Platforms: PC (reviewed)

Much to my regret, I didn’t play too much of New World Interactive’s original Insurgency even though I bought it shortly after its 2014 launch. What initially drew me to Insurgency was its near equal balance of competitive and cooperative game modes. Unlike most other shooter franchises at the time (Call of Duty, Battlefield, etc.), Insurgency didn’t treat co-op as an afterthought. Indeed, the game’s heavy emphasis on realism ensured that all players were given a suitable challenge whether they were fighting other players or AI bots.

Sadly, at launch Insurgency also lacked more mainstream features such as progression and character customization. And as fun as the game’s co-op offerings were, they alone weren’t enough to hold my interest. However, when New World Interactive announced a sequel, Insurgency: Sandstorm, I knew I had to check it out.

Sandstorm provides more of the same tense co-op and competitive gameplay which made the original Insurgency such a hit. Even better, the sequel comes fully equipped with player progression, character customization, and cosmetic unlocks among other new features like drivable vehicles. The game’s technical performance could use some work, but otherwise Sandstorm is a near-flawless shooter experience where patience and teamwork are far more valuable than quick reflexes or an itchy trigger finger.

The realities of war

If you’re coming off of more traditional shooter games like Call of Duty or even Battlefield, Insurgency: Sandstorm can feel quite jarring. Realism is the name of the game which means there’s nothing super about Sandstorm’s soldiers. Take more than one or two direct hits from an enemy weapon and it’s lights out.

Depending on the game mode, dying means having to wait until your team’s next reinforcement wave or until they capture a new objective before you can rejoin the fight, no instant respawns here.

There are no score indicators for earning kills or taking objectives, no visual feedback for landing headshots, and no warning flashes when an enemy’s grenade lands in your vicinity. Instead you have to rely more on audio callouts from your teammates (assuming you’re close enough to hear them).  

Even the game’s reload system functions in a more realistic manner with the “reload” button prompting your character to swap for a fresh magazine. However, the previous magazine retains the same number of bullets it had before, which can come back to bite you later on. Impatient players can also double tap the reload button to simply drop their old mag, but of course that also wastes any leftover rounds in the discarded mag.

When customizing your character’s class loadout, you also have to carefully manage their total weight, utilizing a system not unlike Call of Duty’s Pick-10 format. You’re free to trick out your primary weapon with attachments, but then you might not be able to equip a secondary pistol. You can take up to three grenade types into battle, but that might mean sacrificing your ammo carrier and the extra mags it provides.

Speaking of classes, Sandstorm has eight different roles that players can fill in a match, and some of those roles are meant to synergize with each other. For example, the Commander class can call in air support like missile strikes or helicopter assaults, but only if there’s an Observer class player to relay the Commander’s orders. The game also puts hard caps on how many players can play as a given class (aside from the basic Rifleman class) to ensure there are no balance issues. Storming in as a squad of Riflemen is certainly one option, but the best teams coordinate the unique strengths of all the classes to devastating effect.

Playing for keeps

Virtually all of Sandstorm’s game modes, be they cooperative or competitive, involve securing and/or defending static objectives. In co-op play, a team of eight players has to slowly secure a series of objectives while moving through a linear map, providing a clear sense of progression while also allowing for dynamic micro-battle scenarios. As for the competitive mode, players will find both linear and more open combat scenarios, striking a similar feel to the Battlefield series.

Also, if you’re worried that Sandstorm’s AI bots don’t provide a suitable challenge in co-op, rest assured that the game’s AI bots are tough. New World Interactive has obviously put what it learned in the original Insurgency to good use because Sandstorm’s bots are some of the most devious and clever opponents I’ve ever faced.

Sure, there are some bots who will brazenly charge into your secured position by themselves, but others will make smart use of cover, smoke, and flanking routes to hit you where you least expect it. The bots also dynamically react to the players’ tactics on the fly. Take cover behind a barrier and a bot will happily flush you out with an incendiary grenade. Try to hold up in a building and the bots will breach with smoke and tear gas. Attempt to snipe enemies from afar and the bots will call in an air strike on your position.

The challenging nature of the bots combined with the stiff consequences for failing a co-op mission is something which players will either love or hate. If your team is wiped out or the AI enemies retake an objective at any point during the mission, you have to start over from the very beginning. Fail three times and the mission is over for good, though you still at least get progression XP for trying. On average, even a single Sandstorm match can take 20-30 minutes to complete, so keep that in mind if you consider yourself more of a casual gamer.

Bells and whistles

Sandstorm allows players to fully customize their avatars for both the U.S. Security Forces and the native Insurgents. You can tweak things like your character’s head, outfit, tattoos, voice, and (for the Security team) gender. Playing matches and leveling up your profile also awards additional cosmetic items and credits which can be used to purchase any locked items you want.

Interestingly enough, Sandstorm doesn’t lock any of its weapons, attachments, or equipment behind progression. You’re free to equip any available armaments right from the start, though sadly there isn’t a way to customize weapon loadouts from the main menu (at least for now). Weapon loadouts also have to be separately customized across Security and Insurgent teams, costing you even more precious time since they can only be tweaked from within a match itself.

Other minor annoyances include the finicky gamepad/controller support which flat out doesn’t work when trying to perform certain in-game functions. Granted, Sandstorm’s Steam page does list controller support as “partial,” but it’s still annoying having to rely on a keyboard and mouse for doing basic things like selecting a match from a server list. I know New World Interactive is planning a console release for Sandstorm next year so hopefully it will sort out the controller issues sooner rather than later.

A final thing to note is that Sandstorm doesn’t look quite as slick as more mainstream shooters, and those less-than-pristine visuals are further marred by odd graphical bugs. How a game looks isn’t a huge issue for me personally, but even I was bothered by some of the bugs I encountered.

One bug caused my teammates’ hands to disappear while I was spectating them in first-person. Another caused my weapons to disappear entirely while I was holding them. And one particularly interesting bug allowed me to “switch” my teammate’s weapon while spectating them (though the switch was naturally only registered on my client). I’m sure all these bugs and other graphical problems will be cleared up in time, but consider yourself forewarned if you’re thinking of buying Sandstorm during its initial launch period.

Realistic expectations

Earlier this month, New World Interactive outlined how it will be supporting Sandstorm into 2019 and beyond. The studio has also discussed in developer livestreams and other sources how it will never introduce any gameplay microtransactions or pay-to-win mechanics into Sandstorm. Even better, if microtransactions are introduced, those same items will also be available through gameplay as well.

Whether you want to hop in now and navigate Insurgency: Sandstorm’s slightly tumultuous beginnings or wait a few months for it to stabilize and grow a bit is entirely up to you. Either way, you’ll be treated to a shooter experience unlike anything you’ve played before (unless, of course, you happened to play the original Insurgency).

Sticking with Sandstorm can be a challenge, especially in its launch state, but within that challenge you’ll find a game that respects your desire for realistic teamwork-based scenarios and, more importantly, doesn’t try to nickel-and-dime you with microtransactions, map packs, or other greedy AAA practices.