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Insurgency Early Access Impressions: What's It Like Now?

One Year Later

Insurgency is a lot of fun. Following Rich’s great exploratory feature on the highly tactical game last year, I took a look at it for the first time this week and tried to find out more about it, where it’s going and how a year’s further development has shaped it.

At its core, Insurgency is a tactical shooter, one that sits between the hardcore realistic works of Arma; the competitive, smart strategies borne of Counter-Strike; and the large-scale war efforts of Red Orchestra. It kind of feels a bit like Battlefield in parts, too.

All of these elements meet somewhere in the middle with beautiful synergy. The maps are small enough to employ team-based strategies and have every soldier make a big impact, but are large enough to feel like you’re laying siege to a devastated town with low nooks and high crannies - perfect for defending an alleyway with an unseen squadron or hiding a sniper far away in a church spire. If you see a seemingly empty street, you can dare to run across it and come out unscathed, or you can be gunned down in an instant by a hail of bullets flying from ten different unknown locations. It’s in evaluating where and how to take these risks that you get the opportunity to out-manoeuvre your opponents. The landscape is not your friend, and you’ll have to actively seek out vantage points to kill the enemy.

The different character class roles are important, as many of Insurgency’s game modes have at least one point that requires your team to destroy it with explosives. This is where new players are most likely to slip up, I think, because most other shooters don’t require you to purchase the items necessary to complete your mission at the expense of pretty gun attachments. The concept works really well though, because it forces you to learn that your choices affect your team’s chances of winning. Even if you die, that one expensive grenade you bought at the start of the round can help a teammate destroy an enemy resupply point.

It also means that certain roles are more valuable than others. Some can buy RPGs, others can have phone-detonated explosives, while the standard solider-type class, a militant or fighter, say, can only buy grenades and incendiaries to accomplish these tasks, which are a little less fun.

However, you need those fighters to buy the heavy armour and push your team’s position forward, just as you’ll need a good sniper to watch over the forward territory and side flanks. A good leader means you always have a clear idea of what your team are looking to take and what your focus should be on. Together, if you’re communicating well and know your goals, you can achieve a lot, and the game feels great when you’re making headway and taking capture points successfully.

In this regard, Insurgency feels like it’s beautifully crafted. It encourages the community to talk to each other because employing teamwork is necessary to play a great match. The balance between buying an expensive weapon attachment or purchasing another explosive for the team gradually conditions players to be less self-serving than in other FPSs. You’re not going to get an airstrike by killing five guys with guns you’ve earned all by yourself here. You need your team to back you up, to play their roles in the squad well, communicate targets and work efficiently. And they, in turn, expect the same from you. Every captured objective is the result of a larger team effort.

Some modes, like Occupy, are still the same camp-fests they were previously, however. When the mission objective is stationary and one team gains a foothold, unless they get greedy and try to push into your spawn point, chances are they’re going to hold that objective for a really, really long time. It gets rough because while you’re getting shot by a sniper on a cliff in the distance - a mere speck of dust on the horizon - you’re also being shot from three other unseen places, and then a bunch of guys flank you and you join your comrades in respawn limbo. Then you run out of reinforcement waves and lose.

Hope is not always lost, though. At the start of the next round it’s possible for your team to gain that first foothold and take control of the map, and the same can be said of many of the other modes. At times, when I had just started playing, it felt that when the enemy team had better players it was all just a matter of getting shot from unknown hidey-holes again and again and again, never getting close to the objective, never being useful, just draining the team’s reinforcement waves. But then one more person joins and their map-knowledge pokes holes in the enemy’s defence, or their fast reactions catch a few idling insurgents off-guard, and suddenly that ragtag group of hopeless noobs occupy the main street, with three guys on the objective and several more watching over them from above.

All it takes is one minor change to turn the flow of the game around. Find a crack in the enemy wall and you and your fellow soldiers can flood through, devastating the enemy stronghold. It seems as if Insurgency has become more balanced in this sense, and the maps allow for some exploration of the shooting and utility items’ mechanics, inviting you to find new ways to outsmart the opposition. Whether it’s as simple as dropping a pack of C4 over a wall onto the head of a suppressed insurgent, or an elaborate series of smoke grenades falling around a resupply building, there’s a lot to be explored on the game’s battlegrounds.

Also of note: the AI now works well in the co-op modes, which are fantastic fun. Modes like Hunt take Insurgency’s love of the dark and turn it into a game of hide-and-seek, with you and your friends tracking and killing a number of AI soldiers before destroying their weapons cache. These AI enemies stay cleverly hidden, or shoot from behind blinding lights, or wait for you to walk straight into them.

It’s in these modes that I found it all too easy to get a bit carried away. I’m a pretty competitive Counter-Strike player, and while Insurgency doesn’t feel like Counter-Strike, it still asks of the same basic instincts in a lot of ways. Listening for footfall, watching the movement of shadows (or in this case, flashlights), firing as you come around corners and pre-shooting hiding spots as you move through an area. These are all things that don’t go down particularly well in co-op modes. In the first ten minutes I killed something like seven teammates.

Insurgency and Counter-Strike are not as similar as they first seem. I’m used to hearing four other players communicate their locations and the enemy’s location. I’m used to continually checking my map so I know where they are. Insurgency is far too big for that, and the chance of being able to get a full two squads of friends together to make up a team is unlikely for most people. Strategies have to be loose and not include individual roles or they become too complex to negotiate. You have to expect that your teammates, for the most part, won’t listen unless they are on your TeamSpeak server (although to be fair, many try to.) As such, it sometimes feels like Insurgency does have a lot more strategic depth to offer, but it’s very difficult for the average player and their friends to make the most of it, and that can feel like a shame.

That said, if you’re absolutely terrible at Insurgency, it doesn’t punish you quite hard as a lot of other hardcore shooters. In fact, Insurgency is a great game to be bad at, because it’s funny as hell. RPG missiles make explosions that, while not on par with real life, do give you a shock, and when you miss-fire one you and everyone around you will know about it. So if you’re not a natural but want to give Insurgency a try, I highly suggest you ignore the team chat, get some C4, RPGs and incendiaries, and have fun.

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Emily Richardson