Insurgency: Sandstorm doesn't pull its punches, and it doesn't care if you die. There are no celebratory kill-cams here, no mechanics to glorify an uninterrupted streak - this is a shooter that doesn't mind exploring the notion that war is hell and not to be taken lightly. Of course, the ferocity of the combat in New World Interactive's first-person shooter comes from the players themselves, but the overall structure of the different modes is ultimately what makes the second game in this fledgeling series so damn punishing.
Taking control of either an insurgent rebel or a militia soldier, players head into tense tactical battles in waves and contest capture points. There are three main game modes to play (across ranked and casual - and not including the co-op modes with bots), but the underlying gameplay revolves around putting pressure on the opposing team while trying to dominate key points on the map. It's about tactical thinking, teamwork, and careful exploration as you look for a good vantage point. Of course, having a steady aim helps too.
Positioning is key, and you can tell those who've played the beta extensively because it's those players who will take you out before you've even realised they're there. Map knowledge is important in Insurgency, then, and it takes a few hours before you've really got the lay of the land, so to speak. Until you know each map like the back of your digital hand, we recommend that you advance with caution as a good half of our deaths were caused by taking a step too far as we searched for the frontline.
The levels themselves are, as befits the name of the game, based in and around the Middle East, with a series of largely dusty maps that are filled with structures and interesting details that really ground the action in plausibility. These levels are far from symmetrical arenas built around balance and equality, rather they twist and turn and present unique challenges for both attackers and defenders, which in turn makes Insurgency's combat feel so intense.
There are a bunch of battlefield roles for players to assume, from leading a team through to the close-quarters specialists and long-range snipers. We tended to gravitate toward more generalist roles, but if you prefer a more purposeful or specialised job, there are options for you to consider. It's a setup that favours more coordinated teams which make sure that all of the bases are covered, but it's not a shooter that's defined by its classes either.
Just as important as your in-game role is the weapon you take with you into battle. We tinkered with our options quite a bit until we settled on something that we were happy with. Recoil is a real concern and therefore short, sharp bursts are key unless you want to sacrifice a bit of power and potency for something with a touch more stability. Beyond the basic selection, there's also a range of attachments that can further enhance your gun of choice. There's a decent number to choose from and in terms of handling, they all felt distinct and plausible.
Mastering your weapon of choice is utterly essential in Insurgency, and if you don't know how to handle the gun in your hands then you've got no chance when it comes to the crunch. As we alluded to earlier, this game is hard as nails and the studio's dedicated following will welcome you into the fold with a well-aimed headshot and little in the way of mercy. Don't expect an easy ride during this particular Sandstorm, and even once you've got the hang of things you can still rely on your opponents to take advantage of your foolish mistakes and punish any rush of blood to the head.
The tension in Insurgency comes from the wave-based setup that means you don't (usually) instantly respawn on the battlefield once you've been taken out. If you step out of cover or walk into someone's line of sight and die accordingly, you'll often have to wait a number of seconds before the next wave is ready and you're able to rejoin the battle. Sometimes you'll even have to wait until an objective has been taken before your team can respawn, and we spent a fair amount of time watching our squadmates play while we rued our own ill-advised haste. This setup, along with the finite number of waves available to each team (with the number of waves depending on the mode being played), ensures that every new life is precious, and it stops players from being too casual and wasting their lives.
The tension certainly isn't helped by the fact that even those wearing heavy armour are quite squishy, and it only takes a short burst of well-aimed shots to fell an opponent. There's fragility to life here that inspires conservative play, and that coupled with the sometimes long waits between spawns really cranks up the pressure and weighs each step you take with the palpable threat of consequence.
New World Interactive has built a stressful and involving shooter that rewards skilled and tactical play, yet it's not perfect. Our main criticism is probably the lack of polish, and for all the positive aspects it's hard not to be a little distracted by how raw some things look. While it looks detailed for the most part, and the character animations are largely realistic, it struggles to compete with the big hitters in terms of audio-visual quality. That's to be expected given the size of the studio, but we can't help but wonder what the team would have been able to deliver with a larger budget and a bit more time.
A bit longer in the oven would have certainly allowed NWI to better optimise the game and we'd have seen less of the lethargic loading times for textures and smoother movements when scoping, for example. We also noted a few bugs, although none of them were game breaking and certainly they were nothing like the issues we encountered when we tried to review the first game in the series. Content-wise you'd have to say it was a little light and another mode would have been nice so as to change up the dynamic and offer variety, and then there's the small matter of the missing single-player campaign which was put on ice while the studio polished the multiplayer part of the game (and to be fair, we didn't miss this at all).
However, the technical issues are relatively mild in the grand scheme of things, and for the most part, we were thoroughly impressed by what New World Interactive has managed to achieve. Sandstorm is an atmospheric and tension-inducing first-person shooter that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the biggest names in the business. It doesn't have the same level of polish as the likes of Battlefield and Call of Duty, and it's certainly not for the faint of heart due to its demanding nature, but if you're after a shooter that doesn't hold your hand and insists on you taking it seriously, this new Insurgency is well worth scoping out.