Quite a bit changed over the year since I last saw Insurgency: Sandstorm. Creative Director Andrew Spearin (who I interviewed at E3 last year) departed New World Interactive. Its highly-touted story mode has been cancelled. New World narrowed the focus to double-down on what brought Insurgency to the dance: its brutally realistic multiplayer.
I had a chance to play a few rounds of multiplayer alongside seven other teammates. Our objective was to secure a checkpoint, but that was easier said than done. Insurgency’s focus on realism means taking one or two good shots ends the player’s life. The intelligent AI regularly flanked and swarmed us when we least expected it. Teamwork became a necessity; lone wolves rarely lasted long trying to reach the objective on their own. Although the game was rough around the edge, fans of the original Insurgency should be glad to know that Sandstorm, thus far, continues the series’ reputation as a grounded, skill-based shooter.
After my session concluded I had the opportunity to speak with Insurgency’s lead designer, Michael Tsaroushas. We chatted about the various changes and roadblocks to hit the project in the last year, translating the PC experience to consoles, and the reason behind the story mode’s cancellation.
Run through what's changed with Insurgency since I saw you guys last year.
Michael: As you know we cancelled our story mode that was going to be for release. That is something we're going to reconsider after launch. We're focusing on a multiplayer experience, which includes cooperative multiplayer, 5v5 competitive matchmaking, adversarial traditional multiplayer, which is 16v16. Included in that are a lot of different improvements, a lot of new stuff since Insurgency, our previous game; new fire support mechanics, calling in helicopters, airstrikes, artillery, vaulting, door breaching, improved ballistic system. It's a hybrid between hit-scan and simulated ballistics depending on the distance of the bullet. Vehicles, character customization, a lot of different things we've been working on the last year.
How was it designing that AI? I just finished playing a few rounds of the 8-player squad against a team of bots to try and capture an objective, and that AI is rough.
I'm glad you feel that way. That's what we're going for [laughs]. In Insurgency, we had cooperative modes. We started out way back in the day with an adversarial game, but we explored all this cooperative play, and it ended up working really well. So, we dedicate a lot of resources in making sure our cooperative experience is just as fun as our adversarial- just as fun as our competitive experience. And you can see just in Checkpoint Mode, which is what we played today, [the AI] come at you, they’re very aggressive. They die just as fast as you, and I think when you have that, a high lethality game, the stakes are really high and you need to be really careful. And that's what make it fun.
Are they especially reactive? I noticed I would kill one and then all of a sudden I would turn a corner and there's five of them just coming at me.
Yeah, it's that kind of intensity that we want. That kind of fear, that kind of tension that we want. Like, “oh no, I have to be careful”.
Have you guys added any new vehicles? I know last year you guys specifically mentioned jeeps and other vehicles. But you guys were also stressing that you weren't trying to be like Battlefield.
Correct. We don't have tanks, we don't have any heavy vehicles. All of our vehicles are light. Trucks with machine guns on them. They're really interesting to play with because they're kind of like mobile turrets in a way. Not a lot of games do their vehicles that way but we found that that works pretty well for us. You have a shield for your turret. If you place it in the right position and watch, then you can screw them up, mess their day up real bad. We also have the fire support vehicles I was talking about. Those you don't drive, though. The trucks you drive. It's like when 2-player classes come together they can call in an airstrike, they can call in a helicopter.
Has anything changed in the last year in terms of looking at other shooters and trends that have arisen–battle royale specifically?
[laughs] It's hot right now. You know, we've talked about it in the past on our team. "Hey, I think we could do a cool battle royale". But it's not really what we want to do right now. It's not important to us at the moment. I don't think it's important to our community either. So maybe we'll explore post-release, but right now we don't have any plans for that. We'll see. As far as other trends go, I think we've been pretty solid with our vision for the past year. Since we cancelled the story mode for release we've been really focused on polishing and refining the multiplayer experience and expanding too.
Can you talk about what brought about the cancellation of that story mode? When did that decision happen? It was still, at least this time last year, very much a thing. I watched a big trailer for it. What happened with that?
Well frankly, we bit off more than we chew. We are a small studio. We're doing a lot of new stuff here [with a] new engine. We worked on Source, which came out in 2003. We're on Unreal Engine 4, which came out very recently, and we had to account for that. We had to account for the fact that we want to be on console. We had to account for the fact that we were really building a whole new platform, and we're a small team. There's like 36 of us, and we're spread all around the world. We have a couple different studios in Denver, Amsterdam, and we came to a realization that if we really want to deliver the experience people know us for, we should focus on it. And that led us to the decision.
And you said it’s not a totally done thing? It could return in the future?
After release we're going to reconsider it. At the moment we're just focused on the multiplayer.
How's it been working on consoles for the first time?
It's been interesting. It's been a challenge, of course. We don't have any experience on consoles. There's TRC's, there's certifications that you need to know, and that's been interesting to learn. That console release is also going to be split. That's going to come out in 2019. PC is going to be September, and that has helped us to make sure we focus on one thing at a time.
Let me ask you in regards to the shooting. I think last year one of the devs described it as "The Dark Souls of shooters"
I like that. It is a good way to describe it, at least in the brutality. The unforgivingness.
Yeah, or the realism to a degree. It plays well with mouse and keyboard, but for a controller, have you guys had to pull back on that a little bit for a controller? How has that been translating that control setup?
We definitely maintain the experience. Nothing changes [when] you play with a controller. Honestly, people play Insurgency right now with a controller. We have partial controller support for the Source version of Insurgency.
I played it with a controller.
It feels pretty good, right? It an experience that you can't have on a controller, and by doing that, seeing that in the original Insurgency, that led us to believe “hey, this could work for console.” So we don't really change much from that. We're obviously refining it, we obviously have to take into account key binding space and stuff, maybe do some aim dampening when you analog over something. Other than that, the experience is very similar. And we want that, we don't want to sacrifice our gunplay.
It's kind of your identity as well.
Insurgency: Sandstorm is available now for pre-order on Steam. Doing so gains access to a future beta. To try it out even earlier, New World Interactive is currently taking sign-ups for an upcoming closed alpha. The game arrives in September for PC and comes to consoles in 2019.
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Edited by Marcus Stewart