Sunday, 17 August 2014

Whiskey Reviews: An airborne Insurgency in my pants.

Platform: PC
Release Date: 22 January 2014
Developer: New World Interactive
Publisher: New World Interactive
Where to get it: Steam
Price: Around £10.99

Insurgency recently had the good fortune to go on a free weekend on Steam, coupled with a 50% off sale and having played about 20 minutes of the free download I jumped right in and bought the full version and boy am I glad I did.

Primarily a multiplayer game, Insurgency is the classic tale of CTs, or Security here, versus the Terrorists, or Insurgents in a series of sizable multiplayer maps where teams must capture points, destroy munitions, survive counterattacks and generally shoot each other with fancy guns with gadgets stuck all over them. It sounds a lot like Call Of Duty but it's anything but.

Insurgency is the anti-CoD. It's fast but tactical, people talk about their actions and say things like "friendlies entering" instead of "I fucked your mum last night" and the general community in my experience is friendly, helpful and competent. It's a jarring but pleasant experience to be welcomed and able to cooperate with a group of half a dozen strangers without anyone trying to ruin the fun for everyone else.
This is in part helped by a positional voice chat system built into the game where if you're close enough to an opponent, say on the other side of a wall, you can hear them speaking when they're using the voice chat. You'd think this would put people off of using it altogether but that's not the case and Insurgency is all the better for it.

New World Interactive have also excelled at something many other developers seem to have forgotten about in recent years; top quality, inventive map design. Insurgency's coop maps tend to loop around on themselves. One called Buhriz is a beautiful example of this - you fight your way up a stream and into the outskirts of a small town, effectively changing direction 180 degrees here and fighting through the town to a bridge you passed while in the stream only to change direction near 180 again and fight down a brief valley to the enemy HQ building. Size-wise the map is tiny, but the neat use of design tricks means there's a huge amount of play area jammed into this small map.
This kind of design doesn't just help with gameplay, keeping the map sizes down means a smaller install and shorter loading times for players. I can't say for sure if NWI was really thinking about this aspect when designing the maps but it's a big boon that means you spend less time on loading screens between rounds than many other multiplayer shooters.
There's quite a variety to the maps too, they're all middle-eastern themed but range from fighting through dirty streets at night to assaulting a huge mansion like ministry building complete with underground car park and tense stairwells. One minute you're in a tense shootout across a street and the next you're charging up a hill to engage in a long range firefight against counter attacking insurgents.

Aside from the maps the other star of any multiplayer shooter are the guns. Being that the game is focused heavily on a middle-eastern conflict theme the weapons are fairly predictable and limited but all feel unique enough to ensure that you'll want to give each of them a try at least once.
The M16 is one of the cheapest guns (each class gets a set amount of supply to buy guns and equipment with each round) and features semi-auto and burst fire modes and can be an effective weapon at all ranges even with only a holographic sight on while its Insurgent counterpart the AK has semi and auto fire modes it hits harder and is somewhat more unwieldy in tight spots and suffers in long range engagements.
There's a multitude of other weapons ranging from M9 pistols to M249 light machine guns and even rocket launchers and C4 charges but going in depth about each individual weapon's strengths and weaknesses would not only take too long but be too subjective to be of any use, when you play you'll find your favourites and stick with them for the most part, usually changing it up to add a bit of variety or make yourself more useful on maps where your weapon of choice isn't the best for the situation at hand.
That being said, the weapons fit the theme but it could benefit greatly from an expansion of the theme to include a wider selection of guns and attachments. It feels like weapons such as the L85 and MP5SD or MP5A5 and P90 would be a perfect addition without watering down the formula and the two pistols on offer, while unique in their own way feel like a meager offering when iconic handguns like the Glock and FiveSeven are absent.

Gameplay will be familiar to those who have played the original Red Orchestra (or even the original Insurgency mod for it) with the series telltale floating weapon when it's at your hip making off the hip firing less accurate without messing with the weapons actual stats and turning it into something that requires equal parts skill and luck. Items like the flashlight and laser sight attachments help with off the hip aiming but also serve to give away your position to the enemy and blind teammates if you're not careful where you point them.
Similarly, aiming down the sights is a game of skill, if you put the little red dot over your target, you'll hit. Weapon inaccuracies are measures in millimeters and centimeters over ranges of dozens of yards, they hit where they're pointed for the most part and missing shots is never a case of being screwed over by a hidden spread statistic. This lends a similar air to Insurgency that permeated the original Red Orchestra; it's simple to pick up and play, the weapons hit where you point them but this also means there's a really high skill ceiling for long range shooting and making snap shots when surprised.
Reaction times are more of an issue in the versus mode, but players who suffer from slower reactions than the average caffeine riddled teenager can still find plenty of roles to fill such as covering the rear of a squad, or being the machine gunner and laying down suppressing fire and find a lot of enjoyment in filling a role rather than their kill-death ratio.
Another thing implemented spectacularly is the use of armour piercing ammunition to penetrate (shockingly) armour vests and objects in the game world. It's important to change positions, recognize when the enemy is and isn't firing AP ammunition and whether what you're hiding behind is concealment (e.g. not bullet proof) or cover (is bullet proof). It adds not just a new mechanic to explore but also a new level of tension when dozens of bullets are punching right through the walls all around you and you go scrambling for some proper cover or throw yourself prone and pray you don't get shot in the spleen.

