Insurgency: Sandstorm Review – Gritty Firefights

The Insurgency series started life as a Source mod back in 2007, and has always focused on brutal depictions of modern combat, with a very low time-to-kill, and a heavy emphasis on making everything as accurate and realistic as possible without getting too deep into the mil-sim genre. As I expressed in my Rising Storm 2, I’ve been gravitating more towards this subgenre of authentic shooter to scratch my multiplayer military FPS itch these days, and I’ve been counting the days until I could get my hands on Insurgency: Sandstorm to experience my first real taste of the Insurgency franchise. The unrelenting harshness and learning curve of authentic military shooters made by smaller and more modest development teams has become more appealing to me in the current game industry that spends all its time chasing trends and invisible audiences at the expense of its current fanbase. Or maybe I’m just getting old and want to avoid all the hyperactive kids that populate your average online shooter these days.

Insurgency: Sandstorm
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Developer: New World Interactive
Platform: Windows PC (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Release Date: December 12th, 2018
Players: 8-32
Price: $29.99

There has been some backlash among older fans of Insurgency that Sandstorm has maybe become a bit too fast and streamlined to cater to a more casual crowd. As a complete newcomer to the series, I can’t say anything about a perceived “dumbing down” of the mechanics, but I can say that Sandstorm is an intense tactical shooter that is just a few more performance optimizations away from being a truly great multiplayer experience.

Sandstorm is set in a fictional war-torn Middle Eastern nation and focuses on low intensity counterinsurgency operations. The two sides in the game are Security and Insurgents, with the Security representing the nation’s military backed by American air power and advisors, while the Insurgents are a vague group of Islamic extremists with a few foreign mujahideen and mercenaries.

Each match consists of two rounds, giving you a chance to play both sides. They more or less play the same, but have access to different weapons, gear, and support assets. As you can imagine, the Security forces have an arsenal of Western weaponry like M4s, M16s, and G36s, and their support assets include rocket barrages by attack helicopters and strafing runs with A-10s.

The Insurgents use your typical selection of ex-Soviet military surplus, including AKs, Mosin-Nagants, and PKMs, and their support assets feature some more unconventional weapons like chemical mortar strikes.

Either way though, the two factions have the same objective in each match, which generally involves capturing/destroying strategic locations and witling down the enemy’s reinforcements. There’s three different game modes in Sandstorm: Push, Firefight, and Skirmish.

Push involves a team of attackers trying to capture a series of objectives. Firefight involves both teams competing to capture and hold three objectives. Skirmish is a mix of both modes, and involves teams competing to destroy the enemy weapon cache and capture all three objectives.

Regardless of game mode, depleting your enemy’s reinforcements is also a viable strategy. Each side will have a set number of “respawn waves” that are used to bring groups of players back at periodic intervals. You can gain additional respawn waves by capturing objectives.

There’s a ranked mode as well, but I can’t say anything specific about it because its not live yet at the time of writing this review.

If you want to take a break from competitive multiplayer or just hone your skills, Sandstorm does have a pretty solid co-op mode too. Eight players team up to capture or destroy a series of objectives against the AI. Occasionally, capturing an objective will spawn a counterattack that the players will need to defend against for a set amount of time.

Once an objective has been completed, any dead players will respawn. While its not a mode I’d buy the game for, it’s still pretty fun. The AI is relatively competent when it comes to finding cover, using grenades, and aggressively hunting down players, though their accuracy ranges from “unable to hit you at point blank” to “I just shot you in the eye with a handgun from 200 feet away.”

If you have no interest in Sandstorm‘s competitive multiplayer then I wouldn’t say the co-op mode is fleshed out enough to warrant buying the game at full price, but its still fun enough that I enjoy dipping into it from time to time.

There’s a class system that dictates what weapons you can bring and your overall role in the battle. Riflemen are your basic class, and there are no limits on how many can be on a team like the other classes. They carry your typical selection of standard issue infantry weapons, like assault rifles, sidearms, and a variety of grenades.

