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Insurgency Sandstorm Review

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Wow, two reviews this week? I really had to crunch to get this one done. It’s worth it though because like DUSK, this is a new FPS release that really ought to be on your radar. Insurgency Sandstorm, like its predecessor is here to give you a blend of arcade run speed, with late 90’s tactical subgenre features. But does it reach the lofty goals set forth by the original?

PROS: It’s an Insurgency sequel on a much newer engine!

CONS: Not every promised feature is here (yet.) Minor issues.

GIBS: A common 90’s FPS feature returns.

The original Insurgency set that bar rather high. What had started out as a mod became a full-fledged game that pushed Valve’s Source engine to its limit. It bridged the gap between Tactical FPS games like Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield, and large-scale objective Military Team FPS games like Battlefield. In doing so, it offered a great alternative to some of the titles in the AAA space. While it didn’t run on the latest tech, it did give players a unique experience. Insurgency did well for itself, cutting out a nice niche for itself, and becoming one of the most beloved competitive games on Steam for some time.

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So what does this newer version bring to the table? Does it improve on the foundation set by the original? Should you play this over something else in the subgenre? All of these are questions you might have going into this one, and they’re all valid ones to ask. When the game was announced it was touting a robust single-player campaign in addition to the multiplayer goodness fans of the first game came for. It showed off some vehicle play, and all in a vast uptick in visual fidelity.

Well let’s get the one major point of contention some will have out-of-the-way. There is no one-player campaign. At least not yet. Now to be fair, those who followed the news around this game during its development, or played it while it was in Early Access were told it wasn’t going to make it in by launch. So a big chunk of the potential audience who were excited upon seeing it during E3 2017 already know this. But if you were one of those interested who saw the early trailers, put it on your “Look forward to seeing it when it comes out” list, and are just now looking at it? You’re going to be disappointed.

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But this is also not an “All is lost” moment, the studio has said it should be coming later, and that it should be included along with the other DLC. And that’s where the barometer may swing from disappointed to optimistic. Because the folks at New World Interactive will not be charging for DLC, nor implementing micro transactions or loot boxes. So everything that comes out for this game in the future will cost you nothing extra. New maps will be included. New weapons they decide to add will be included. Any new modes they cook up will also be included. So the lack of the campaign might sting, but they haven’t outright cancelled it either. If you only come to your army shooters for a campaign, and touch nothing else, you may want to wait. Or not, because there are things here you might still enjoy.

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Of course Insurgency, became a cult hit for a number of reasons. Its various modes. Its unique blend of styles. And that it pushed an aging technology pretty far in the process of delivering its fun. It didn’t look as good as the games EA, and Activision were putting out, but it stood in the same league when it came to game play. And that trend does indeed continue in Insurgency Sandstorm.

Think of Insurgency Sandstorm as an experiment in combining the best elements of various military themed shooters you’ve played over the years. All while implementing its own ideas into the monster before releasing it upon the world. What does it borrow? Well it gives you the vast conquest maps Battlefield fans would love. It also uses point capture as the primary goal of its competitive modes. Insurgency Sandstorm has three of them. (Though like the campaign, more may follow.)

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PUSH: This is the mode most like the Rush mode in the Battlefield games. It places one army as defenders, and one army as attackers. Attackers have a miniscule number of lives spread across its combatants. While Defenders have a much larger pool. However, if the attackers manage to take the first point on the map, they will gain more lives. They will also force the defensive team to fall back to their next point. This continues until either the defenders are made to fight their last stand, with no remaining lives to defend a cache. If the attackers blow it up, the defenders are defeated. The defenders will also be defeated if all of their lives are lost.

What makes this mode compelling is that there are a number of ways each side can approach their situation. When playing defense, you can do what I like to do. You can literally lie down on the objective (represented by a room with a giant flashing letter.), and attempt to kill any intruders. If enough of your team follows suit, it becomes nearly impossible to take the point. However, I said “nearly”. That’s because there are any number of ways a skilled attacking team can crack this. They can employ explosives to spook people to leave the point or die. They can send in their best stealth players to get inside. They can try to flank spawning defenders rushing to get back to the point. These are just some of the strategies you’ll see employed.

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FIREFIGHT: Is the next mode, and here all of the points on the map are preset with both armies having to take an attack position. One point is predetermined to be for one side. The second for the other side, and the third being unclaimed. The first team to capture all three of these wins. However, it isn’t easy because each player has only one life. The only way you get to come back into the battle is if your team captures a point while you’re dead. What people love about this mode is that there’s a tug of war going on with it. If you’ve got two points, but not the third, you’ll have to send people to take the third. But that means the opposing team will find less resistance, at one of your two points. If they take one, you’re at a disadvantage, and have to figure out which of their now two points is easier to take.

