Insurgency: Sandstorm's PvE mode is immense fun in beta, but needs much better AI

Insurgency: Sandstorm, the third game in the series that began as a Source Engine mod in 2007, has been delayed. Originally planned for a September launch, Sandstorm's release was pushed back to December 12 as developer New World Interactive announced it need extra time to make improvements, upgrade to Unreal Engine 4.20, and 'deliver the best experience possible.'

In the meantime, I tried out the PvE mode in the Sandstorm beta. It's an objective-based horde mode in which players push across maps while battling scores of AI enemies and completing one of three objectives: capturing points, defending points, or blowing up enemy supplies. It's not as deep as a good Payday 2 mission, but it's not as simplistic as a Call of Duty Zombies match, either.

When it comes to combat, Sandstorm delivers that trademark Insurgency brutality with gusto, even in beta. The Insurgency series has always leaned towards realism where it could, and that continues here. An unthinking player will go down hard if they aren’t careful. Shotguns hit like a truck, even at ranges far beyond the standard videogame expectations. This dedication to realistic gunplay creates a distinct pacing in Insurgency where players might spend several minutes hiding in a corner, listening anxiously for footsteps, only to pop out and frantically deliver a headshot on a single enemy. A traditional horde mode pushes you to kill everything you see, but Insurgency’s realistic combat encourages avoidance-heavy play instead, setting it apart from many other horde mode games out there.

Combat clarity could be improved, however: the best shooters communicate heavily with their players by using identifiable silhouettes, smart sound design, and rich feedback to avoid confusing the player. The sound design in beta is a disparate mix that makes it difficult to tell if a friend or enemy is nearby, and that can be frustrating in a game so reliant on sound for positioning. Enemy silhouettes could be a lot clearer, and hit markers or hit sounds would make the combat more readable, though that might stray from the game’s attempts to feel realistic.

There are performance issues throughout, but New World Interactive’s delay will hopefully result in better optimization. Unfortunately, the AI is going to need a significant amount of work as well. There are moments where it can seem clever: planning an ambush or lying in wait in dark corners for unsuspecting players. At other times, an enemy might spin 180 degrees to pick players off across the map, or become so focused on one player that they completely ignore others and expose themselves for an easy kill.

It would be great if the AI was a bit more human-like, focusing on self-preservation and only possessing knowledge of what it could actually see and hear. Right now, the AI seems so stupid that it has to cheat to keep up, which can make combat encounters feel unfair.

Making progress

Sandstorm’s progression system is cosmetic-only. You earn cash by completing missions, and you can spend that cash to buy the cosmetics you want. It’s a fair, easy-to-follow system that rewards you without feeling exploitative. 

Gear customization is based on points, with a set amount of items you can carry, so if you want heavy armor and a modded shotgun, you might not be able to carry any grenades. This pick-and-choose system gives players the freedom to make interesting tactical choices right away, but it also means there are no new skills or tools that can be discovered later on. New World has made a deliberate choice with this system, and it might not satisfy everyone.

Despite the issues I encountered, Insurgency: Sandstorm is immense fun that manages to successfully differentiate itself from other horde mode games out there. If the lack of a progression system is a positive and not a negative for you, then there's little to worry about outside the AI and performance. Hopefully New World Interactive can polish it successfully in time for launch, with special attention focused on improving the bots.