How Insurgency: Sandstorm Raises the Bar for Realistic First-Person Shooters

How Insurgency: Sandstorm Raises the Bar for Realistic First-Person Shooters

With the 2014 release of Insurgency, indie developer New World Interactive built a solid first-person shooter and a loyal, passionate following. When setting out to develop a sequel, however, the team had loftier ambitions than what the original game’s Source engine could provide. Now, with the Unreal Engine 4-powered Insurgency: Sandstorm, the team has been able to take the experience to a whole new level with revamped graphics, improved audio, new character classes (coupled with character customization options), larger maps and the inclusion of vehicles.

What really sets Sandstorm apart, however, is the game’s staggering attention to detail and realism. New World Interactive spent considerable time and resources ensuring the weapons, reloading, and gunplay felt as authentic as possible while still being fun. With the game recently releasing on PC and coming to consoles in 2019, we caught up with several team members to find out how Insurgency: Sandstorm has become one of the most realistic first-person shooters ever made.

Perhaps the most obvious improvement over its predecessor pertains to the tactical shooter’s graphics. The sequel offers modern, revamped visuals thanks to UE4’s graphical prowess, “The move to physically based rendering required learning new tools and workflows, but gave us a leap in fidelity from our previous titles,” the team stated. To faithfully recreate the look and feel of the game’s setting, they added, “Our environment team worked carefully with curated references to find shapes and styles that defined our Middle Eastern setting while staying away from tired clichés.”

To enhance believability and immersion, New World Interactive leaned on UE4’s robust lighting system for Sandstorm. “Lights in the game follow the realistic characteristics of real-world lights. We have support for many types of lights using pre-defined presets: incandescent, fluorescent, high-pressure sodium vapor, mercury vapor, metal-halide, LEDs, specific presets for burning wood, and more” the team explained, adding, “The setups can automatically update the materials of the light meshes, which is used to match the colors and represent the efficiency of a light. Less efficient lights will glow more, but not actually produce as much light since most of it is converted to heat. The global light of the sun and the ambient light bouncing around the environment follows specific guidelines that we have established. This allows for consistent lighting across maps with good dynamic range to improve both the visual fidelity and gameplay versatility of the maps.”


Further drawing you into the game’s intense firefights are Sandstorm’s amazing visual effects, which strike a balance of being immersive while avoiding bombastic Hollywood tropes. “We try to keep our effects true to how they look in real life, while also pushing the feel of them to emphasize their presence on the battlefield,” said Lead Game Designer Michael Tsarouhas. He elaborated on how they took slight artistic liberties to heighten the immersion that you were at war, “A hand grenade exploding, for example, realistically just looks like a puff of smoke. However, to enhance the effect, certain features are exaggerated. Players will notice glowing flecks of shrapnel, dust kicking up off surfaces from debris, or a punchy flash of flame every time a hand grenade goes off near them.”


In addition to the revamped graphics, the studio also went to great lengths to improve Sandstorm’s audio. “We spent a lot of time trying to re-create realistic representations of our weapon audio assets themselves before importing them into [middleware] Wwise. We created a layered playback system which allows us to alter any number of those individual weapon layers in real-time, in response to in-game events such as distance, occlusion, location, direction, spatialisation, etc.,” Sound Designer and Executive Producer Mark Winter stated. This means that firing an assault rifle in a small shop will sound very different to firing the same weapon outdoors.

Considering Sandstorm is set in a modern conflict within the Middle East, New World Interactive made sure the weapons looked and felt accurate, “We must make every effort to craft authentic representations of all the equipment players use,” the team stated. Elaborating on the painstaking research involved, they added, “We start our weapon design by gathering as many references as possible. We get photos and videos of every single part, sometimes even down to the springs. We try to model every part of the gun right down to barrels, chambers, bolts, and various internals.” The developer used physically based rendering to accurately recreate details like oil, grease, and dirt on guns.


