Insurgency: Modern Infantry Combat was something of a pioneer for modern tactical shooters when it first arrived as a Half-Life 2 mod a decade ago. Conceived by Canadian Army veteran Andrew Spearin and supported by Red Orchestra mod founder Jeremy Blum, Insurgency: MIC made a name for itself by focusing on hardcore realism and infantry warfare. Elements such as a lack of crosshairs and deadlier gun behavior (players could die in one or two shots) resonated with a segment of the first-person shooter crowd, giving rise to a passionate following.
A sequel to the mod, simply titled Insurgency, was one of the earliest Steam Early Access titles when it became available in March 2013. The game exited Early Access and launched in early 2014 going on to sell over three million copies. With strong sales, the opening of a new Amsterdam studio, and a growing staff, developer New World Interactive channeled all of their talent and resources into crafting an ambitious sequel, Insurgency: Sandstorm.
Sandstorm aims to improve on the aspects that brought Insurgency to the dance while diversifying the experience to reach new players. I had a chance to speak with Spearin, creative director on the project, about the new features coming to Insurgency: Sandstorm and how it differentiates itself from the original game.
Same Hardcore Approach, New Twists
Insurgency: Sandstorm retains the realistic gunplay that made the series into, as Spearin jokingly described, the “Dark Souls of shooters.” He went on to elaborate on what he meant, saying, “We're keeping the same recipe that we've established. So it'll be the same weapon handling that Insurgency has, which means that there's no cross-hair. There's a free aim area where you can point your weapon within, so you can't just put a dot on your screen and hit the [trigger] consistently. You have to rely on your weapon sights to aim accurately and control your recoil, that sort of stuff.”
A new ballistic system introduces realistic bullet drop, travel time, and ricochet. Sandstorm also adds environmental interactions such as ladder climbing, vaulting, and door breaching. One example is that players can shoot the hinges off doors and kick them down. New World also plans to incorporate features from its other title, Day of Infamy, such as fire support which allows players to call in bombers for artillery support. A progression system that bestows cosmetic items to players as they climb the ranks is also planned. And, of course, mod support will continue to exist in the PC version of Sandstorm. “Restarting our mod roots, it's very important for us, and we want to grow the next generation of indie devs through our platform,” said Spearin.
Adjusting To The Console Audience
In addition to PC, Insurgency: Sandstorm is coming to Xbox One and PlayStation 4. This marks the series’ first appearance on consoles. When I asked about the potential difficulty of translating the franchise’s hardcore controls to a console layout, Spearin told me that the team is mindful of the challenge and aims to adjust the controls without losing Insurgency’s signature realism.
“We're looking to auto-aim and the typical shooter console features that are wired to make it a little easier for a controller. “Spearin stated firmly before going on to affirm that the series would not lose its signature style, “But at the same time, Insurgency benefits from minimalism, and in its design that kind of heightens the realism and intensity, not necessarily an overcomplexity. So if you look at a game like ARMA where yeah, every key on the keyboard does something. But when you play Insurgency, it's still very basic controls. So we want to maintain that simplicity in our approach to the design. That's what makes it easier to translate over to the consoles.”
A Graphics Overhaul
Being a Half-Life 2 mod means both Insurgency and its mod predecessor were developed using the Source Engine, which limited the scope of the maps. For Sandstorm, New World Interactive has switched to Unreal Engine 4, with the team citing the graphical difference as “night and day” compared to the earlier titles. Unreal 4’s tech granted designers the horsepower to craft more visually impressive maps that are also more spacious than Insurgency's compact arenas.
Players Won’t Have To Only Get Around On Foot
Over the years, a segment of fans have requested that vehicles be added to Insurgency. However, the limitations of Source Engine made it impossible to do so. Sandstorm finally grants this wish, but if you’re a purist concerned about the game going the route of Battlefield, take solace in the fact that players won’t be obliterating buildings with tanks or flying around in helicopters. “We are still focused on that infantry combat, kind of close quarters but it's going to be a little wider. Spearin explained. “It's going to be primarily pick-up trucks with mounted machine guns and transportation trucks, that kind of thing.” Sandstorm is being designed with vehicles in mind, with appropriate game modes such as a convoy ambush.
Enriching Competitive Play
Spearin assures that multiplayer will maintain the same tweaks and balancing the team has spent years perfecting. Like the current Insurgency, Sandstorm’s online multiplayer supports up to 32 players. The game also features a competitive 5v5 mode and a separate co-op focused mode that will support up to eight players. New World Interactive has taken the popularity of eSports into account, with Spearin stating “Our own community with Insurgency has been very demanding about a lot of features over the years. Like matchmaking, ranks and leaderboards. So we are investing that effort into Sandstorm for that competitive crowd.”
Weaving A Thoughtful Narrative
A cinematic story campaign is Sandstorm’s most significant addition. Played alone or with up to four players cooperatively, Sandstorm tells the tale of a female paramilitary soldier who, as a child, was enslaved by radical insurgents along with her sister and best friend. When a skirmish erupted during a violent sandstorm, the wall to their prison was blown open by fire, which allowed the girls to escape. However, the protagonist and her sister became separated in the disorienting storm. Fast forward to present day, the protagonist and her best friend now fight against the forces that once oppressed them.
One day the women uncover vital information that drives them to break away from their squad and set off on their own journey. Joining them is a former US veteran of the Iraq War who volunteers with the rebel force, and an adventure-seeking French citizen with zero combat experience. Spearin describes their quest as a “road trip across the desert,” where they’ll encounter a variety of people and locations and bond through the hardships the journey brings.
Spearin stated the story drew inspiration from several different sources, including current events unfolding in present-day Iraq and the Iraqi war documentary Peshmerga. New World Interactive’s goal is to ditch the mindless nature of shooters and help players to understand who they’re pointing a gun at and why. “We wanted to highlight [the conflict in Iraq] because in the news you hear like oh, U.S. and NATO are supporting the Kurds, and not many people really understand what that means, who these people are and why.” Spearin continued, “In a way, that's what people want: to immerse themselves in a mindless time period with games. But when you come out of it, you can look at the real world and think ‘Oh wow, I have a better understanding of what's going on now’ or ‘I want to start learning more.’”
New World Interactive hopes to hold a closed alpha for Insurgency: Sandstorm later this year, with a full release scheduled for sometime in 2018. With the move to consoles and the addition of a cinematic story mode, it’ll be interesting to see if the game can find a new player base in the ultra-saturated shooter market. Spearin feels confident that Sandstorm’s more grounded, thoughtful take on the genre will not only help it stand out, but provide a welcome change from the norm.
“In order to stand out you have to do something innovative. You need to catch people's attention in a different way. I think when a saturated market exists, fans are looking for something different. They get tired of the same old franchise regenerating the same old gameplay with a different skin on top, right? They want somebody who is taking the challenge and the risk to come up with something new. Now it's like ‘let's bring that to more people.’”
Edited by Marcus Stewart