Insurgency: Sandstorm is a harrowing depiction of combat

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This is what it must feel like to enjoy Battlefield or Call of Duty. I’ve tried many multiplayer military shooters over the years but I’ve never thought of one as more than a passing distraction until now. Insurgency: Sandstorm is more than a distraction. It’s one of the most harrowing and thrilling depictions of combat I’ve ever seen, and I think it’s a goddamn work of art.

It’s the sound that does it. Or, at least, it always starts with the sound.

The stuttering crackle of an assault rifle somewhere ahead causes friendly troops to shout warnings as they dive for cover. The vocal cues are automatic, the game using a wide variety of lines for allies and enemies alike to create the illusion of perfectly drilled tactical trickery at one moment, and panic and chaos at the next. When your squad hit the deck though, that’s a decision being made by their actual human operators.

Later, hunkered down inside a building, discussing our next move over voice comms, we’re hushed by our commander. “Drones,” he says, and we fall silent. I can hear the hum of the engine but I don’t know if this is a spotter, a hovering camera trying to figure out where we are, or an aerial hunter killer. I’m genuinely alarmed, even though I’m playing a game with a bunch of friends, and we were laughing about a team-kill a minute ago.

We’re playing a cooperative mode in which we have to move from one objective to the next, seizing buildings and sometimes holding them as a counter-attack arrives. The AI insurgents who we’re fighting against might be clever, I’m not entirely sure, all I know is that they’re dangerous. At one point, with my sniper rifle steady for once, I kill five men in quick succession as they run around a corner. Each falls onto the bodies of the ones who came before. It might seem foolish at another time, in another game, but here it feels like part of the surreal brutality of the conflict.

Someone shouts “RPG” and, in all honesty, I can’t remember if it’s an in-game bark or one of the players. The building shakes, dust falling from the ceiling. My ears are humming and I’m sure there has never been a louder explosion in the whole history of the world. I guess that’s what a rocket-propelled grenade sounds like. It’s unpleasant.

Insurgency is frequently unpleasant. It’s not a gory game, but it’s full of the kind of shock and awe that breaks the spirit and either crushes or inspires resistance. Every bullet is the possibility of a life cut short and when mortars begin to thud and pound just beyond your line of sight, it can feel as if the roof of the world is about to fall in.

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The sound of a weapon is different when someone is firing it indoors, right next to your face. Exchanging bursts of fire across a bridge, I laughed nervously when somebody zeroed in on my position and bullets started to tear through the sandbags I was crouching behind. At that range, I felt untouchable. I wasn’t, of course, and death comes swiftly in this game. One shot will do it sometimes.

There was no laughter the first time I found myself up close and personal with an enemy. We’d captured a target building and a wave of insurgents had been dispatched to reclaim it. As the sniper, I decided I’d be more useful in a building some distance away, picking off enemies as they approached while the rest of the squad set up a perimeter inside the target. I made my way outside and was half-way up the stairs in an adjacent building when two men burst through the door behind me. They opened fire and instead of that distant crackle and pop there was a deafening series of booms. Shouts, screams, confusion.

Then I died.

Death is a serious inconvenience. It should be. No quick respawns here for the fallen; you’ll only be thrown back into the game when your team reaches an objective. That creates a constant pressure to push forward. Kills don’t count for anything unless they’re in service of claiming an objective, and that encourages smart play and teamwork.

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Because death has harsh consequences, killing a team-mate is less than ideal. It’s never a good idea to kill your friends in the heat of battle but when you’re taking them out of the game for a significant period by doing so, they’d be justified in being very grumpy indeed. Insurgency doesn’t have cross-hairs or much in the way of on-screen HUD features at all. You point your gun and pull the trigger and the bullets leave the barrel in the direction it’s pointing and damage whatever happens to be in their path. That means firing while running can be very hazardous to anyone standing in the general vicinity. I spent ages lining up a shot at one point only to fire, miss, and then hear one of my allies calmly explaining that I was shooting at him. I was more embarrassed that I’d missed such an easy target than that I’d not recognised him.

There are so many things I love about Sandstorm that I could go on for another thousand words. It’s my ideal balance of realism and accessibility, and it all comes down to the way every moment of excitement is also a moment of fear. Checking a clip when your ammo is close to running dry and knowing that the second it takes to do so could be your last, wondering whether all of that noise and violence is capable of penetrating the wall you’re cowering behind, hearing a cry of “gas!” from somewhere up ahead.

