With our reinforcements depleted and the enemy firmly entrenched in its defensive positions, the outcome of this battle looks bleak. Rather than desperately charging headlong into the fire zone like lambs to the slaughter, before we respawn our commander urges the squad to hang back as he coordinates one last-ditch attempt to capture the objective. After flanking the control point with his observer to find a good vantage point, he orders gunship support to pick off exposed snipers and drive the remaining enemies indoors. The rest of us pop smoke grenades to cover our movement before infiltrating the building housing the objective.
Some of us won’t make it out alive. As the smoke begins to clear, we stare unblinkingly into the corners of the bullet-riddled room in hopes of spotting the last few defenders before they see us. My finger hangs deliberately over the mouse button ready to unload, but they fire first. The room erupts with gunfire and two comrades grouped closely together shriek their last breaths, but their deaths are not in vain. The rest of us spot the muzzle fire and rain revenge, securing the objective and completing the improbable comeback.
At its best, Insurgency: Sandstorm capably delivers heroic moments like these, where the tension would suffocate if it weren’t for the equal dose of adrenaline rushing through your veins. This tactical shooter demands precision and rewards teamwork, but it also expects you to do your homework and survive without the conveniences of modern shooters.
As the years have gone by, tactical shooters like Rainbow Six and Battlefield have slowly sanded away the rough edges from their spartan foundations to become more streamlined, bombastic, and inclusive. Insurgency is the old-school mercenary who fills that void for those craving the punishing realism of yesteryear. Bullets are deadly, and no medics are standing by to miraculously revive you after being downed. Grenades don’t have indicators when they land near your position, and the lack of mini-maps and killcams means snipers with good hiding spots don’t need to relocate. With no kill confirmations, you won’t even know whether you killed that soldier hiding behind cover until you see the dead body yourself. Those who prefer the more arcade-like approach to military games may find the lack of these quality-of-life systems frustrating. But if you embrace this more realistic combat and operate like your life is on the line, Insurgency comes alive.
Before you drop into a match, you must choose one of the eight classes. A few, like the commander and observer, have critical responsibilities, but the rest basically break down by weapon type. Developer New World Interactive smartly limits the number of players who can use the most powerful classes, which prevents matches from becoming frustrating due to too many snipers or rocket spamming. All the weapons and attachments are unlocked from the start, but your loadout is limited by weight so you have to make some tough choices. Do you carry extra grenades or fully invest in useful attachments for your primary weapon? The many combinations for each class encourage experimentation before you settle on a favorite loadout.
Each of the three competitive multiplayer modes focuses strictly on attacking or defending control points. Some require the attacking team to take them over sequentially, whereas others spread the fight out across multiple positions. Respawns come in waves, either based on a timer or gifted as a result of capturing a new control point. Patience is required, because you sometimes have to wait minutes rather than seconds before the reinforcements get deployed, and you’re often several hundred meters away from the hot zone once you drop back in. I appreciate respawning at a distance because it creates a natural frontline where you don’t feel constantly in danger of being flanked during your approach, but hoofing it as far as 300 meters brings to mind some of the boring treks in long-lost games like Delta Force.
Over the course of battle, expect to see some technical glitches. Though my performance was generally stable, occasionally my soldier's hands would disappear or he would have problems vaulting through windows. The netcode also could use some refinement. There were times I made it safely behind cover but still took a fatal bullet mere nanoseconds after the fact.
Though they lack the graphical polish of many modern shooters, Insurgency’s maps are well designed, with varied elevations, winding streets, and plenty of cover. But apart from the oil refinery, they all feel remarkably similar, as if they were adjacent war-torn districts of a no-name Middle Eastern territory. The game would benefit dramatically from some environmental variety; right now it doesn’t even include a map set during the night to mix things up.
Some of the maps include a truck with a turret mounted in the flatbed, but the controls are lacking and the absence of more deadly player-controlled vehicles is noticeable given its modern military setting. Commanders can call in gunships, mortars, and drones to aid the cause, but each is automated once you choose the attack location. In a game so defined by skill and execution, it feels odd to take control of these devastating weapons away from the player.
New World scrapped its plans for a story campaign during development, so the only option outside of competitive multiplayer is a cooperative mode where your squad commandeers control points from an A.I. occupying force. Respawns only trigger after capturing the next objective, which adds much-needed tension to the otherwise generic mode. Playing through each map for the first time is a fun way to get your bearings and calls to mind Rainbow Six’s terrorist hunts, but there isn’t enough depth or variety here to encourage repeated playthroughs.
The progression system feels similarly underequipped. Ranking up earns you currency to buy new cosmetics for both the security and insurgent forces, but the options are unimaginative and paltry compared to options found in other shooters like Ghost Recon Wildlands. With no accolade or medal awards, the only real reward for a well-played match in Insurgency is the pride you feel for a job well done.
Insurgency: Sandstorm isn’t for everyone. Its steadfast commitment to realism may off put those who like to jump right into the action, respawn immediately after dying, and get showered with rewards for ranking up. At the same time, fans who lament the mainstream evolution of tactical shooters like Rainbow Six and Battlefield may find solace in this unforgiving, undeniably tense combat. Insurgency: Sandstorm may be spartan, but its limited package can still deliver memorable moments.
Tactical shooter fans should find Insurgency’s skirmishes riveting, even if it's rough around the edges.