When I volunteered to write about Insurgency: Sandstorm's first beta test, I’d imagined that the experience would be a fun, weekend-long period of exciting FPS action. That’s what I got, sure, but not without some excruciating moments that pervaded the overall experience. I couldn’t even connect to a single match on the first day, while the second day saw far more time spent battling performance issues than enemy players. It was only on the third day that the previous day’s patch suddenly seemed to work and I could run the game - for some matches - decently.
I hope the performance issues get ironed out quickly and in time for Sandstorm’s September release, because the game itself is enjoyable. The principles are the same as its Source-powered predecessor - it's a semi-realistic shooter in which Security forces and Insurgents battle each other in objective-based modes. (Alternately, up to 8 players can tackle AI enemies in co-op.) Players pick a class and customise their chosen weapons with various attachments. It's no sim, but death comes fast, recoil has to be controlled and teamwork is necessary. Sandstorm introduces new features beyond a fresh look, more equipment and the use of a new engine (Unreal 4), resulting in a sequel that feels both familiar yet different.
The maps, for instance, are wider and more spacious than before. In co-op, it means a higher chance of being flanked by enemies. In player vs player games, it means… well, it also means a higher chance of being flanked by enemies. It’s definitely something I’ll have to get used to. The new design also makes the action a little more spread out, thus making things a little less intense in a way, but it’s not a change I’d necessarily label as negative. It’s a change of pace, a breath of fresh air, different but still satisfactory in its own way. That said, it might prove to be a concern in the near future. Pushes feel less concentrated, and teams tend to be more scattered. Combined with the slightly more arcadey feel of Sandstorm, things feel a little closer to Battlefield 4 than the tight focus of Insurgency and Day of Infamy, although objectives do at least draw players to them naturally.
Classes have gone through some changes as well, in addition to receiving a host of new stuff. Options for both guns and attachments have increased, almost doubled I’d say, with weapons like the G36K and MP7 making an appearance. Of the classes themselves, the familiar Riflemen and Demolitions classes make a return, but there are a few new ones to slip into. Most notable are the Commander and Observer, who play a role similar to the Officer and Radioman in Day of Infamy. This duo works together to call in a variety of fire support, from artillery to choppers, so it’s perhaps good that the maps are a bit more spread out. Unfortunately, I seldom noticed their presence. Another new name that stands out is the Advisor, whose standout feature is having unique weaponry. Some of the old classes have been replaced by these new ones, others renamed - the Support and Machine Gunner classes are simply called the Gunner now.
Movement has gotten smoother, although the new vaulting system is quite unwieldy. More than half the time, I’d attempt to climb through a window and end up jumping side to side instead. Technicals add further speed alongside firepower, although I wasn’t able to properly determine their efficiency. On the flip side to the quicker movement, chemical mortars - one of the new fire support choices - can slow advances with their deadly gases, making the new gas masks nifty. The inclusion of doors slows down entries - could an enemy be right behind it, ready to shoot? - although players can opt to knock them down instead of simply opening them for a cool entry.
Despite what I said about things feeling a “little less intense”, the incredible audio effortlessly draws you in and puts you on edge. On Facebook, developer New World Interactive showed off a video explaining how sound is affected by distance and objects in the environment. My appreciation for the audio stems from a simpler fact - the guns sound both amazing and scary. Every time I looked away from the screen to scribble some notes, the gunshots would genuinely instil dread and nervousness in me. From the loud crack of a gun in the distance to the sound of an MP7 spitting bullets at close range, the audio is a standout feature, as it should be. Even the act of reloading is extremely satisfying to listen to, especially in areas where the sound echoes. The feeling of firing a gun is solid as well, and the ragdolling and dismemberment add to the ferocity of combat.
Death by performance
Pre-patch, Sandstorm ran on my laptop as if it was the second coming of Crysis. Post-patch, the performance was an evolving one. At first, it wasn’t uncommon to hit over 40 FPS on medium settings at 1080p, even touching 50 to 60 FPS, although they were offset by massive dips that were all-too common. Later, there were occasional matches that managed to mostly maintain a consistent frame rate, although things were near-unplayable most of the time.
For most of the beta, changing the settings and even the resolution did nothing to help the game’s performance. But on the fourth day, while having a steady but 30-35 FPS experience on the Refinery map, I found that knocking my resolution to 720p suddenly had a noticeable effect, bringing my FPS to the 50-60 range whereas previous resolution changes did pretty much nothing.
My laptop admittedly falls on the lower-budget end of PC gaming, so I feared that even if Sandstorm didn’t look great, it was expected that my machine would struggle with it. However, I checked out both Reddit and the Steam forums and it turns out that even people with high end systems had posted complaints; conversely, some with more modest specs have had a fairly smooth experience. I ultimately started a thread on Steam to see how gamers with the same card as mine - a GTX 1050 - were faring. While the answers were predictably somewhat varied just like their specs, all were able to hit playable frame rates at 1080p (although one complained of severe FPS drops), and expectations are that things will only improve once further optimising is done.
Sandstorm’s visuals aren’t jaw-dropping and it certainly isn’t the second coming of Crysis, but there is a greater sense of detail and colour in the environment compared to the first game, and it can look pretty nice. This is especially true of interior sections, particularly living areas and such. It’s also good to have more visual variety with the maps (there are 3 in the beta) instead of having a single desert theme. Refinery is, well, a refinery with heavy doses of industrial grey and many vertical platforms. Hideout offers a sunny island getaway. Farmhouse is the only one that hews closely to the first game’s style.
Despite the improvements however, Sandstorm doesn’t quite feel like a big visual upgrade. For one thing, it seems to look a less crisp and gritty than its predecessor. It doesn’t really scream “new” either; Refinery in particular just looks rather dated to me. The other visual-related problem is the design of the new uniforms - while not much of a issue most of the time, it can be hard to tell the difference between friend or foe. It could simply be a matter of getting used to things though, as I did overcome a similar problem in Day of Infamy.
I don’t mind the visuals that much at the moment, provided that the game can run smoothly on launch day. I’m a little concerned however that one month won’t be enough for New World Interactive to get everything mostly fixed. Still, the second beta test that’s happening at the end of this month might instil confidence yet, and a comment from one of NWI’s staff suggests that they know what they’re doing. Fingers crossed, then.
Insurgency: Sandstorm releases on PC in September 18. In the meantime, you can download the first Insurgency on Steam as it’s free for a limited time only.