SKIRMISH: Takes the game play of Firefight, and adds the caches from the Push mode which gives each team multiple lives. So you’ll be going along in your back, and forth. But the twist comes when one of the caches is destroyed. Without a cache, your team will fall back to the stock Firefight rules, which makes it easier to become overrun. So you have to decide as a team whether you want to go all out, and take points. Or do you designate a few of your combatants to defend the cache while others go for points? Insurgency Sandstorm involves its own strategies into proven concepts.

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This is where the implementation of other ideas, along with NWI’s modern twists, and original features really begins to take shape. Insurgency Sandstorm may use some ideas you’ve seen elsewhere, but it isn’t a knock off. It isn’t just reskinning a popular game, and shouting “Ta-da!”. It’s transformative. It retools these ideas to work in ways that weren’t expected before. It again, also has original ideas too. That’s what made the first game so great, and that continues here in the combat system.

 

Like the original, it takes a page from the original Rainbow Six games, and goes for far more realistic damage. If you play Rainbow Six Siege, as fun as it is, you can still survive firefights if you get shot. Even if you go down a friend can revive you. But if you go way back, and play Rainbow Six 1,2, or 3, that is rarely the case. In those games a single hit was usually lethal. If you were hit in a limb, maybe you could take a second bullet to go down. Insurgency Sandstorm is tough like that. If you get shot, you’re probably dead. If you’re hit in the arm, perhaps you’ll find some cover to survive a little bit longer. But another hit, and you’re toast. Because while your vision comes back, your health does not.

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But Insurgency Sandstorm goes further. Because it eschews plenty of other ideas its competitors love. For instance, there is no mini map. There are no little lights on a square in the corner telling you where to go. You’ll see a flashing letter in the distance. But that’s it. Insurgency Sandstorm has no kill cam. You may be able to have the run speed of a soldier (provided you have no body armor) of a Call Of Duty entry. But when you get sniped running onto the point, and die you will not be watching the person who killed you as you wait to spawn. You can see your teammates, and communicate with them if you see a threat near them. But that is it.

Insurgency Sandstorm also adds a bit of realism in its movement. When you sprint you may not tire. However, you also can not shoot. You have to think about that when going about. If you think you can blast a nest of enemies while charging into a room, think again. At best you can kick doors down while running, and if it hits an enemy in the process you can kill them with the door. But you’ll also be wide open when the other campers see it. On the flip side, if you’re trying to snipe, and you’re too close to the banister, your arm will simply bend back toward you, as you struggle to find a spot where your gun isn’t going to go up against an object. It’s a small thing, but it adds a lot to the environment.

 

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Insurgency Sandstorm borrows an element from Arena shooters of yesteryear too: Gibs. In this game, getting hit in key parts of the body will cause limbs to fly off, heads to explode, and bodies to disintegrate. Since this game is going for a little bit more realism it doesn’t come off like it would in The Expendables. It comes off a little bit more like Glory. Rather it tries to. It doesn’t quite make that emotional transition, but it doesn’t elicit that same joyous surprise as it did back in DOOM, Duke 3D, or QUAKE. At least not for me. The point is, there is an element of its use in a contemporary setting that might remind some players of how horrific wars can be. Whether or not this is intentional is solely up to the artists to decide. They may have been going for the action movie vibe more so than the dramatic movie vibe. In which case I think it fell somewhere in between. But they do come off as impressive. The first time you see it, you really won’t be expecting it, and it honestly might just shock you even knowing about it going in.

The move to Unreal Engine 4 also means a big uptick in visual fidelity, and a jump in system requirements. However, New World Interactive deserves some praise in just how much they’ve done to ensure those like me, with aging video cards can still play their game with great performance. If you do happen to have the hardware that can run this at or near maximum settings, you’ll be pretty pleased with the end result. There are some very impressive lighting effects, Anti-Aliasing effects, Bump mapping effects, among others that UE4 can support. However, if you have a machine that’s five years old, you’re probably not going to be playing any game maxed out. The scalability this game provides is great, as are its customization options.

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All of the shots you’re seeing in this review were taken at the lowest settings. These can hang with a lot of other games despite the reduced image quality. Granted, you can’t expect miracles either. If you’ve got a ten-year old computer with barely any RAM to speak of by today’s standards,  you probably cannot run it. But If you have at least a fourth generation Intel i5 or AMD FX 6330 (around 5 years old now), a NVIDIA GTX 760 or AMD Radeon 7970 in there (also around 5 years old as of this writing), and a good 16GB of RAM in your system you likely can. And at better performance than you might expect. At the lowest settings, I’ve been able to play between 70, and 90 frames per second resulting in a relatively smooth, and responsive experience.

