It’s that time of the year once more in which the titans of game development pull out all the stops, by pushing marketing to the max and throwing every trailer imaginable in front of our eyes. Of course, the FPS genre is one which is always heavily catered to within this period, but whilst the latest entries in the Call of Duty, Battlefield and Halo franchises all begin to drum up excitement for their incoming release, its developer New World Interactive who have fired the first shots with their modern-day slugfest Insurgency: Sandstorm.
Before we get into things, we need to make one thing clear. To fully appreciate any time spent with Insurgency: Sandstorm you must first put any comparisons to the other heavyweights of the genre out of your mind. Yes we may find it looks and occasionally feels like a blend of some of the best bits of other games mixed together, and some game modes certainly share a pattern of feeling ‘samey’ but should you treat it as such, you won’t be able to enjoy just what is on offer here. That’s not to say I’m promoting a perfect game here, there are faults, however, let me tell you that Insurgency: Sandstorm is a fantastic title.
From the off, one thing is very clear. This is a multiplayer focussed title. There is no single-player campaign, there are no explosive cinematics, and you won’t find yourself confused as to why you feel you should know the celebrity that’s playing a villain here. Instead, gameplay pits you as one member of a team of up to 12 players, fighting against other players, surprisingly capable bots or a mix of players and bots in a host of objective-based game modes as either the Insurgents or Security teams.
The game modes looking to impress the features of military realism here include PVP options such as Push – a fast high-intensity conflict in which players fight for control of the battlefield one objective at a time, Frontline – which pushes players to move the line forward by reaching and destroying the enemy cache, whilst ensuring they don’t get to yours, with the team having an exposed cache depleting in respawns, Domination – which is just as you would expect if you’ve played any game ever and Firefight – in which players partake in a high-stakes tactical battle to capture and defend all objectives and players only respawn once your team capture an objective.
Other options available are for co-op players online against bots, and these modes include Checkpoint – in which players capture and destroy one objective at a time, moving through the area as they progress, Hardcore Checkpoint – which provides the same gameplay with limited HUD, limited equipment and slower movement speed, Survival – which expects players to stay on the move and survive until extraction whilst secured locations will have random weapons stashed within, and Outpost – in which players must hold their ground against waves of enemies.
Each game can last anywhere between 10 and 40 minutes per match and during my time with the game I often saw matches reaching the tail end of that time too.
For a game that lacks any single-player narrative, it must be said that whilst the aforementioned modes aren’t a bad set of choices, it would be nice to see a few more available to push a little variety from the typical run of the mill type options. Sure no match ever plays out the same, but variety is the spice of life and when you’re options are limited to just a few rather standard options, you do need to ask the question as to how the developers are going to maintain player interest in a time in which upcoming releases will be heavily pushing seasonal content, battle pass options and so on.
Whilst that may be an early criticism, the most important thing here is of course the gameplay, and gameplay is the area in which Insurgency: Sandstorm diverts from the slim pickings of which objectives you’ll be playing, and instead embraces change, engagement and excitement to really nail that sense of a true firefight. From the moment you step into battle following the conclusion of a brief countdown, the game becomes a test. This test will see you pit wit and tactical thinking against nerves and sheer adrenaline as you edge ever closer to the objectives. With your eyes covering every open window, doorway, and corner as you prepare for that split second moment in which you need to assess if the other player you’ve stumbled across is indeed friendly, or if you now need to raise your weapon and squeeze the trigger to pull off a deadly shot to press forward – and that assessment had better be thorough as team killing is a real possibility.
These little tests may sound like the typical engagement you should expect from any FPS out there, but when these battles come with an almost certain one-bullet-kills level of realism, you quickly realise just how seriously you need to take things. There are no bandages, first-aid kits, or stimulants here; instead it’s life and death, with a solitary bullet capable of changing your current standing amongst the numbers.
Fortunately with death being such a real possibility, and often the outcome should you not have the tactical forethought or ability to overcome your enemy, the respawn rate is surprisingly rapid, and within just a few seconds you can be back on your feet and running towards the objectives once more as long as you’re not in a game mode with respawning limitations.
Another gameplay aspect to note is just how believable the combat feels. As mentioned earlier, there is a real sense of adrenaline that builds as you push towards and begin capturing objectives, or enter a firefight, but with each bullet fired you really get a sense of that heavy sluggish feel to the weapons you are using.
