Insurgency preview: blending tactical realism with FPS fun

Ian Birnbaum at

It's just the two of us: me and my companion, a real-life infantry lieutenant. He's in full-on Army Officer Mode—every few seconds, I’m briefed on the proper way to breach a room or clear a hallway, and I’m a little surprised when it works perfectly. Whenever an enemy comes rushing through a doorway, we're already watching and take him down easily. Carefully, we kill our way through the sprawling Iraqi ministry building full of AI enemies to bask in our tactical victory.

We’re playing Insurgency, an urban combat shooter with an outspoken devotion to realism. “Realism” can mean a lot of different things in a shooter, but here it mostly refers to the absence of radar or heads-up displays that guide players through dangerous environments. Insurgency debuted in 2007 as a full-conversion mod for Half-Life 2. Years after the mod won awards and was downloaded a million times in its first week, a standalone version is working its way through Steam Early Access toward a final release.

It is already a ridiculously good time, and I’m pleased to see that the devotion to realism ends before it starts interfering with fun. Even in heavy gear, you run much faster in Insurgency than you can in Arma 3, and these adrenaline-charged sprints help break up the cautious, creeping tactics of the most dangerous alleys and corners. Realism also takes a back seat to supercharged weapon effects, with bullets kicking up huge clouds of shrapnel and plaster when they strike walls. After a large grenade explosion, my Army companion confirms that real-life grenades are not that powerful.

Insurgency is defined less by the reality it occasionally worships and more by the features it purposely lacks. There is no enemy damage notification, no ammo count, and no danger direction indicator. Though you can track how many magazines you have, you can’t know how many bullets you’ve got until reload unless you’ve been counting your shots. One or two hits to center-mass will take you down, and no health packs or recharging shields will rescue you from death.

All of the flashing lights and bells that I’m so used to relying on in first-person shooters are absent, and the resulting game is slower and more intense—if you’re willing to play along. The truth about tactical simulations, from Rainbow Six to Arma, is that there’s usually a bit of roleplaying required. That makes Insurgency really two games: the one you play with friends and the one you play with everyone else. Our small group is in voice chat, constantly communicating, a small, professional pack on the prowl. As soon as more players join the server, they sprint ahead to grab kills and rack up points. The larger a team is, the more disposable its individual members become, and reckless behavior isn’t as brutally punished. In a smaller game, charging to your death in exchange for one or two kills would be disastrous for your friends. In large battles with random players, this behavior is practically encouraged; you just need to wait until your next respawn to do it again, earning points for your team as you go.

It’s during large battles that bits of twitch gameplay start to creep through the tactical facade, and Insurgency feels more like modded Counter-Strike than reborn Rainbow Six. An in-game economy of supply points unlocks different weapons, add-ons, and ammunition types, and you gain points when you make kills or capture points. Playing as a support soldier putting down covering fire goes unrewarded, and it is the rush to earn kills that drives the run-and-gun players I see online. If a game is truly tactical, it should reward teamplay and communication, not scalp collection. I’d like to see the supply-point economy adjusted before launch.

That said, it’s to Insurgency’s immense credit that even when it feels like little more than a hard-mode Counter-Strike, it’s a version of Counter-Strike that’s still great fun. Once the game hits a finished release and the player and server population grows, I have no doubt that custom servers with hardcore roleplayers will pop up and wage large-scale PvP war without sacrificing the pacing and realism that makes Insurgency so special.