The Gunner and Marksmen are pretty self-explanatory, and serve as your machine gun and sniper class, respectively. The Breacher focuses on close quarters combat, and has a variety of special grenades and access to shotguns and SMGs. The Demolitions class is your explosives expert, and can bring weapons like AT4s and RPGs.

The Advisor represents US Special Forces or foreign mercenaries there to provide aid and training, and carry some more exotic weapons like the Mk 17 and the Alpha AK.

The final two classes are arguably the most important when it comes to winning a match. The Commander class is tasked with using their binoculars to call in support assets like smoke mortars, artillery strikes, and bombing runs.

A decent and coordinated Commander is vital for leading their team to victory, but unfortunately the learning curve means that you’ll encounter lots of mediocre Commanders in your typical match with randoms. A lot of people seem to view it as just another class and play a bit too aggressively to be of much use, but that is hardly the game’s fault.

No matter how good a Commander is, they are useless without an Observer, however. While the Commander marks the targets for support assets, its the Observer that actually calls them in using their portable radio.

It’s not a very popular class because you don’t have access to a bunch of fancy weapons, and your job is basically to just follow around the Commander and keep your head down, but every team will need at least one (preferably two) if they expect to get anywhere.

Before you get into the fight, you’ll have a chance to customize your class loadout. Every weapon and piece of gear is unlocked from the start, with the only overarching progression system being cosmetic unlocks like uniforms, headgear, gloves, etc. You are given a set amount of Supply Points that are spent to equip weapons, grenades, harnesses that allow you to carry extra equipment, armor, and attachments for your guns.

If you want, you can choose to just bring a single rifle that you tricked out with a bunch of upgrades, or you can take a more spartan approach to your gun attachments so you can carry extra grenades. Class setup is also balanced out by a weight system that determines how quickly you’ll be able to move around with the gear you brought.

I do wish that there was more asymmetry between the sides when it comes to gear and tactics. Yeah, sure, the Insurgents have a bunch of older weapons like AKs and FALs, but it still feels a little odd that they can customize their guns with all sorts of high tech gadgets like laser pointers and Kobra sights, especially when their clothing options are limited to track suits, t-shirts, and other casual wear.

I feel that the developers missed an opportunity to make the Insurgents play more like actual insurgents by being forced to rely on unconventional tactics to make up for the less advanced weapons and assets they have access to. It’s ultimately a personal preference of mine though, and doesn’t really detract from the game too much.

From a gameplay perspective, Sandstorm is just the right blend of authenticity and realism that I’ve come to enjoy from my military shooters these days. There’s barely any HUD to speak of, you are always just one mistake away from death, and there’s tons of little details and mechanics to learn that most games don’t bother with.

The ammo system goes by magazines, and when you reload, you can choose to either store what’s left in the magazine back in your vest for later, or dump the whole mag for a quicker reload. You can open doors just wide enough to bounce a grenade into the room, or you can kick them open and potentially kill anyone standing behind the door.

You can interrupt your reload animation and it’ll continue from where it left off. While the game lacks proper destructibility, you can shoot through cover to hit enemies, and the caliber of your bullets will affect your ability to penetrate different materials. There’s just so many tricks like this that you’ll need to learn and consider when playing Sandstorm.

Without a doubt though, the real highlight of the game is its excellent sound design. The lack of a HUD and hit/kill confirmations means that you’ll need to learn how to use the game’s sound to find out vital information. Gunfire sounds different based on variables like distance, direction, incoming or outgoing, and whether or not the shooter is out in the open or inside a building.

Each gun has a distinct sound, and they are all loud and satisfying to shoot. Since the game doesn’t tell you when you score a kill, you’ll need to listen for shouts out pain to confirm your bullets hit their mark.

Footsteps distort in the same way as gunfire, and you can hear enemy VOIP chatter if they are nearby. Its actually quite amusing to get the drop on people that don’t realize this and are casually talking about nonsense or playing music in the background. Speaking of which, the VOIP chatter has been modified to make it sound like its coming over a radio, which is a really nice touch.

While Sandstorm has some intense and visceral gameplay to offer, unfortunately, the game is a hot mess in the technical department. The performance is just not where it needs to be, even after a delay that was supposed to address this very issue. The tutorial was a barely playable dumpster fire for me, with frequent stuttering and frame drops even on medium settings.

