A military FPS that nails the balance between realism and fun.
By James Duggan
Insurgency: Sandstorm is an excellent multiplayer shooter that successfully avoids the common pitfalls of military simulation, but still manages to deliver an immersive, at times disturbing, sense of realism to its modern, Middle Eastern setting. Its arsenal consists of some of the best-realized firearms in any video game to date thanks to stellar sound design, punchy animations, and obsessive attention to detail. Elsewhere, though, things aren’t quite as glamorous: I found most of its maps to fall into the “just okay” category due in part to poorly defined restricted areas that, on top of being annoying to encounter, are easily exploited. Still, Insurgency: Sandstorm punches well above its weight, offering phenomenal gunplay that shows up much of its big-budget competition.
If ever there was an example of outstanding FPS gunplay, Insurgency: Sandstorm is surely it. That surprisingly elusive feeling isn’t a result of any one factor but rather a marriage of several. To boil it down: pronounced but manageable recoil, a near-instantaneous time to kill, percussive sound, impactful graphics, and an obsessive understanding of firearms come together to make SMGs, LMGs, shotguns, and especially assault rifles feel truly special.
And while Sandstorm has ample amounts of all of the aforementioned qualities, it leans hard into its knowledge of how guns actually work. Upon chambering a round at the start of a match, you can then swap magazines to effectively increase your capacity by one. Tiny details like the depression of the magazine release or the change in position of the fire selection switch are all visible on the gun models and are thoroughly appreciated. You can double tap the reload button to perform a hasty magazine swap that, while faster, discards any remaining ammunition in the spent magazine. Shotguns have remarkable range by FPS standards. And finally, there is slight deadzone in the middle of your aiming axis where only the gun moves and your character does not. That sounds weird but feels great. These details may seem trivial but the results are anything but.
The effect that all this realistic weaponry has on the battlefield is downright scary.
The effect that all this realistic weaponry has on the battlefield is downright scary. If you’re looking to walk away from your modern military FPS with mild tinnitus then Sandstorm on a pair quality headphones is a good place to start. Bullets produce a loud snap when whizzing by, and a burst of automatic gunfire against a nearby metal surface is almost deafening. I’ve never been in combat, but this seems to be a much more realistic representation than we typically see in games.
The most disturbing sounds, though, come in the form of determined, blood-spewing coughs and the labored, wailing death rattles produced by both your enemies and allies. These touches are intense, and I wouldn’t blame if you find them to be in poor taste. But I, for one, prefer a depiction of war that doesn’t obscure its horrific nature. The feeling of being in the thick of it is enhanced by myriad post-processing and particle effects that successfully punch up Sandstorm’s otherwise-modest looks.
This brutal, at times tragic depiction of war certainly makes an impact at first. And while such scenes eventually become secondary to the fixation on gameplay, a few particularly unsettling scenarios managed to evoke an audible “oof” from me, even well after the 30-hour mark. And while its commitment to realism is apparent throughout, Insurgency: Sandstorm also knows when gameplay should come first.
For instance, even in the absence of enemy hit indicators I was rarely left pondering an enemy’s fate thanks to the impressively large and (hopefully) exaggerated mist of blood that landing a shot produces. Other compromises are even less subtle, like HUD elements that display the position of allies through walls. Kicking in a door has the effect in instantly killing anyone on the other side, and you can even jump on a grenade to reduce or prevent the damage dealt to nearby allies. While some of these examples may have a real-world analog, they feel to me like solid choices that were made for the sake of better gameplay, and I appreciate them.
While its commitment to realism is apparent throughout, Insurgency: Sandstorm also knows when gameplay should come first.
The non-competitive versus playlist contains two modes that support up to 32 players: Push, Skirmish, and Firefight which supports up to 12. All three are enjoyable in their own right and offer sufficiently unique experiences, but Firefight stands well above the rest. The objective is deceptively simple: kill everyone on the other team or take all three uncontested capture points, whichever comes first. The catch is that because dead players can only respawn if their team takes an objective, the ensuing high-stakes strategy makes each match enjoyable and replayable. The tension is similar to that felt in Counter-Strike’s Bomb Defusal or Hostage Rescue, but with the chance for redemption after death. The six maps are at their best in this small-scale setting, but even here the unintuitive boundaries managed to frustrate me ever so often.