And with the game slated to hit the Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 next year, it does give those who prefer a console experience something to look forward to. As for the artistic side of the visuals, they’ve really gone out of their way here as well. Textures on buildings, look sharp, the costumes of the characters all fit the motif the game tries to present. Even on the lowest details, the backgrounds all still look great with some nice lights, and shadow effects going on.

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As in the original game, one side of the roster is composed of security forces. So when playing  as a security force member you’ll have a military themed character. The other side is composed of insurgents where you’re basically playing as a terrorist group of villains. One thing this game introduces over its predecessor is a cosmetic customization option. As you play the game you’ll earn in game currency. Much like Nintendo’s Splatoon series, you cannot buy this currency. These are points you use exclusively for this feature. Unlike Splatoon, these clothing options do nothing else. It’s strictly just to personalize your characters when playing online. No perk slots, no RPG elements, that is it. That being said, a lot of the costume selections are quite good, and go for something grounded. You won’t be running around on the security side wearing only pants, and bandoliers or rocking a Cobra Commander costume on the insurgent forces.

As in the first game, there are no unlockable weapons. When you start the game every one of your classes is given a certain number of points. Which you can use on your load out. So you have to use tactics even when deciding what to go onto the front lines in. You may not have to grind your way to that powerful machine gun you want to use. But if it costs a lot of points that doesn’t leave you a lot left over for attachments, or defensive items or a secondary item. Similarly, you can choose to go for a lot of body armor, and items. But this will actually affect your run speed by making you slower. You might be able to take a third or fourth bullet before dying though. So you need to approach every class situation differently.

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Also new to this game are new Commander, and Observer classes. These classes have to work together, and stay within a certain proximity to one another. Because these classes can work to call in air support. They can call in helicopters, or mortar storms to help them push when attacking, or to defend their position when being pressured. Every one of the classes is viable though, and if you couldn’t already tell, the best way to play is with friends who communicate. Insurgency Sandstorm is very much designed around teamwork. It has built-in chat, so you can easily talk to your team on the fly. For those who don’t have a headset, or a microphone, you can still type to your team members.

On the other hand, when playing with random strangers, there is always going to be a troll or two. It’s just the reality of online gaming. Fortunately this time around you can mute everybody wholesale if you have the misfortune of dropping to a match where everyone annoys you. Still, when playing with friends, the voice chat can be an accommodating feature. Especially for those with friends who don’t know how to set up their own chat alternatives like Discord.

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And if all of the heated PvP stuff sounds too tough for you, the cooperative mode included is something you may gravitate toward. Similar to the Terrorist Hunt mode of the Rainbow Six series, Insurgency Sandstorm’s cooperative experience pits you, and others up against a team of NPC bots. With frequently changing objectives. It basically blends some of its competitive elements into the mode. So at first you, and the other humans may be taking points. But then the game will decide you have to defend the one you just claimed against an onslaught, or destroy a cache. But all of it is done in, a fun, and entertaining way.  You’ll get a variety of enemy bot skill levels. Some will be pretty good at movement, others will be marksmen. But you’ll occasionally get that idiotic bot that just stands there after missing. Still, they employ some tactics one might not expect, making for some surprises. And of course for those who only want to go up against the best, Insurgency Sandstorm features a competitive option where you’ll be placed with other people on ranked servers, and modes to keep up your street cred.

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For those who absolutely must have something here for playing alone, there are a couple of minor options though. There are a couple of short tutorials that get you used to the game’s mechanics, and modes. These aren’t really necessary for those who have played FPS titles for years, though it can catch you up on the nuances here. The aforementioned cooperative mode is here however again as a single player option. Sadly this just isn’t going to be as fun as the cooperative experience. That’s because you’re paired with bots who aren’t as adept as the bots you’ll go up against, and you’re only given one life per objective. So if you die trying to get the first objective, the round ends, and you’ll move onto the next. This makes the one player option a lot more challenging too because without some competent bots, you’re basically going up against an entire army alone. Still you get five attempts, and winning alone is doable.

But there are also a load of options for you to tinker with. Not just the aforementioned graphics settings, and performance settings. Not just the look of your hero or villain. You can even tweak some of the marker settings, like changing the colors of the letter markers,  and names to something clearer to you than the default. You can also put on displays to show you the current frame rate, and ping. Things that have been in Unreal Engine games for years, but are often closed off in newer releases. It’s nice to see it here so that you can see the math when turning something on or off.