Taking details a step further, New World Interactive ensured that the weapons used in the game are accurate to their modern Middle Eastern setting, stating, “We did our research and interviewed soldiers from both regular militaries and indigenous militias,” the team stated, adding, “While our conflict is a fictional one, we still wanted it to feel believable. It was necessary for us to understand the kinds of weapons being used on both sides in contemporary insurgencies. The results were pretty surprising, with an eclectic mixture of both old and new weapons, sometimes decades apart from each other in age.” Because the Security and Insurgent sides in Sandstorm have access to distinct weaponry, players with keen ears will be able to detect friend from foe simply by listening to the sounds of gunfire.

Trying to recreate combat as authentically as possible, New World Interactive decided to reinvent how players reloaded. “Let’s say you have a weapon which uses magazines that each have a 30-bullet capacity. If you fire 20 bullets out of one of them, and then reload, you’ll put that magazine back into your vest so those 10 remaining bullets can be used later. When you come back to reloading with that magazine, it will still have 10 bullets in it,” Tsarouhas explained, elaborating, “This is unlike many other FPS games where every time you reload, you always produce a full capacity 30-bullet magazine as long as you have a cumulative 30 rounds in all of your total ammunition; as if there’s a magical merging pool of bullets on your chest that you just pull from and smack into your weapon at a perfect 30 every time.”


This mechanic adds a layer of realism and depth to the experience. “Not only do players need to be mindful of their weight when carrying lots of ammo (you even shed weight as you fire bullets and drop magazines). They also need to track the amount of bullets they’ve got in each of their magazines and the amount they’re putting into their gun when they go to reload,” Tsarouhas stated, adding, “Players can also choose to drop a magazine to perform a ‘speed reload’ if they are okay with sacrificing the remaining bullets to reload faster, or if the magazine is just empty.” While there’s a HUD element that shows approximately how many bullets each magazine has left, the studio didn’t want to unrealistically indicate how many exact bullets there were. Attentive players can get around this by counting their shots if they so choose, however. This reinforces the synergy between realism and depth that the game provides.

Sandstorm is also re-inventing how players aim down scopes. While most first-person shooters zoom your entire field-of-view into your perspective when you’re looking down the scope of a gun, the game offers what the studio refers to as a “picture-in-picture” scope that realistically only magnifies the scope portion of your view. Considering this is slightly more graphically-demanding, players have the option to disable this feature, but those with beefier rigs will be able to take advantage of this added graphical immersion.

Striking a balance between authenticity and satisfying gunplay, Sandstorm employs a new hybrid ballistics system that affects bullet penetration, deceleration, and gravity. “This is mostly made up of tiny line traces that are performed in fixed substeps, which ensures accuracy and consistency. As a result, bullets realistically slow down and drop as they travel through the air, and penetrate different materials depending thickness and material type. All this can lead to reduced damage, a blocked shot, or an outright miss,” Programmer and Technical Designer Stephen Swires states. To add a layer of immediacy and lethality when it comes to close-range combat, Sandstorm employs a hitscan-like effect for the first 100 milliseconds of a bullet’s journey.


The game’s new, larger levels put this ballistic system to good use. As Lead Level Designer Jeroen Van Werkhoven states, “The maps are much larger and more detailed than any of our previous games. Precinct, one of our more urban maps, is more than twice the size of an original Insurgency map.” Increasing the size of levels also increases performance concerns, but Werkhoven states that “UE4 has helped us to manage” those issues, adding, “We now have the power to create a large variety of environments, each with their own unique setting and playstyle.”


The lead level designer states that UE4 allowed the team to iterate more quickly and work more effectively when it came to creating maps, “We split our levels up into multiple sublevels to have the ability to work on levels simultaneously between multiple level designers. We can iterate and change our levels much more easily now. Major layout overhauls that would have cost us weeks before have become way faster.”