Artificially imposed “restricted areas” announce their presence with bright-red on-screen text and an angry AI callout when you step over their invisible borders. The problem is that there is usually no visual language in either the map design or HUD that distinguishes where these boundaries are, and many can simply be ignored to unfairly access a legal area. This makes learning the ins and outs of where you can and cannot go in a particular portion of a particular map on a particular mode total guesswork. And to really drive the ambiguity home, trespassing in different restricted areas result in different punishments. For instance, going straight out of bounds prompts a timer that will kill you if you remain, staying in an in-bounds restricted area for too long disables your weapon, but ducking into a restricted zone for only a few seconds carries no perceptible punishment. This means that in many cases these boundaries serves no functional purpose other than to confuse everybody.
It just feels sloppy to have so many restricted areas so close to the objectives.
For instance, you can simply bulldoze through restricted areas at multiple points on Precinct in the Push mode to flank enemies from an unexpected angle. Conversely, if you think you’re safe because your flank is blocked by territory that’s restricted to the enemy team, you’re probably not. Furthermore, it just feels sloppy to have so many restricted areas so close to the objectives themselves. And finally, these boundaries accentuate Precinct and Refinery’s worst characteristics – their linear and narrow design. Elsewhere, Crossing is barren to a fault, Hideout opens with a nightmare of a chokepoint on Security Push, and fighting through the densest parts of Summit took a toll on my performance. On the whole, the maps betray Insurgency: Sandstorm’s humble origins more than any other element when compared to its big-budget kin.
I’ve seen a few minor bugs, but most are of the graphical and hopefully easy-to-fix variety. I can only think of three larger issues worthy of bringing up: there is no way to disable the hysteria-inducing mic chirp noises of allied players even if you mute them, initiating a vault over an obstacle can be noticeably finicky, and on two occasions my gun inexplicably refused to fire for a few seconds… and yes, it was loaded. Some players have complained about a low framerate, but my experience on both a GeForce 2080 TI and 1070 I’ve only seen minor performance issues on the Summit map.
Maintaining a level playing field while also rewarding time invested means that progression in Insurgency: Sandstorm is purely aesthetic in nature. Each of the 33 firearms and the dozen or so attachments are unlocked from the very get-go, with the only limiting factors being your class, faction, and loadout points. The Breacher class, for example, has different primary weapon choices than the Gunner, but each has the same amount of points to customize their guns and gear as they see fit. Tinkering with point distribution proved to be a fun process of trial and error. If you want an absolutely decked out primary, for example, you can ax your explosives, armor, and secondary weapon and dump all of those points into attachments like a suppressor, foregrip, laser sight, and optic.
You may not always get to play as your favored class, though, because most roles have a limit on how many people are allowed to play them at a time. Playing as the Marksman, is a first-come, first-served endeavor. However, I was never particularly disappointed at the prospect of being forced into the plain-old Rifleman role, as that basic class offers fantastic versatility and has no problem competing with more specialized archetypes.
While most of the eight classes simply offer exclusive weaponry, the Observer and Commander are clear outliers. A Commander can call in powerful ordnance like chemical mortars, drone bombers, or a helicopter gunship – but only if the radio-operating Observer is standing close by. Crucially, all members of this fire support team need to be alive to get anything done.
When you’ve cut your teeth on the versus playlist you can up the stakes in a ranked competitive queue. Here a lengthier version of Firefight with five players on each team serves as the only mode and weapons, attachments, and equipment are all much more expensive, resulting in the use of barebones loadouts. Communication is key, and comms remain active even after you’ve died. While my experience in ranked is limited I love what I’ve played so far – the competitive playlist makes Sandstorm’s best mode even better. With that said, I think the inclusion of seasonal ranked rewards would be a welcome incentive to increase the apparently barren matchmaking pool. Finally, there is a tutorial and cooperative versus AI mode if you need a bit of practice before heading into multiplayer.
Insurgency: Sandstorm isn’t the prettiest shooter of 2018, but the places where it excels are the places that matter to me most as a player. Its gunplay is superb, its arsenal is exemplary, and (with the exception of the excellent Firefight) the maps and modes are serviceable enough to facilitate its memorably frantic and immersive FPS combat. I can’t wait to see where it goes in the future, but even as it stands now Insurgency: Sandstorm is a pleasant surprise that’s worthy of your time.