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There are a few problems I do have to point out though. While I imagine most people will get pretty good performance out of this game, there are a number of small visual glitches I’ve stumbled upon. In one game I noticed somebody’s weapon just flickering in the sky before the round began. Another round I noticed player models that hadn’t completely loaded in. So they were shooting at me, but the weapon they were using couldn’t be seen. These are rare occurrences. But the common issue I run into is texture pop in. Again, it loads in fast enough. It doesn’t affect the game play. But the 2 seconds between seeing a blue wall, and seeing a blue wall, with dents in it, and other details can sometimes distract from the experience. I suspect it could be an issue with older cards, that will eventually be fixed with patches, and drivers. But it is a minor problem.

When playing the cooperative mode, alone or with other players, there are a few minor nitpicks. Mainly with the inconsistent A.I. as I mentioned earlier, the bots you face can have a fair amount of variety in skill which is nice. But when you have to rely on them in your team, and a few decide to be idiots, you almost wish they weren’t there. The enemy bot spawns could have been obfuscated a little bit better too, as there were a couple of times in the single player cooperative I could go out a door of a point I had to defend, and see the game drop them in.

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In the grand scheme of things these issues don’t really amount to much of anything. The A.I. is still better than in many of the bots in other titles. The game rarely looks anything less than great aside from the 2-4 seconds of pop in you may experience. Leaving the bot spawn issues, which really breaks the immersion more than anything else. Back on the pvp end of things, there is far less to pick apart. The net code is generally very good. Unless you’re connecting to a server half the world away, you don’t see a lot of rubber banding, or players warping around like Mr. Game & Watch.

All of the online modes are generally quite fun. The studio kept them to the best maintained modes of the first game to ensure that you can always find someone to play against, and this strategy has worked. Yes, you can get into situations where there are people trying to spawn camp, or situations where you’ll have people on your team who refuse to run to the giant flashing “A” along with everyone else. But these aren’t issues with the game, these are the same issues you’ll run into with certain individuals in any multiplayer game. Fortunately, the game does offer the ability for you to mute individual people, or even everyone wholesale.

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The gun play is fantastic. Every weapon has a nice heft to it, and there are options here for every type of player. If you prefer to cover your team, there are many sniping options. If you want to go stealth, there are a slew of close range rifles, shotguns, SMGs, and other options, and attachments. The sounds of gunfire, and explosions are phenomenal too, which adds to that feeling of weight. You also have to hold your breath to steady your aim. Not only with the long-range weapons, but every weapon. Hip firing will just go wherever the gun is aimed. So panic shooting is going to be a crap shoot. These are all seemingly tiny things. But they add so much depth to the combat.

The maps are also mostly really good. Save for an exception or two, just about every map is built around each mode, and objectives are set that put either an attacker or defender into a tough situation at any given time. There are choke points defenders can use to their advantage. There are multiple paths attackers can take at any given time. The inclusion of vehicles in the Push mode also adds a new dynamic. I would have liked to have seen more of them. But between the drivable trucks with mounted guns, and the air strikes the two new classes can call in, there are new strategies that have to be employed to deal with them. And some maps actually make using these things harder. On the refinery stage enemies can just go inside buildings to escape the wrath of a Blackhawk helicopter. Similarly someone can put out roadside bombs in key locations that might deter someone from racing to the point in a pickup.

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In spite of its faults, Insurgency Sandstorm is a phenomenal game. It offers a real alternative to those who have felt disenfranchised with Electronic Arts’, and Activision’s annualized offerings. While it might not have quite the same level of visual fidelity of Battlefield or Call Of Duty, it also doesn’t require the purchase of season passes or micro transactions to have access to everything included in it down the line. The game play in it is also unique thanks to reintroducing an audience to hardcore simulation elements while retaining the run speed of something more twitchy. Absolute simulation purists may still want to go to the excellent ARMA games. And while this game may not be as recognized by the wider audience, the potential is there for that to change.  Especially if the game’s smaller issues are cleared, and the promised campaign shows up before it sees a port to consoles next year.

Whether you loved the original Insurgency, and poured hundreds of hours into it, or you’re a military FPS veteran looking for something new, this is pretty much a game you’ll enjoy diving into. This is also an excellent option for those who want something competitive to play, but without the pressure to spend more money. It’s also a great game for the casual military FPS fan who doesn’t have thousands of hours to devote to unlocking things. Insurgency was also supported for many years after it came out, and there’s no indication New World Interactive won’t do the same for the sequel. People who were interested solely in a campaign story mode will want to wait for its arrival. But for anyone looking for a unique take on the modern military multiplayer shooter? Insurgency Sandstorm should be on their wish list.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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