Luckily, the main game is mostly okay. Mostly. I’m playing on an i7-8700k with 16GB and a 1070 and the game usually stays above 60 FPS on high, but there are specific maps that bring my rig to its knees. The map Summit in particular seems poorly optimized, and I regularly get frame drops below 30 on this map, and sometimes as low as sub-20 FPS.

These frame drops seem to have no correlation with what is going on either, as they can happen when I’m merely running to an objective in the early stages of a match, before the action really starts.

I’m not the only one either, as I’ve encountered people asking if others are getting awful framerates while playing on Summit. The Steam forums are full of people complaining about performance issues in general, and the systems affected are so broad in terms of hardware that you will almost certainly need to tweak your settings no matter what part of the power spectrum your PC sits in.

The game is also horribly glitchy, and it goes beyond the “haha, that was amusing” level of jank that I can normally tolerate. After the open beta ended, I can’t go a single match without seeing major animation bugs, like seeing a player stuck in a crouching position while zooming around like they are on ice.

Seeing other players vault over cover usually results in a single frame of animation as they clip their way through the terrain. The spectator mode is especially borked, and its not uncommon to see things like this happen while watching players as you wait for a respawn:

It’s not just an issue with the spectator mode, either. I’ve seen teammates sink into the ground during matches as well, usually while all the rest of their animations are bugging out. I’ve never personally fallen through the level, but I’ve heard of people that have.

I have gotten stuck on random bits of terrain a few times, however, though I’ve always been able to get myself unstuck without having to resort to drastic measures like killing myself to force a respawn.

There’s all the usual graphical bugs you’d expect from an Unreal Engine game, too, usually in regards to textures models not loading right. Pretty much every respawn is met with unloaded textures for a second or two, and its not uncommon to see people running around with invisible guns.

On a few very rare occasions I’ve seen floating guns and backpacks carried by invisible players. I had this happen to me one match last night:

The game was unplayable for about three minutes because my gun was invisible. I could shoot, but of course aiming was basically impossible. In another match I had a fire effect stuck to my character the entire game:

These many graphical issues and bugs weren’t as prevalent during the open beta, but have suddenly increased since it ended. Outside of the performance problems, most of them only serve to pull you out of the experience and don’t have a huge impact on your ability to actually play the game, but its incredibly frustrating nonetheless.

Sandstorm‘s sound assets and mechanics all come together to create this frighteningly immersive war experience, but then you turn your head and see a teammate’s walking animations have bugged out while he’s shooting an invisible M16 and that immersion is immediately shattered.

While I’ve spent the past several paragraphs harshly criticizing the game, I do so because I’ve sincerely enjoyed my time so far with Insurgency: Sandstorm and want to see it improved and gain the level of success and popularity it’s predecessor generated over the past four years. I plan on continuing to play it, and maybe I’ll even come back with an update once the full version goes live if these problems have dramatically improved.

When everything works as intended, Sandstorm brings you as close to a modern battlefield as you’d ever want to be. The unparalleled sound direction will make you want to buy a shiny new pair of headphones so you can get the most out of the game.

If Sandstorm was just a little more polished I would easily give it an 8.5 or more, but in its current state I can’t help but feel that the game needed a bit more time to work out all the kinks. It still comes with a recommendation from me, just be aware of the many performance issues and glaring bugs that can pull you out of the experience.

Insurgency: Sandstorm was reviewed on Windows PC using a review copy provided by Focus Home Interactive. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s reviews/ethics policy here.

The Verdict: 7.5

The Good:

  • Fantastic sound design that also serves an important role in gameplay
  • Lots of small details that really crank up the game’s authenticity
  • Satisfying gun handling and shooting mechanics
  • Tense, team-driven tactical action that remains fun even in a public server
  • Nice selection of real firearms for both sides
  • Plenty of content for a fairly low price

The Bad:

  • Poor optimization, especially on specific maps
  • Tons of graphical glitches and bugs that yank you out of the experience
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Frank was a former Niche Gamer contributor.

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