Insurgency Sandstorm Review: A Niche Worth Scratching
There are almost too many shooters to choose from these days, but most of them share more than they'd like to admit. The big names have a fast time to kill ratio, low weapon recoil, regenerative health, fast, if not instant, respawning, and if you're lucky, some wrinkle dropped in to make the experience feel new.
Insurgency Sandstorm is none of that (except the fast TTK). Instead, it favors a design philosophy that sits somewhere between military simulation and games like Red Orchestra. It's unforgiving enough to cater to more dedicated players but those without the time or willpower to sink their teeth in can still get their money's worth.
For this review, I'll be focusing on three primary pillars of any multiplayer-only title: map design, gunplay, and long-term fun factor.
Without good maps, a multiplayer game fails regardless of its other mechanics. Games that have stood the test of time, and some that haven't, live and die based on the quality of the playspaces they offer. Insurgency Sandstorm is no different.
My general impression of the maps is as follows: they will win no awards for ingenuity, nuance, or innovation, but they do the job.
Maps follow a three-lane structure, usually with two lanes relatively open for snipers and DMR users to control, and a middle lane best suited for ARs and SMGs.
Objectives are almost purely the purview of close-quarters weapons, usually located in a building with tight corridors and more than a few corners for planters. Certain maps spice things up with points sitting in open-air spaces, but usually, offer plenty of low cover so you can crouch or go prone.
Initial spawns are somewhat inconsistent, with some maps having respawn points with short, direct paths to an objective for one team and a challenging, longer route for the other. Because guns kill so quickly in this game, it's harder to flank than more mainstream titles. Miss one enemy and you'll find your sneaky maneuver fail in less time than it takes to blink. If you pull it off, though, that's a lot of points on the board.
Probably the biggest problem with the maps is also a spawn area issue. There are one too many sightlines that look almost directly into an enemy uncap, leading to many frustrating deaths from someone (especially snipers) holding the sightline you have to take to get to the objective.
However, I am impressed by the level of complexity on show.
Most maps offer at least three alternate routes to an objective, though there are a few exceptions. Verticality is hard to pull off when player movement is as sluggish as it is in Sandstorm. Here, though, there are plenty of power positions, rooftops, awnings, and other geometry to climb on that don't completely break map flow.
The maps are sizeable, too, and depending on the game mode, they create a real sense of progress and sometimes story as you take objectives and advance.
Sure, there are consistency problems, but no map ever made is perfect on every pixel.
Insurgency Sandstorm will not please everyone with how the guns feel. Most weapons lack easy recoil control, even with a grip equipped, and they will send your aim into the sky at the earliest opportunity.
You are, as with actual guns, best-suited tap firing from anything except point blank range, and thankfully, you can switch the fire mode on every weapon save the single-shot rifles and snipers (for obvious reasons).
Ever the workhorse of the FPS, the AR class is the best overall weapon system to use for new players or players who want fast but consistent gameplay. Each of them is functional at medium range, and while they don't drop enemies quite as quickly as SMGs do up close, their utility sets them apart.
Guns in Sandstorm kill in one or two bullets, three or maybe four if your opponent is wearing heavy body armor. SMGs take a little more to get through kevlar, but they fire quickly enough and reliably enough from the hip that you're almost uncontested up close.
The problem? Because they kick so hard and shoot so fast, anything outside of close range is almost impossible to connect, especially when you factor in damage drop off.
Designated Marksman Rifles
Bundled with the ARs in the class creation screen, the DMR serves as a middle ground between a sniper and assault rifle. Semi-automatic and high damage, they falter a little bit up close but will outclass an M16 or AK at distance every time.
Their recoil is easier to control because of the need for a new trigger pull every shot, and if you're quick, you'll be taking down bad guys with one shot to the stomach and up.
The shotguns are usable at a surprising range, and if you manage to get up in someone's face, they're going down nine times out of 10. The pump action is also quick enough that, if you have the drop on a group of enemies, you'll likely be able to take out several of them at once.
As one-shot-kills to almost every area of the body, snipers are some of the most powerful weapons in all of Insurgency Sandstorm, but they're hamstrung by slow rates of fire, low magazine sizes, and a general need to be at a significant distance to play their role correctly.
The aggressive sniper playstyle is still possible, and incredibly effective, but you don't have nearly as much room for error as in other titles. One miss and you aren't just dead. You no longer exist.
Is Insurgency Sandstorm fun? Yes, but not always for the reasons you might expect.
The gameplay is perfectly serviceable and offers plenty of opportunities for crazy moments, clutch plays, and close calls. If you stripped it of most of the communication and spectator options, leaving it as a rote shooter, it wouldn't stand out, but it wouldn't be the bottom of the barrel, either.
What sets Sandstorm apart for me is its dedication to a more old-school style of player connection:
- A comma rose of functional but fun and silly voice commands (insert Need Smoke spam here)
- Open mics across the whole team, and that includes the enemy at the end of a round
- Glitchy, sometimes unpolished character animations that are more charming than they are off-putting
The community helps too.
Sure, you'll get your share of trolls, racists, and other unmentionable people, but odds are, with a player base as small and dedicated as Insurgency's, you'll be laughing at someone's antics more often than you will be yelling at their anger.
People I ran into were willing to help, apologized when they made mistakes, and were ready, willing, and able to play the less desirable roles for the good of the team. Maybe I got lucky, but I spent much of my time playing Insurgency Sandstorm in stitches.
- Unforgiving, satisfying combat: Sandstorm's combat loop is up there as one of the most enjoyable I've played. It's fast, the weapons are enjoyable to use and master, and demand concentration and skill to use effectively
- Communication options that facilitate fun: Offering a commo rose in the vein of Team Fortress 2 and a wide variety of amusing voice commands, Sandstorm allows it's player to create enjoyment on top of its high quality gameplay.
- Average maps: There's nothing special or revolutionary about Insurgency Sandstorm's maps, and when the core gameplay is solid, their mundanity really stands out.
- Graphical Inferiority: Like the maps, the graphics in Sandstorm are at par or maybe just above it. They won't win any awards, and despite the glitchy animations adding character to the game, nothing about this game's aesthetic puts it heads or tails above any other shooter out there.
Overall, I had a pretty good time with Insurgency Sandstorm. There were a few hiccups that soured my experience from time to time, and I know for a fact that the game is not for everyone.
It is unapologetic in holding onto its niche, and much of its design will turn off players used to a more casual experience. But if you're into a more hardcore experience that's still got some quality of life mechanics, you're likely to find hours of fun in this gem in the desert.
[Note: The developer provided a copy of Insurgency Sandstorm for the purpose of this review.]