Full player immersion is clearly the goal sought by New World interactive with their next title, Insurgency: Sandstorm, as this isn't just a war game in a fictional Middle Eastern setting, but also a simulation game. Published by Focus Home Interactive, we had a glimpse of the game at February's "What's Next Focus" event, and recently we got the chance to get back into the fight at the Parisian office just as the pre-launch beta kicks off.
The PvP maps, although limited in number (six in all), are rather big, more so than in any conventional first-person shooter, and for good reason: they're designed to accommodate up to 32 players simultaneously. However, it's disappointing that they look very similar. One can easily get lost in the muddle of buildings that sometimes form real mazes, so much so that one almost expects to be ambushed at any time in these tight places. In some other places though, the map opens up, creating perfect positions for snipers. In short, the pressure on the player mounts as the risk of taking a bullet always weighs heavy.
Indeed, every bit of the gameplay is designed to be lethal. Here there's no health bar or armour; one single shot can take you down. The goal of the developers is to recreate the dynamism of Battlefield combined with the realism of Arma III. Unfortunately, this comes with a downside, as we sometimes felt like playing a simulation game that's too explosive, or a game with a lot of action that's slowed down by its mechanics. New World Interactive is aware of this, but wants to deepen and perfect it to give Insurgency its own identity.
We started playing Insurgency Sandstorm with a co-op game alongside seven other players. We had to advance on a huge map taking possession of strategic points, one by one, while the Insurgent AI had to defend the territory and repel our attack. At first, we would die after a few minutes as we were getting used to the controls and the game, and an added difficulty lies in the respawn mechanic, as you have to wait for one of your teammates to capture the objective to reappear.
To help us in our mission we had at our disposal a very varied arsenal in the shape of dozens of assault and sniper rifles, different grenades, rocket launchers, etc. Unfortunately, even if the range of weapons available is very wide, we had the same sensations regardless of the weapon we used. One thing you have to consider is your ammunition too, as with each of your bullets able to kill an opponent, they're precious and very limited. If you reload before the end of your clip, you lose the remaining ammo, for example, which means that if you're not careful, you tend to end up with a shortage of bullets.
You also have the opportunity to involve your faction in the battlefield. This isn't a deployment of reinforcement on the ground though, but rather something like "death comes from the sky," with a massive barrage on the positions of your opponents. These two skills are the result of two specific classes of the American forces: the commander and the observer. One selects the target, the other gives the order to launch the attack. There are also other classes, but we'll come back to that later.
Cooperation is undoubtedly a major aspect of Insurgency Sandstorm, as communicating with your teammates and teamwork are a prerequisite for surviving on the ground. However, one must know how to limit the use radio communication; at the beginning of our game, the volume of our headphones was a little too low, but once we turned it up, we were literally immersed in the action of the game. This shows that sound design was successful, but sometimes a bit too busy: explosions were sometimes deafening. That being said, the immersion remains, and after all, we are in the midst of a battle.
This is reinforced by clean visuals and HUD, as the screen shows almost nothing, other than your remaining ammo when reloading. That means that there's no map, and no indicator to let you evaluate your grenade launch. The graphics, however, can only be described as average: even with the settings turned up, it's perhaps most comparable to something like CS:GO. The pixelised blur around the target when looking through your rifle scope is typical, and is, unfortunately, the kind of problem that has been seen with Unreal Engine 4 (used to develop this title) for years.
We then had a PVP game with eight players on each side, which was exactly the same game mode as what we played previously, as one team had to defend a position that the other must capture. The difference here lies in the respawn in waves. It's difficult to come back into play if the gap is too wide since each team has a limited number of them, a dozen to be precise, and the only way to get more is to take possession of an objective, or to take back one you've previously lost.
We must underline once more the number of ways to fight in the game. Insurgency Sandstorm promises rich content in weapons and equipment, but beyond just the number of weapons available, the accessories are just as numerous, whether in terms of scopes or handles. Be careful though as you're limited by weight; if you take too much gear with you, you'll be too heavy and therefore slow. To unlock all this content, you'll have to gain experience and upgrade, and this way you will recover credits that'll allow you to buy items. The development studio has also confessed that it might consider microtransactions in the future to obtain these credits more easily.
Regarding controls, there's nothing particular to note, except for the fact that you must think to look at the sides to aim, to gather information while remaining in cover. There were sometimes some small annoyances with our weapon with the settings too. For example, if we wanted to aim while being stuck to a wall, our character was unable to do so. A little frustrating in some situations, but that doesn't detract from the realism that the game tries to bring. There was no particular issues with bugs, except for the doors that we could sometimes run through, but there's still a little time remaining until full release, so things appear to be on track.
For classes, they mainly correspond to the weapons you can use. Demolishers can benefit from a rocket launcher but will have a rather laughable gun, while wor the others, it is assault rifles that rules the day. Only the sniper benefits from a sniper rifle, so you won't be surprised with the classes on show here.
We finished the demonstration with a final game mode, which will likely be the one that will serve as the basis for competitions and esports. It relies once again on a principle of strategic point capture (in fact, there will be no deathmatch mode). There are three - A, B, and C - and the teams are limited to five players who compete for these three points simultaneously. You win either by capturing all points or by depleting the respawns of the other team.
New World Interactive has told us they want to care for their new title long-term, and this includes organising and developing a competitive season and a building community. They also want to regularly offer free new content, such as outfits and voices to personalise avatars, as well as new weapons, however, right now everything is focused on launch.
And they still have some work to do with Insurgency: Sandstorm. This game comes across like a diamond in the rough in need of more polishing. There's that balance it needs to find between the explosive action and the simulation aspects, and in addition the title suffers from a respawn delay that is a bit long, which tends to affect the rhythm and immersion. However, we found ourselves deeply engrossed, mainly thanks to the audio.
Insurgency Sandstorm is now in the first phase of beta for those who have pre-ordered the game, and a second beta will begin on August 30 to bring the latest patches before its launch in September on PC. A console version will land on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One next year too, so this is certainly a game to keep your eyes on...
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