In designing the levels, New World Interactive added tactical depth to approaching doors. “Doors need to be taken into account when making entry on buildings, with players able to decide if they want to peek in, push or pull open, destroy them outright, or just breach them with a kick, Tsarouhas stated.


To help players more realistically traverse the environments, the sequel introduces a new vaulting mechanic. “The vaulting system in Sandstorm was an effort to get rid of the somewhat arcadey jump we had in our previous games that never really fit the themes or gameplay we were going for. In addition, jumping doesn’t allow for a very flexible way to navigate a map. A character can only jump so high, and they can vault or climb higher,” the team explains, adding, “We have two types of vaults: a low vault and a high vault. Low vaults are performed when trying to get over waist-high objects, and when doing them, you can still fire your weapon without using your sights. This can be good for keeping fire on the enemy or even getting a close-range kill in an emergency situation. High vaults are performed when getting over chest-high objects.” While using a high vault can lead to better vantage points, a realistic downside is that players will need to temporarily put away their weapons when climbing.


Because the maps are noticeably bigger this time around, Sandstorm introduces vehicles. While the studio asserts that close-quarters combat is still the focus of the game, due to the larger landscapes, the team stated, “It makes sense that some game modes have vehicles so players can get on objective more quickly.” The team elaborated on the effectiveness of these additions, “Vehicles serve as really good defensive tools. The machine guns on the back of them have armor plating on the front and can really lock down a whole lane of player movement if positioned effectively. They can chew through the walls of a building to hit players inside on objective, and are just, in general, very tricky to deal with unless you have explosives.”

Considering New World Interactive was able to incorporate so many new mechanics and innovate with a team of just 36 members, which include remote freelancers working internationally, the developer is impressively able to punch above its weight class. Along with hard work and tenacity, the studio credits the move to UE4 for helping them accomplish their goals. “One of the bigger challenges with Source Engine was its toolset. It took a lot of time to compile maps, or iterate on user interfaces for example. With UE4, these and other aspects of game development are much more user friendly,” Founder and CEO Jeremy Blum stated, adding, “Although we knew UE4 was a new engine that we’d have to learn from scratch, we also knew that developing on it would be a lot more enjoyable and streamlined for our team.”

The studio had a lot of high praise for UE4, “In addition to how much better we knew we’d be able to push the visuals and expand the feature-set of Insurgency, these workflow related aspects can’t be understated in their importance toward the day-to-day happiness of our team,” The CEO stated, adding, “It’s really nice to be working with an engine that is constantly updated and improved over time.”


The studio highlighted visual-scripting language Blueprints as a particularly helpful UE4 tool. Project Manager Jeremy Faucomprez stated that it allowed them “to prototype and iterate on new features intuitively,” adding, “It’s so spread out through the engine that whether it’s the cosmetic system, or the UI widgets using UMG, or our breakable props systems, or our base character actor, every important aspect of the game has Blueprints elements that are exposed on some levels, allowing designers or technical artists to tweak and iterate easily.”

Blueprints also facilitated the game’s new character customization feature. “Designing the cosmetic customization system for Sandstorm was an iterative process. We had a high-level idea of how it would work and look like, but implementing it technically would have been very challenging without the UE4 Blueprint system,” Faucomprez stated. He added, “Our Technical Artists were able to implement the art and create a very robust cosmetic and variation system with a minimal amount of programming work. Once the basic code infrastructure was in for how the cosmetics and variations worked together, all the systems for mesh selection, material selection, morph targets or dynamic material instances were entirely done in Blueprint. The Blueprint systems have really empowered our Technical Artist to iterate and implement the cosmetic system as it was designed, and the system ended up being flexible enough that last-minute tweaks or even new cosmetic additions are ultimately quite easy to implement.”

Insurgency: Sandstorm is available on PC now and will be available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One platforms next year. Considering New World Interactive released a plethora of free content to the original Insurgency, the indie studio asserts that players can expect more of the same with new maps, weapons, modes, voices, mod support, and even mechanics down the road.

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