While the iron was still hot on current-era FPS titles, New World Interactive put their name on the map with Insurgency. Despite having a lot of the same modern military accouterments of Battlefield and Call of Duty, they wanted to avoid the dopamine hits of 360 no-scopes and easy killstreaks for a deliberate tone. After that successful experiment, they – naturally – followed up with a sequel. Now, nearly three years after its PC release, Insurgency: Sandstorm has finally launched on consoles. Is it a worthwhile tour?
The concept is relatively straightforward: you either play as Security or Insurgents. The former is an amalgamation of US, NATO, Kurdish, and other forces whilst the latter is inspired by the Taliban & Al-Qaeda. When considering these inspirations, it makes sense that all of Sandstorm's multiplayer maps seem like typical areas found in Iraq or Afghanistan. The locations themselves aren't surprising on their own; it's the combative focus that feels different.
Most of Sandstorm's controls follow other shooters to the letter. The basics of movement, shooting, recoil, aiming, and so on are deliberately slower though. There's a tangible heft to your player-character lugging around so much gear that permeates each engagement. I'll admit this: I initially thought "sloppy" was the proper adjective to use here. The humdrum tutorial may go over the default button layout, but it doesn't contextualize the immediacy of the action.
Once you've left boot camp and stepped into combat, you'll better understand the interesting dynamics at play. It's the little things that set it apart early: the deliberate slowness of movement a la Killzone 2, the incredibly quick TTK (time-to-kill) that'll often make you unsure where the shot ever came from until viewing the kill cam, drawn-out respawn timers, and speed reloads (double-tapping X button) which tosses away the entire ammo clip. You read that last one correctly: don't expect automatically refilled clips just for reloading. There's a different kind of expectation when stepping into these shoes.
Not all mechanics are created equal, however. As of now, you literally can't select between standing, crouching, and then prone in one fluid motion. For some reason, it demands you stand up first before getting into either position. For a shooter trying to emphasize the realism of modern warfare, I also don't understand why leaning acts so finicky. Moving while leaning isn't this obstructive affair where every time you stop your weapon artificially bobs to the side. Even if you don't want it to be as snappy as Rainbow Six: Siege, there's no need to make it so distracting either. Lastly, vaulting over certain obstacles can sometimes be a coin toss. Even though they're paper cuts, by comparison, each of these annoyances has cost me a life.
Rules Of Engagement
As with any military shooter worth its salt, the toys are a core component. Being spoiled for choice comes with a cost. Melding the sensibilities of hero shooters and CounterStrike's loadout model, each class has certain weapon and equipment presets. The standard classes are mostly what anyone would suspect: Rifleman has the standard infantry options, Marksman enjoys high-powered sniper rifles, Gunner plays with machine guns, and so on.
Barring a few class-specific examples, every weapon, attachment, and equipment piece comes with a cost to your allotted points bank. Don't expect to enjoy a silenced Desert Eagle and a FAL with all the bells and whistles. Learning to whittle down to the necessities that’ll maximize your playstyle is integral to success. I'm not a fan of the cluttered UI for the plethora of attachments, but the intention and execution are fundamentally sound. There's a pleasant level of experimentation and compromise to toy with; plus, it's further developed by the fact that either sides' arsenals have prominent disparities.
Beyond the previously mentioned classes, there are two unique ones that veer away from today's standards on killstreaks. The Commander & Observer's symbiotic relationship can change the tide of any battle. The setup is pretty simple: ensure at least one of each is on your team and within 10 meters of each other to radio in support. Whatever option they select, be it smoke artillery or a gunship strafing run will focus wherever the commander's binoculars aim towards. The necessity of collaboration is in large part what I appreciate about this over the Social Darwinism of Call of Duty or the modern-era Medal of Honor entries.
All The Sights & Sounds
If there was one aspect of Sandstorm that's closest to "immaculate" it would be sound design. Considering how its PC version was released before the Modern Warfare reboot, which came with a highly-advertised new in-house engine, one can tell how dedicated this team was to sound. Even the aural chaos depicted in a simple room-clearing exercise sounds insanely specific; likewise, the realistic displacement of gunshots outside deserves special commendation as well. Beyond diverse & detailed weapon noises and ear-ringing explosions, the subtler aural queues like footsteps and soldier barks make it easy to echo-locate said ally or enemy. Gripes like a limited amount of unique soldier voices aside, it's expertly crafted from top to bottom.
Seeing how it's hitting that middle-market tactical shooter niche, it's not a resplendent or colorful shooter. The typical, desaturated locales don't take any exotic turns; it's more about function than style in this context. With this in mind, the level design often succeeds in pulling you in to appreciate these labyrinthine mini-mazes. Although you can see a three-lane structure for several maps, the amount of secondary avenues to explore is quite impressive – even superfluous. But I think that captures the messiness of such locations.