Sure, you can attach weapons with all the mod cons that are likely to make you slightly more effective in the field, such as new optics, suppressors, flash hiders and the rest of it, but there is no real way to speed up the process of fighting. There’s no jumping around from players as you try to land a shot, there’s no dropping to the floor within a split second in a bid to force you to miss a shot, and there’s no super-fast swapping between weapons, with countless bullets being sprayed into opponents. Instead, any cover is vital no matter how big or small, firing through any small gap in wooden fencing or from behind a wall is as close as you want to put your body to harm’s way, and actions feel real like they are being conducted by a human being rather than a robot, and that is something that many FPS titles are still failing to achieve even in 2021. This is warfare.
The key to the believable feel this game brings, besides combat, is the importance of being a team player. The term team really is key here, and should you be willing to put in the graft to cover teammates, communicate, and work together as a functional unit, then Insurgency: Sandstorm may well be one of the best tactical shooting experiences you’ll find available anywhere. Success isn’t bred from the individual, but the team performance, and whilst you may occasionally see individual efforts from the uninitiated player running off in a solo John Wick-style expression of intent, it doesn’t take long to see their efforts gunned down before even getting close to the current objective. Instead, players should stick together, utilising chokepoints and flanking enemies wherever the option presents itself in a bid to get the surprise jump and the first finger to the trigger. Why? Well, the realism of course.
This realism doesn’t just show in the core gameplay aspects either. Within any given game, you will find the lack of any successful kill notification meaning that should you want to know if your threat still persists, you’ll need a visual check of the body slumped to the floor, whilst the firing of weapons will entice the sound of each bullet casing hitting the floor around you. Other things such as manually checking your remaining ammo count and magazines reloaded before empty being available later to finish off the last few bullets are all little touches that help imbed the true seriousness of war and combat.
This realism is also pushed into the environmental designs with maps taking clear inspiration from the Iraq and Afghan regions, and looking incredible as they do so with mountainous ridges, and dusty fields present, whilst collections of dilapidated and rundown buildings provide the general makeup for firefights, with a few exceptions.
Visually Insurgency: Sandstorm is a mixed bag. Environments are a pleasing sight, but whilst realism is a strong component of the game in all aspects and is portrayed very well, the visual nature could be improved upon. You won’t find photorealistic impressions here, and whilst this title may not come boasting quite the same level of financial backing that other titans of the industry can offer, it would be nice to see a next-gen visual experience to coincide with a fully believable and realistic modern military experience such as the one offered by New World Interactive.
Sadly, some aspects of this game don’t even come close with character models looking closer to something you’d expect to see in an Xbox 360 title than an Xbox One outing that offers optimisation for Xbox Series consoles. Simply anything more than a quick glance at your character who occupies the background of the screen as you go about customising your loadouts is enough to draw comparisons to kids plasticine character Morph than that of a real character preparing for warfare.
Other visual aspects are rarely quite that disappointing, besides maybe the occasional bug that likes to play havoc with the lighting, but with gameplay achieving such an impressive feel and experience, it’s a shame to not see visuals up there at the same lofty heights.
I don’t want to be too harsh on Insurgency: Sandstorm or the folks who developed it though, looks aren’t the focus here and more importantly, the visual look of things aren’t bad. Should we be looking at a game that offered a basic FPS experience, then chances are, you’d probably find me offering praise for the visual efforts on show with criticisms reserved for bugs. The criticisms here are certainly not something that should be held against New World Interactive, but rather a testament to just how good the gameplay experience is and my own selfish wish to see a game that can match an impressive level of gameplay quality with a visual experience that equally thrills, and what they have achieved certainly surpasses any negative persuasions that could be invoked by any visual element.
As for the audio, Insurgency: Sandstorm provides yet more frightening realism. Whilst it’s always fantastic to watch on as impressive explosions bellow around and buildings fall down within many other titles, it’s the sheer sound of silence, and the patter of footsteps as you approach an objective that shines here. The sound of gunfire opening up as groups begin to collide and the thud in your headphones as bullets hit the ground, brickwork, or wooden structures around you, and the readiness or lack thereof that those sounds bring focus to. It’s good work to say the least.
What you’ll find here isn’t the next game to join the contest of who can be the biggest FPS hit of the year, but rather a game that focuses on realism, action, and teamwork. It trades the big-budget effects for the nitty-gritty darkened warfare and it does this in a way that feels believable and enthralling, whilst managing to scratch that one-more-go itch as each round concludes, and for the efforts, it might just be the surprise big hitter of the year from the FPS genre after all.Become a Patron!
This game was reviewed based on Xbox One review code, using an Xbox Series S|X console. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.