No multiplayer shooter has got its hooks into me so quickly, and so deep, for a long time. I was disappointed when I heard the story mode had been cancelled earlier this year, but on this evidence, Insurgency is more than capable of generating amazing stories without cutscenes and without a script. I want to play it forever, even though I find it intimidating as hell.

Insurgency: Sandstorm is due to launch later this year. Keep an eye on the official website for news of alpha access.

47 Comments

  1. emorphien says:

    I’m just not sure I need another multiplayer shooter, they’ve been losing their grip over me over the past few years. Sad that they’re not doing a solo/co-op campaign. I am curious about the co-op PvE mode though.

    I think what I ultimately want is another game that tells a meaningful story like Spec Ops: The Line with the atmosphere and sound design this game seems to have.

    • haldolium says:

      I’m sure I don’t need another one either, but I would rather see the 99% of CoDs, Battlefields and other KD/R internet-dick games gone as a genuine attempt to bring good teamplay to the table instead of egocentric stats grinding.

      • emorphien says:

        Agree on that. I wish games could focus on teamwork and teamplay. I think that’s why I’m gradually losing interest in the genre. Killing doods was always there (especially in games like COD which didn’t have objectives) but my memory is that players worked together better once upon a time in games that had objectives. Even Battlefield games used to have more of that teamwork. Nowadays nobody cares.

        I don’t know how the designer enforces that kind of gameplay, people are gonna do what they want. Especially when they can pwn some other n00bs. Game design that effectively funnels players towards objectives can help. That’s one reason I think I enjoyed rush mode on Battlefield Bad Company 2. They got that aspect right IMO, whereas in the later Battlefield games, they’ve not generally done as well with funneling otherwise oblivious players towards objectives. I haven’t played BF1 in a while but I feel like Operations made some strides to help with that, but most people still treat it as deathmatch.

        Maybe we’d have a better chance of that if it were basically large team PvE/co-op.

      • Premium User Badge

        MajorLag says:

        Only multiplayer games I remember where teamwork was actually a thing were earlier versions of the Natural Selection mod for Half-Life (I maintain v1.04 was the best, but it didn’t really fall apart until v3.0), and oddly enough the early days of TF2, but that might have been the servers I was on.

        Those experienced kinda ruined online multiplayer for me, as I could never quite recapture that feeling. That’s probably for the best though, those games ate a whole lot of my time.

  2. thak says:

    Is there any PVP multiplayer or just co-op?

    • nitric22 says:

      I can’t imagine not. Insurgency brought me back into PVP multiplayer last year like no game since America’s Army. Just that perfect dash of realism and necessitated team work. Some of the objective based modes were a real treat. They did a WW2 based game recently, but this is the one I’m excited about.

    • pyndragon says:

      Development updates have confirmed that there will be both casual and matchmaking-driven competitive PvP modes. (link to newworldinteractive.com)

  3. Hartford688 says:

    Nice writeup, thank you.

    Very much looking forward to this, along with Post Scriptum. Should be a good year for shooters (Hell Let Loose as well).

    I really enjoy Insurgency and DOI and this looks like being even better, Yay!

  4. Mamba says:

    Good grief. Ruin an otherwise great review by having it authored by someone with no actual firearm or combat experience.
    “Checking a clip when your ammo is close to running dry…”. It is NOT a clip!
    link to gunsandammo.com

    • Pharaoh Nanjulian says:

      ‘Ruin’ is a little strong for an article about a videogame, I think. Mr Smith certainly has a lot of experience with videogames, and how the videoguns compare with other videoguns of his acquaintance is probably more valuable than ‘combat experience’.

      As most of the authors are from the UK, where thankfully we don’t have to deal with real guns (and most people can go their entire lives without seeing one outside a film) it’s particularly amusing that you choose to link to a page that attacks ‘misuse’ of gun-related terms as ‘harmful’, in order to bolster its position that guns are a right that them darn pesky lib’rals are tryin’ to deprive people of.

      • baud001 says:

        Are there really no weapons in public in the UK? I mean with the latest attacks, no cops has been issued a weapons when guarding important public buildings? And don’t the guards in front the Buckingham palace have rifles?