Important note: these assessments are based on my time with an Xbox Series X. It's still technically an Xbox One version, but there are still modest benefits like a consistent 60fps. Considering how playing on any 8th-gen console means it's locked at 30fps, part of me wants to admonish against playing it on older hardware. I know it's not easy to get a hold of new-gen consoles – and I'm cognizant of this suggestion delaying potential sales, but a higher framerate for this type of demanding game feels necessary.
Sandstorm's Multiplayer Meat & Potatoes
Given how online PVP multiplayer is the cream of the crop, I'll break down its current options first (discounting time-limited events):
- Push: Similar to Battlefield's titular Rush mode, attackers must pursue the highlighted objective. They receive fewer respawn waves than defenders at the start but can net more with each subsequent capture.
- Firefight: Both sides battle for three territory nodes. You're not awarded a respawn unless your team captures an objective.
- Frontline: Firefight's ruleset, but with only one objective to capture (or defend) at a time.
- Domination: Your basic A/B/C objective control variant.
If I were to single the odd one out, Domination takes the rusted crown. I typically like this mode in many shooters, but it runs against Sandstorm's better strengths. The push and pull of one objective – a singular focus – feels more honest to this design ethos. As much as I like Domination modes elsewhere, it feels like more of a rat race here, and some of the weaker maps exemplify this; playing it on Factory was one of my least favorite times. Firefight has similar issues, but I think the respawn demand alleviates several problems. In stark contrast, it didn't take long for me to get hooked to Push on virtually any map.
The Co-op side of things breaks down in a similar fashion:
- Checkpoint: A variant of Push against AI enemies. Capture an objective or destroy a weapon cache while preparing for the occasional counter-attack.
- Hardcore Checkpoint: Same idea but with slower movement speed, a limited HUD, and losing all equipment upon death.
- Outpost: Horde Mode
- Survival: Another type of Horde Mode, but with greater emphasis on moving to various objectives and then eventually extraction.
Some modes are more successful than others. Both Checkpoint options emphasize a bit of surprise in where objectives may be placed. Since you don't burn through all of them at once, there's a quasi-randomized element to the next place your team needs to capture and hold. That dynamism isn't really found anywhere in plain-jane Outpost. Given how quick kills are and how strapped New World is with respect to enemy variants, it feels uneventful and hollow compared to contemporaries. Some rounds I did little more than down a couple of enemies running in a single file line.
Another reason Co-op can't ascend to Versus' heights is due to the tactical intelligence you're facing. Sure, some online players are bound to be buffoons, but not as consistently as this enemy AI. The worst offenders are either the obnoxious suicide bombers or the melee-focused combatants who will sometimes just stand idly in front of you for a couple of seconds. To their credit, standard Insurgents don't have Stormtrooper aim; the thing is, decent aim can't disguise the boring routines they're often pulling. I hate that shallow trick of "secretly" spawning a couple of enemies behind you as a performative means to keep up the action. Swollen numbers can put up a fight, but the artificial methods of inflating their tactical minds become noticeable relatively soon.
Value can be a tough thing to assess in a multiplayer-focused title. How much weight one holds in quantity & quality can vary from person to person. Personally, $40 felt like a respectable amount for what's initially on offer. Since it's structured like a GaaS title (Games-as-a-Service), there's already a heaping of new content to expect over the coming years. Sadly, the side of that model also rears its ugly head: the high-priced "Year Passes," Deluxe Edition, Gold Edition, and several cosmetic packs. These don't interrupt the base game with respect to gameplay, but it's still a bit... disheartening to see them go this far with unique outfits.
Considering this flavor of shooters was getting quite stale several years back, New World Interactive deserves recognition for captivating a specific audience. Finding a balance between rugged tactical-oriented combat and accessibility is often difficult, but they made it work. Some nagging issues, across modes and enemy AI, prevent Insurgency: Sandstorm from earning a pristine Medal of Honor, but its merits make it an easy shoo-in for a Silver Star.
TechRaptor reviewed Insurgency: Sandstorm on Xbox One with a copy provided by the publisher. It is also available on PlayStation 4 & PC. Xbox Series X|S & PlayStation 5 versions will reportedly be available next year.
- Incredible Sound Design/Sound Foley
- Intricate Map Layouts
- Solid Mix Of Tactical Combat & Accessibility
- Intense Gameplay
- Fairly-Priced For Its Base Content
- Underwhelming Enemy AI
- Some Lackluster Game Modes (Across Co-op & Versus)
- A Couple Of Gameplay Quibbles
- Ancillary Monetization Practices