A perfect storm?
An impassable ravine of a street lies between us and an insurgent stronghold. We keep throwing ourselves at the objective but snipers are fortified at seemingly every window, picking us off as soon as we leave cover. Our soldiers are falling in swathes. This is suicide.
But then it dawns on me. Next spawn, I swap my incendiary for a smoke. I volley it to the right flank, and a squadmate does the same. The smoke that billows out is tremendous, a thick wall of protective smog. We pelt through, bullets clanging off of cars and street lamps but leaving us unscathed. The stronghold falls.
This is just one of many memorable scenarios I’ve experienced in Insurgency Sandstorm. It’s also telling of its strategic depth. Typically, when it comes to tactical perks and equipment, I ain’t interested. Why would I waste a slot I could fill with something that spits bullets or blows things up? But in Sandstorm, that stuff matters.
Of course, seated in the trenches of a battle royale onslaught, classic multiplayer first-person shooters aren’t so common these days outside of the big IPs. Can a new contender make its mark on a battlefield embroiled in pink unicorn rifles, microtransactions and flossing?
For anyone yearning a return to the basics of satisfying, tactical combat, yes – I believe it can.
Sandstorm offers three modes: Push, Firefight and Skirmish. All three feature Battlefield-style objectives with a big pinch of Counter-Strike for good measure. Push is, comically, Rush – a sequential attackers vs defenders objective capture. Firefight is a scramble over three objectives, with the twist that respawns only occur when one is captured. Skirmish is a similar deal but with a weapon cache for each team to protect.
It’s a case of quality over quantity here. All three modes are enjoyable and well designed. There isn’t a stinker in the bunch you’d groan at every time it pops up in rotation.
Whereas the modes are familiar to any shooter fan, Sandstorm sets itself apart with its mechanics. New World Interactive have strived for an immersive experience. The HUD is startlingly bare. There’s no hip fire crosshair. No minimap. No killfeed, no killcams, no ammo count. No health bar. All you have to rely on is your sense and intuition.
Observation is crucial. Muzzle flash, for instance, is typically a trivial effect in shooters. Here, it’s a dead giveaway. It takes practice to learn who’s friend and foe, too, and in the meantime you’ll be an unpopular tester of Sandstorm’s friendly fire.
This stripped-back design – along with a blazing TTK, or time-to-kill – makes for thrillingly unpredictable firefights. With skill and a heaping of luck, you could wipe out an entire enemy squad in seconds. Or have the opposite happen to you.
But Sandstorm is surprisingly easy to get into despite appearances to the contrary. Typical concessions are out of the window, sure. But it avoids the temptation of complex game modes or unwieldy, ‘true’ simulation gunplay. Even the freshest-faced rookies can follow the clear objective markers and shoot bad guys along the way. It’s anything but inaccessible.
In the throes of a gunfight, Sandstorm mesmerises. An unexpected factor is the sound design, an example of glorious excess and attention to detail. Guns clack and thunder with a ferocity as real as I could possibly imagine – albeit, this comes from someone who’s never fired anything heavier than an air rifle.
And that’s only part of the cacophony. The Commander and Observer classes cooperate to call in a riotous din of airstrikes, attack helicopters and grenade drones. Teammates bellow requests and commands. Buildings tremble under the impact of explosives. Wounded soldiers scream in pain.
For a shooter that’s so intense at times, I can play Sandstorm for hours. I may be an unapologetic annual COD player, but I find long play sessions of it fatiguing. It’s sensory overload, like listening to death metal at a fireworks show while on acid. Maybe I’m just getting old. The less claustrophobic maps of Sandstorm and its longer respawns provide downtime to punctuate its more potent moments.
Sandstorm also looks fantastic. The locales are believable, their ravaged streets and houses serving as labyrinthian battlefields. Explosions, lighting and smoke suffocate the atmosphere.
But this beauty comes at a price. Sandstorm is ravenous on system resources. My rig is no longer at the bleeding edge but this is the first time I’ve had to resort to low and medium settings to maintain something resembling a stable framerate. The settings menu casually remarks that those with 8GB of system RAM should set their textures to low. 8GB is low, now?
I also experience heavy pop-in, taking 5 to 10 seconds for all the textures and models to load. In the meantime, you’ll encounter soupy environments and disembodied floating appendages. A quick glance at forums confirms my experience is anything but unique. Even high-end systems are choking and spluttering. I hope New World can knuckle down on optimisation over the next few months because this is a big deal.
A lack of unlocks and meaningful progression is a shame too, in some respects, and may hamper longevity for some. Cosmetics and a meaningless rank number are your only rewards for putting in the hours. Though it’s liberating to have access to all weapons and gear right away, rather than grinding for tens of hours before you get all of the good kit.
Performance issues aside, Insurgency: Sandstorm nails the fundamentals of a great shooter. Weapon handling is tight and empowering. Strategy and perception are rewarded. It electrifies the senses like a hit of amphetamines, and is just as moorish. While it may not become as big of a hit as its mainstream contemporaries, Sandstorm is a potent alternative worth checking out.
[Reviewed on PC]
James, our deputy editor, loves a deep action-adventure game, RPG or metroidvania. In addition to making sure everything on the site is as good as it can be – scouring for typos, tweaking headlines, finding the fanciest images – he’s also in charge of the reviews section.