        Still I agree that the UK has a way better culture regarding firearms than the US.

        • Pharaoh Nanjulian says:

          We do have armed police, but not ‘on the beat’. They are only found if there is a particular event where they are requested and are then sent over on their steam-powered carts, with clips full of magazines (mainly ‘Country Life’, occasionally ‘Guns and Ammo’).

          There are also members of the armed forces who semi-ceremonially guard the Royal residences.

          So special units with very particular roles. Besides, the paperwork for every bullet fired is onerous in the extreme.

          ‘Attacks’ as you put it are just such a rare event that there’s no protecting against them, and certainly not by people wandering about with guns. You’re infinitely more likely to die from falling in the shower than from a terrorist attack. The risk is enormously overblown by the meedja in order to make exciting news.

          One thing I’ve been meaning to do for a while is to compare deaths from Islamist terrorism with anarchist bombs in the 19th century. I think the risk of being involved in an incident today, even with a greater population, is far lower than ever before. I’d like to research the figures to see if that’s reality or wishful thinking.

          There just aren’t really many guns around here, except for sporting shotguns common in the countryside that have to be licensed, kept in a special locked cabinet and are very tightly regulated. These account for a low percentage of reported gun crimes, while most are handguns (which are illegal) used by gangs in urban centres.

          The USA in 2015 had 13,286 people killed by firearms (discounting suicides). There were 26 ‘fatal injuries’ in England and Wales involving firearms (including air-guns) and 1,494 ‘slight or serious injuries’ in 2015-16, the latest I’ve found figures for. I can’t rule out that including suicides.

          That’s about 0.026 injuries per 1,000 people. The US rate is roughly 30 times higher.

          I don’t think we need gun-armed police. In fact, I’m jolly proud we don’t as a matter of course.

          Politifact tells us that:

          There were about 1.4 million firearm deaths in the US between 1968-2011, compared with 1.2 million US gunfire deaths in every conflict in the history of the country from the War of Independence to Iraq.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      I demand that all videogames be reviewed only by authors with extensive experience in the field being depicted by said game. Someone get me a hedgehog-compatible typewriter, now! P.S: Vietnam is over, you’re home now, grandpa. P.P.S: this isn’t a review.

      • Premium User Badge

        Solrax says:

        The preview of “Surviving Mars” is on hold until Musk establishes a base on Mars and a journalist can be sent there to get the necessary background experience.

    • Viral Frog says:

      I came to comment about the difference between a clip and a magazine and why it’s incorrect to use them interchangeably, because using the correct terminology is important. But claiming that Adam ruined the review by using “clip” in place of “magazine”? Seriously? Who pissed in your cheerios?

      • dagnamit says:

        I think possibly we’ve seen a glimpse of the uber-rare reverse gun-nut troll. To finally see one in the wild is exhilarating, frankly.

    • Jason Lefkowitz says:

      In the immortal words of Sgt. Hulka: “Lighten up, Francis.”

    • subactuality says:

      Good heavens… this post belongs in a museum.

      • unacom says:

        You´d have to shoot and stuff it first, which would probably get you into an argument with the local taxidermists posse, I imagine.

    • Mamba says:

      Ya’ll are entitled to your opinion, I’m entitled to mine. And thanks for the warm welcome. BTW, I DO have a life and it’s much better than yours, judging by the vitriol oozing out of your keyboards. And yes the article IS a review, that’s what this site does. Playing a game and then writing an article about the experience..ummm..what shall we call that?…I wonder.
      Okay, maybe “ruin” was a bit over the top…so noted. Tho’ so was “the UK is obviously SO much better than the cretin I’m responding to” condescending line. As for museums, yes those do deal with the past…which no one today seems to care to learn from. Your loss not mine.

      • CheeseFarts says:

        This kind of review is called preview. Forum ruined by guy with no review experience.

      • Slazia says:

        But the UK is so much better. That’s just a fact. Wikipedia clearly states the UK is pretty much the best place there is, second only to a magical land where tea makes itself.

