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Insurgency: Sandstorm has the best horde mode I’ve played this year

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Multiplayer tactical shooter has a lot to offer

Security forces kick in a door, a flashbang grenade held at the ready, in Insurgency: Sandstorm New World Interactive/Focus Home Interactive

I still regret sleeping on the original Insurgency, a hardcore tactical shooter that launched in 2014. It received a lot of good buzz among fans of the genre, so I decided to keep tabs on its sequel, Insurgency: Sandstorm, which launched on Steam today. After just a few hours with the game, it’s clear that it’s still rough around the edges. But it might just have one of the best cooperative modes from any first-person shooter that I’ve played all year.

The mode in question is called Checkpoint, and it launches a team of eight players into a pitched battle against waves of enemy AI. Every session has its own kind of narrative, converting a very technical shooter into a thrilling combination of Call of Duty’s classic Domination and an edge-of-your-seat horde mode.

When a mission begins, players find themselves in the back of a pickup truck driving toward a raid on an enemy compound. When the tailgate drops it’s a fairly linear push on the first objective, giving everyone a decent chance to warm themselves up. That’s when things get interesting.

Once that first objective is captured it’s on to the second, which is generally located in a more exposed location. By the time you reach the third of fourth objective, the enemy could be coming from any direction. Players’ ability moderate the pace of the fight is crucial, as is good communication. Luckily Sandstorm has an excellent radio model, allowing players to talk to allies in close proximity as well as all the way across the map.

Another key to Checkpoint’s excellent pacing is the way it forces you to manage your resources. The act of reloading, for instance, is modeled very differently in Sandstorm than it is in other games. You can take your time if you like, carefully removing an empty magazine and placing into in your chest rig to use later. Or you can double-tap the reload button to drop the mag on the ground and get back into the fight.

An insurgent fires an RPK from cover in Insurgency: Sandstorm.
Insurgency features an experience system which grants cosmetic unlocks. Among the first that I was able to earn was a new pattern of head scarf for the insurgents.
New World Interactive/Focus Home Interactive

But the number of magazines you can carry is finite, and leaving your kit scattered around the map reduces the effectiveness of your main weapon. Protracted standoffs regularly reduce one or both sides to their sidearms. When you do manage to clear out the enemy, that’s the time to spend a few extra seconds to fully resupply at a weapons crate.

Health in Sandstorm feels fairly abstracted, but in a good way. Players aren’t made of glass, but they aren’t invincible either. You’ll go down eventually if the AI lands three or four shots at range, and even faster if you turn the wrong way in close quarters. But when I feel pressure from the enemy, and they do land a few shots, there’s a good chance I can maneuver out of harm’s way where my health can recharge. The result is that lending fire support to other players is both impactful and necessary.

Once you reach and clear the final objective, that’s when you’re tasked with holding it at all costs. This is where the game’s unique class system comes in. In addition to a generic rifleman and a heavy weapons guy, there’s also a commander and an observer class that can work together to bring in artillery and helicopter support. There’s a breacher that can make short work of the enemy in close quarters, and an advisor that supplies an exotic selection of additional small arms into the fight.

But getting those more elite classes together during the endgame standoff can be challenging. That’s because each player has only one life to live during the assault on each objective. If you go down early on, it’s up to your team to finish the fight without you.

The game offers dozens of weapons right from the get go, with a myriad of options including magnified optics, bipods, and extended magazines. I quickly fell in love with the FN FAL, which offers excellent stopping power up close and precision at range.

What was so bizarre is that I didn’t have to unlock anything. It was all just there, waiting in the character selection screen for me to pick my favorite bits. There are limits, however. It seems like there’s a finite number of each of the higher-end items, especially body armor, that are made available at the start of every mission.

I mentioned the game’s roughness, and it’s noticeable in both obvious and strange ways. There’s the usual framiness that is common in multiplayer shooters on launch day, which required me to turn all the settings down to medium and eliminate post processing. Even now things get a little crazy during close quarters battles.

Animations feel wooden, with almost none of the gracefulness on display in modern AAA shooters. But there’s also a lot of clipping issues. Kicking down doors is a neat mechanic, but seeing them hung up on the terrain while allies phase right through them is distracting.

Additionally, the game’s fiction has some challenging international optics. You will definitely be playing as either an insurgent or as a member of a security force in places that feel an awful lot like Iraq and Afghanistan. Graffiti includes references to the indelible ink used to mark voter’s fingers during elections and elaborate tobacco pipes are common bits of window dressing. Sandstorm’s voiceover work does a decent job to mitigate some of these cultural issues. Both sides of a fight sound like they could include multinational forces, and there are female avatars, albeit only on the side of security. That makes the game feel, at the very least, like an equal opportunity offender.

Insurgency: Sandstorm also includes a robust multiplayer component, including ranked play. But, for now, I’m more than happy with the cooperative mode. At full price, the game sells for $29.99 on Steam. Expect to see it on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One next year.