In December indie development studio New World Interactive released its shooter game Insurgency: Sandstorm following a seemingly last-minute decision to delay the game in September. How does it play now that it has had more time in the oven?
Insurgency has always been somewhat of an outlier in the over-saturated shooter market. Its focus on tactical gameplay over the generic, perhaps more simplistic, shooter gameplay mechanics meant that it alienated those who strongly preferred the latter.
However, that focus on tactical gameplay is what currently gives Insurgency: Sandstorm the upper hand over many popular shooter games. Counter-Strike, Call of Duty and Battlefield still dominate the market, but you won't find true innovation there, at least not in terms of mechanics.
That is why Insurgency: Sandstorm finds itself in an interesting position because it has the potential to offer a truly new experience at a time when so few shooter games do.
Right from the start, the trailers and gameplay videos looked great, even though some of these were clearly staged by adding voice-overs.
We were particularly thrilled by the game's soundstaging video that proved games really don't need an equivalent of Battlefield's Wartapes system, which some still consider being the most realistic sounding war experience, to get high quality audio.
In the current build sound design is just as good as the initial video made us expect it to be. This is a game you will want to play with headphones to really immerse yourself in the action.
However, I found there to be a real downside to its sound design as well. It can be so impressive and loud at times that talking with friends via third-party VOIP solutions becomes a real hassle. The only way to somewhat remedy this is to use sound dampening functions. I consider this an issue that could essentially nullify the game's e-sport potential.
As mentioned, Insurgency as a franchise has a tendency to alienate those who strongly prefer a more simplistic shooter experience and Insurgency: Sandstorm is certainly no exception.
There are only three available versus game types; Push, Firefight, Skirmish and one co-op game type; Checkpoint. During my time with the game I considered Firefight to be the easiest to pick up and play. In Firefight teams must secure all objectives or eliminate all enemies to win. Every life counts, making this a very suspenseful experience dependent upon teamwork. If there was ever significant e-sports interest then I would pick this game type to start things off with.
Of course, co-op multiplayer is not new to the franchise and Checkpoint certainly seems similar to the co-op mode of the previous entry. I found co-op to get old rather quickly, especially when you find yourself retaking the exact same objectives because your entire team died on the last objective. I definitely would have liked to see more variation here, perhaps in the form of randomly generated scenarios.
The other available game types somehow didn't strike my fancy. I'm not entirely sure if this was due to their presentation and execution or if I was just looking for a more simplistic no-frills search and destroy mode instead. It may have been a little of both. That being said, players may find the available game types to be unusual and unnecessarily complex.
Weapon mechanics are spot on; they feel realistic and satisfying and most weapons are well-balanced. Shotguns were the only weapons I thought were slightly over-powered compared to the rest, but then again getting a direct hit from one in real life doesn't leave you standing either. I'm not saying this should be a reason not to tweak it slightly, of course.
Tweaking your preferred weapons with the many attachments that are available is especially rewarding and the interface for this makes this experience as easy as can be. Familiarizing yourself with these options by trying out different combinations is essential to improving your game.
Once you have your routine and load-out down, the game is fun and rewarding. It is able to convey modern warfare in ways very few other shooter games have been able to, making pretty much every shootout experience nerve-racking. Accuracy and good communication and decision making is rewarded instead of the traditional run and gun gameplay.
Part of this wonderful depiction of modern warfare is the introduction of vehicles, a first in the franchise. Most of these vehicles have mounted weapons players can use while another is driving. However, the game is still very much an infantry shooter. Vehicles are a good way to get around, but rarely will you find use for them in combat situations. I consider it to be a welcomed addition to franchise, implemented in a way that doesn't detract from the experience we've all come to expect.
Primarily funneling players through the game's matchmaking system instead of its community dedicated servers is an odd design choice for this game. Insurgency as a franchise is still relevant today because of the community that gathered around its dedicated servers in previous titles. Taking the focus away from that feels very wrong and out of place.
In addition, players can only gain XP and unlock cosmetics if they play on official matchmaking servers. This means that those who still wish to support community dedicated servers are out of luck.
The game's matchmaking system isn't without its flaws either. Waiting several minutes to find a match and joining matches a couple of minutes before they are finished are not uncommon issues at all, making the whole experience unnecessarily frustrating.
The party system that can be accessed via the main menu is a nice addition but seems to be unfinished and lack polish. You can invite friends to your party to make sure you will end up in the same server, but the system is pretty much useless otherwise. While I understand the previous Insurgency game had the same functionality, I would have liked to see better party integration during matches this time around, such as being able to spot where your friends are so you can stay together more easily.
Players currently have six different maps to choose from; Crossing, Farmhouse, Summit, Refinery, Precinct and Hideout. Out of these six Summit and Precinct were the most interesting to play on due to their urban setting. Refinery and Crossing were the worst of the bunch simply due to the game's disappointing performance while playing on these.
While its graphics aren't as bad as some claim it to be, the game's performance is certainly lacking for what you get. Frame rates dipping to low 40s is still common, even with mid-range and high-end machines, despite the team having extra time to sort out this one important issue that was most reported during the beta tests.
That isn't to say that performance hasn't improved since the beta tests, it certainly has, but not enough to be satisfied with it.
Not completely fixing these issues gives me the impression that the team just doesn't know how to further improve it. Switching from the Source engine to Unreal Engine obviously has something to do with that, but simply concluding that one engine is superior to the other is short-sighted. I had high hopes that these issues would be fixed eventually, but it seems like they never will be.
As mentioned in our previous feature article, running the game on machines with 8 GB RAM will only lead to disappointment and frustration. Those who have not yet upgraded to 16 GB RAM should definitely consider it as it can help mitigate some of the performance and stuttering issues.
I'm not going as far as to say that this is the best shooter game of 2018 as some other mainstream outlets have. The issues mentioned in this review are significant enough to make sure it isn't. Performance issues in FPS games is a certain death sentence in my book and it is incredibly disheartening that the development team wasn't able to resolve these early on. However, if the game does run well on your machine then gameplay is great fun, provided you can find yourself playing the available game types.
The game's statistics for this month say it all: it peaks at roughly 3,000 players daily and is slowly decreasing. If nothing changes this number will drop to less than 1,000 daily players within six months. I still consider this to be caused by bad first impressions the game left during the beta tests. Getting those who already refunded it on board again really did prove to be impossible. I have seen a couple picking it up again and being pleased with the outcome, but they were mostly players who were already heavily invested in the tactical FPS genre.
Insurgency: Sandstorm is currently only available for PC. It is expected to be making its way to Xbox One and PlayStation 4 later this year.