        “Clip 2: a device to hold cartridges for charging the magazines of some rifles; also : a magazine from which ammunition is fed into the chamber of a firearm” – link to merriam-webster.com

      • sharkbonboh says:

        You’re so mad loooool #UKISBETTER

      • Viral Frog says:

        So you come and spew vitriolic stupidity and then blame everyone for reacting to your vitriolic stupidity with, from what I can see, is rather tame responses and not at all vitriol. Interesting. You have to be from the United States with this sort of attitude. Only my fellow countrymen could be so asinine.

    • Premium User Badge

      MajorLag says:

      Fellow pedant: while I can appreciate the desire to correct the less informed masses on the difference between “clip” and “magazine”, the former is in common enough usage to not be misunderstood and, regardless, doesn’t really alter the article quality.

  5. HiroTheProtagonist says:

    I found the cancelled story mode footage:
    link to youtube.com

    I’ll see myself out

  6. MrUnimport says:

    Well I’m glad you had fun Adam, but besides loud noises could you explain how this game differs from the previous release?

    • pyndragon says:

      Based on the game still being in NDA-protected closed alpha and the similar lack of specifics in other reviews popping up, I’m going to hazard a guess either that the author’s hands were tied behind his back, or that it was noted that details are likely to like to change and would you please not talk about them much. Whichever it is, there are some details we can glean by comparing our various sources of information.

      Insurgency: Sandstorm is still Insurgency, but it’s not just an engine port. The switch to UE4 is important because it makes other features like ballistics, replays, vehicles, and improved visuals easier. The scale of non-competitive maps is increasing, with some game mode changes to accommodate, while the competitive matchmaking that never quite landed in Insurgency should finally arrive. The game appears to also be expanding on some concepts from Day of Infamy, with things like fire support making an appearance.

  7. EkoAzarak says:

    Insurgency is still alive? lol ewwww. i guess its not terrible for a 2004 mod done by amateurs but its a less than mediocre shooter by todays standards. no teamwork, buggy movement, ridiculously bad hit detection, lame graphics, hackers rampant, rounds last 30 secs…. toxicity that makes overwatch sound tame. ewww pass

    • astromech says:

      I think you launched CoD by mistake. Every word in that sentence was wrong.

      • wengart says:

        Eh, Insurgency is alright but people are maybe a bit too charitable with it. The game definitely shows its age and largely sits in a weird spot between CS and DOD.

        The original mod I actually liked more because the maps were generally messier and it felt a lot more chaotic.

    • DD says:

      You might want to make sure your talking about the right game. Literally none of that applies to Insurgency. And I don’t mean that in a subjective way. I think your genuinely confused.

  8. Brothabear says:

    oh this article was clearly paid for lol. Standard COD/corridor combat a work of art? We’re done here.

    • Viral Frog says:

      Found the guy that’s never played Insurgency!

      Only thing Insurgency and CoD have in common is the military theme.

    • pyndragon says:

      Take CS:GO, remove the skins, economy, and hud, replace the bomb-planting/TDM with a vast array of objective driven modes, and make the maps bigger, and you have a better picture of what Insurgency is like than the recoil-free, power-up-driven meh of CoD.

  9. unacom says:

    Are the drones decorum or are they an actual threat?

  10. Fitzmogwai says:

    I just hope that players are restricted to infantry, ground vehicles and transport helicopters. Giving players flyable jets is the fastest and most reliable way of ruining a multiplayer FPS.

    • pyndragon says:

      No worries there. Interviews have confirmed that players will only be able to control ground vehicles. Helicopters/whatever other flying stuff will only be used as fire support.

  11. Erockcdn says:

    I’ve been reading the comments and I get a sense of people wanting to play somthing that changes the COD style gunning. I highly suggest checking out a game called Squad. It’s on early access. But reddit it, Google it. It’s a nice change of pace, and currently has an amazing community.

  12. TheSplund says:

    Ooo, I always liked the PvE co-op in Insurgency but it was such a chore trying to get a dedicated/local server set up to play two-player co-op on a LAN with my mate (with just our 2 PCs) – I guess I was doing something wrong (though it did work)

  13. WickyC says:

    Its on sale on steam. I was gonna buy it yesterday but hadn’t been paid, on sale tonight- never been happier that I didn’t get paid on time!! Downloading now so haven’t played yet but it feels like this is the upgrade to RO2 I never realized existed.

    • pyndragon says:

      I assume you’re talking about the current Insurgency. This review is about the upcoming sequel, Insurgency: Sandstorm.

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