The AI also complements the gameplay nicely. It's a fairly straightforward bot system where they play the objectives and try to kill the opposing team but variances in their reaction times and accuracy make each bot encounter unique. I've seen the bots skills range from firing full-auto at almost point blank and missing every shot to firing a single round from 200 meters and landing a perfect headshot. Occasionally these higher skilled bots can lead to feelings of being cheated but the tactical nature of the overall game minimizes this because at the back of your mind you always know that you didn't have to stick your head out.
The AI utilizes the full array of weapons, confidently and effectively throwing Molotovs and using RPGs to decimate entrenched positions as well as more human tactics such as hiding beneath stairwells or trying to lure you into an ambush and even flanking you. One tactic the AI is especially fond of is utilizing the dark backgrounds in a lot of areas to hide their presence, standing still in the dark to catch out unwary players by getting the first shot off.
Bot difficulty also escalates as you complete objectives in Checkpoint (cooperative) mode, ensuring that they fight more fiercely and competently as you progress through the level. It's a great feeling of escalation, like you're thinning out the chaff and untrained cannon-fodder before getting to the big-boys who have hung back to protect the final few objectives.
While the AI isn't going to win any awards, compared to the bots present in most other multiplayer shooters which are usually just brainless automatons going through the motions and barely even trying to behave like actual players the ones in Insurgency make playing against the bots less of a sad antisocial option and more of an enticing, exciting alternative to the harsher player versus player environment.

The game is graphically average, the weapon models and textures are passable, as are everything else. You won't find anything particularly spectacular but passable doesn't have to mean bad. The textures and models are all high quality and the animations smooth and fluid but they're never going to make you say 'wow, holy shit did you see that?'
The game doesn't suffer at all from the graphical design and infect excels in areas such as lighting and smoke, with muzzle flash sparking up in a dark street or alley and puffs of dust arcing through the air from a bullet piercing a wall add so much atmosphere to the often sterile environments you find in other shooters.
While the night time and darkness design is excellent the day-time brightness is something that feels somewhat bland, you don't really feel like you're in a bright middle-eastern country with the hot sun beating down, the technicals and cars that litter the streets don't feel like they're anything but props and convenient cover and the conspicuously unbreakable windows of abandoned buses are one of the few immersion breaking aspects and a source of occasional frustration.
Thankfully the game is on the Source engine and while I'm usually against modding the Steam Workshop integration makes applying a few skin packs to the weapons and character models a breeze. I'll pop in a few recommendations at the end of the review along with their Steam Workshop links.

The sound design is great though, as well as the aforementioned positional voice chat there's also punchy, distinct weapon sounds and those with a keen ear and quality headphones will easily be able to tell the difference between an RPK and AK-74u being fired two streets away. Again, this is another facet of the game that benefits greatly from a sound mod, but the default sounds are great too and have some serious punch when you keep the volume turned all the way up. Nothing's quite as terrifying as hearing the brief woosh of an RPG right before it wipes out your whole squad in a glorious Soviet explosion.
There's not really any aspect of the sound design that's outright bad, but bullet impacts could have greatly benefitted from more authentic sounds to emphasize the stress of being pinned down a little more. As it stands the slightly piffling impact sounds sometimes lead to players, myself included, making the terrible choice to stick their head out and fight back when under even heavy fire.
Again, this is another aspect of the game that benefits greatly from the modding community and there'll be some links at the bottom to improve the experience somewhat.

Overall Insurgency is basically Red Orchestra in a modern setting without vehicles. It benefits greatly from masterful design in all aspects but suffers somewhat by the relatively unknown nature of the title. While I'd hate for it to become a big-name yearly franchise like Battlefield and end up watered down I still wish the developer best of luck in continuing to produce Insurgency expansions and sequels.
I'd highly suggest trying Insurgency if you're a fan of the original Red Orchestra or if you're fed up of the toxic communities of other multiplayer shooters these days but it's simply not a game for everyone. The action isn't on a fixed pace (e.g. Call Of Duty's constant roadrunner pace) and requires both patience and a willingness to work together because it only takes one person acting like a jackass or not understanding their role to bring a team down.
That said, the community is welcoming and friendly, mostly. There's the occasional bad apple but that's not exactly unique to Insurgency. If you don't understand a role or mechanic asking in voice or text chat will usually result in a helpful answer and it's incredibly easy to make new friends among the coop player base where working together feels less about winning the match and more about hanging out with friends.

Score: 8 out of 10 flashbang grenades stun your own team.

The mods:
Sound and Graphical Improvements - This collection houses the vast majority of the sound and graphical improvements that really bring the experience of being shot at up to a frighteningly authentic level. From better textures and blood to realistic terrorist shouts and eardrum shattering weapon sounds you can't go wrong with this pack. Fair warning though that the lighting mod has occasional Aliasing issues and a couple of the sound mods will require a quick console command after starting the game to get them working.
Veteran Insurgent Skins - A reskin of all the Insurgents brings them both into a more uniform look and a higher quality appearance. Coupled with the Security skin mod from the previous link it gives both teams very distinct looks and helps reduce instances of friendly fire through misidentification.
Tact Ops Weapon Skins - Reskins of a bunch of the weapons gives them not only a higher resolution texture but makes many of them feel more like personal weapons, especially the FAL with its sweet camo and writing on the side.

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