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‘Insurgency: Sandstorm’ Hunts for Balance Between Realism and Arcade Shooter

In retrospect, we never had a chance. When “Insurgency: Sandstorm” developers New World Interactive shepherded a ragtag troop of games journalists and everyday players into their crowded E3 booth and told us to mount a mission to capture territory from an opposing AI-controlled faction, it was pretty clear from the outset that our chances were slim. Again and again, our platoon fell to the enemy with comical efficiency as we scrambled over one another, blocking each other’s shots and clotting into nice fat targets for our enemies to blow apart with airstrikes or grenades. When a producer on the game cautioned us to use voice-chat to better coordinate our wandering mass of soldiers, one teammate used it to complain that the unused bullets in his magazines were mysteriously lost whenever he reloaded, instead of magically replenishing back into his ammo pool. To this, another soul simply replied: “buddy, if that bothers you, maybe you’re in the wrong booth.”

Compared to the action-movie thrills of the likes of “Call of Duty” – where your badass super-soldier can take five doses of hot lead to the face and still salute and answer “sir” – “Insurgency’s” more-exacting brand of tactical close-quarters combat can seem a tad stolid, even punishing, especially when death comes from an single errant shot from an opponent’s AK. But lead game designer Michael Tsarouhas doesn’t see it that way; while he fully admits that “Insurgency” is a more grounded version of the quote-unquote “modern warfare” that great masses of gamers can’t get enough of, he sees New World’s output as the center of a broad spectrum that runs from the jump-jets and healing-rifles of “Overwatch” to the ultra-hardcore simulation-grade approach of the “Arma” series.

“In my own way, I love games that take it that far, like ‘Call of Duty,’ where you can sprint forever, jump really high,” he says. “But, in “Arma,” some people think that the experience can get a little too complex for their tastes. Games like it and “Escape from Tarkov” have their place, but not everybody wants to spend twenty minutes wandering through some woods only to get shot in the back by some guy. With our games, we try to find a balance between the two, and I think we’ve found an audience that appreciates that.”

“Insurgency” first sputtered to life as a free, ambitious modification for Valve’s Source engine back in 2007, emerging from a failed Kickstarter campaign as a standalone project in the early 2010’s. After a lengthy stint in Early Access, New World’s baby finally stood on top of the mountain as one of the most popular shooters on Steam, eventually selling millions of copies and winning an enthusiastic but demanding fanbase. But now, after supporting the game for nearly three years with free updates – as well as shipping a similarly-”hardcore” World War 2 shooter titled “Day of Infamy” – New World felt that it was time to release a full-blown sequel to the property that put them on the map.

But the project was immediately beset by a considerable crisis; originally, the developer planned to include a lengthy campaign for solo or cooperative players, but they were forced to scrub that from the drawing board when creative director and co-founder Andrew Spearin left the company in early January to pursue other opportunities. Still, in Tsarouhas’s words, “Sandstorm” is more about augmenting the core shooting than anything else, rather than grafting bells and whistles onto their winning concepts.

“The list of things we wanted to do just kept growing and growing,” he says. “We want to move to a new engine – Source is 2002-era technology, you know. We want to improve mantling. We want to put in artillery and airstrikes, just like in Day of Infamy. And, of course, we want to put in more maps, weapons, and modes. With “Sandstorm,” we’re going to be able to tackle all of those things at once for our fans, and make the “Insurgency” experience that much better. And we’ll be supporting it with free updates, just like the original.”

For those who savor the sickening thud that washes through your headphones as a rocket smashes into a building beside you, or the subsonic crack of a barrage of bullets narrowly missing your head, “Sandstorm” will give you the cup of strong but familiar tea that you so thirst for. It doesn’t rearrange itself for the sake of simple novelty, but, like the ancient AK-47s that have so often claimed my life in its ruined cities of broken clay and rusted jeeps, sometimes a classic design just keeps on working.

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