tapes that together will banish “the creature” back from whence it came. Meanwhile the Xtro-like beast (there are three to choose from, but they all look like variations on the Xtro monster to me) stalks the shadows, trying to pick off the other players as they conga blindly through the darkness, waving about their battery-hungry torch lights in the hope of keeping the creature at more than an arm’s length away.
Whether you play as one of the four Investigators or the lone creature, White Noise 2 (a title that references the sounds of static heard when the creature and/or a precious tape is nearby), is ostensibly about two things: playing a kind of ‘kiss chase’, and using light to your advantage. As you can probably imagine there’s precious little of the latter about, so while the creature is able to view an outline of nearby players, the Investigators have to rely on cues to pinpoint their pursuer, such as the distortion of sound and vision that becomes more pronounced the more central the creature is in your field of view. While Investigators can try to spot the creature with their torches, battery-powered light is primarily used as a means to keep the creature at bay – for it has rather sensitive vision, poor thing – while at the same time providing a beacon for the other players – creature included – to hone in on you.
Beyond the ability to lob the odd glowstick down a corridor or into the undergrowth to slow the creature down, Investigators are remarkably under-equipped for nocturnal hide and seek. Despite the abundance of batteries located around each level, torches will suck energy cells dry in a matter of minutes. While glowsticks are effectively infinite in number, there’s a cooldown timer that lasts longer when more Investigators are in play. There’s also a compass – also on a cooldown – that briefly points in the direction of the nearest tape for just long enough to give a vague sense of its direction and distance. However: given that there’s no map to call on during a match, even as a veteran player you can expect to have to endure a fair amount of backtracking, re-routing and, when confronted by the creature, panicked scarpering (or in my case, futile torch pointing).
For the first few games, if you’re playing as an Investigator, it’s best to follow the pack of human players, so that – should you be attacked – the others might shine their torches in your direction to cause the creature to melt into the ground and appear elsewhere. Go it alone – especially on full beam – and you’ll be sure to die quickly in one sitting.
As easy as it is for players to have their souls swallowed during the course of their investigations, death in White Noise 2 does not mean game over: the deceased automatically take corporeal form and can help remaining survivors to hunt down tapes without any fear of attack. The dead are also the only players able to destroy idols, which are the creature’s early warning system for detecting Investigators on the other side of the map. Unfortunately the dead can’t protect the living directly, or pick up any tapes themselves, which means that a lone Investigator will want to take as stealthy an approach as possible to avoid contact, and certainly run like hell when contact does happen.
In the early stages White Noise 2 can be a difficult game to appreciate, especially as each game session – regardless of map or the mix of players – can feel identical to the last. There are differences between each Investigator, with four levels of ability for traits such as Stealth, Endurance, Bravery and Battery Management, but you don’t initially get much of a feel for how effective or useful certain traits are in any given situation. You simply spawn into the game and your options are either to fumble around in the half-light of your torch (and hasten the inevitable), or fumble around in the pitch black and delay your demise a little longer.
It’s only really when you’ve played White Noise 2 for a couple of matches as the creature that things really start to fall into place and you gain some insight into what you’re up against and – crucially – understand that the game is actually very well balanced and not (as initially seems to be the case), absurdly biased towards the villainous monster. What is however unfortunate in that regard is how small the player base currently is. In my two weeks of dabbling with White Noise 2 I don’t think I’ve seen more than twenty people logged into the game, with active numbers frequently less than ten during a weekday evening. That’s more than enough people to find a game most of the time, but with only one creature slot available (and that’s typically camped by a high level host player), you’re frequently having to play with and against whoever is around at the time. There just aren’t the numbers to make any matchmaking system work at the moment, so it always seems like the game is imbalanced, when it’s the paucity of players that’s the real problem.
It’s a shame because at £5.59 White Noise 2 is very reasonably priced. The problem isn’t that the game looks a bit cheap; that the premise is nonsensical, or that there are too few maps, creatures or characters to unlock, but that you have to play beyond the two hour refund point before the essence of the game starts to reveal itself as something worth sticking with. The ‘How To Play’ section is excellent, but more hints and tips in-game would be helpful, as would a lobby system that pushed players out from the creature slot if it’s been occupied by the same person for too long – anything, really, that gets players experiencing more of the game and it’s tactics sooner. There is a Solo Play option for instance, but it’s literally just you versus an AI creature: There’s no way to play as the creature versus AI Investigators, or indeed as an Investigator alongside three AI colleagues, which makes solo play both unrepresentative and devoid of much fun.
As obscured as much of the enjoyment can often feel for a new player (partly because of the game’s tiny community), there are obvious benefits to joining such a small and committed group: when you play alongside and against the same names, making friends becomes somewhat easier, plus there’s a lot less toxicity in the ether compared to, say, other asymmetrical multiplayer games. Give me ‘laid back’ and ‘helpful’ rather than ‘substantial’ and ‘vindictive’ any day of the week – just so long as it’s every day of the week, of course.
As to whether White Noise 2 is an Early Access title that’s worth buying into, I would say that it probably is. There are a few crashes-to-desktop here and there, but the game itself is solid, performs well on low-end systems and there aren’t too many issues with balancing that my limited experience has so far uncovered. On the other hand: if you’re looking for a game that has an impressively long list of promised features (and planned new content to keep it in Early Access for years to come, that will somehow endear itself to hundreds of thousands of new players), then there are perhaps more suitable games to invest in. This is a more personal slice of psychological horror, than a massively multiplayer one… I myself will be checking in on White Noise 2 from time to time – joining the odd late night hunt for tapes – and remain hopeful that the community manages to gradually expand rather than contract. Although it’s hard to imagine it functioning if it got any smaller than it is now…
Now, if you don’t mind: I really should return this copy of Hellgate that I found in the attic… 20 years of overdue lending library fees can really stack up, you know.