Making it in Unreal: Insurgency: Sandstorm wants to be the indie film of military shooters

Insurgency Sandstorm Unreal Engine 4

Insurgency is starting to feel less like a title and more like an approach for New World Interactive, the Amsterdam team of 35 founded by veteran Half-Life 2 modders. Despite a decade of success in the Source engine, first with the hardcore military Insurgency mod and then with a three-million-selling Steam standalone, the studio’s founders have decided to upset the established order.

Related: the best FPS games on PC.

For Insurgency: Sandstorm, they’ve embraced Unreal Engine 4 and its capacity to bring vehicles to an infantry game. And rather than stick to the multiplayer they know, they’re taking on the new creative and technical challenges of single-player, determined to become subversive voices in the FPS landscape.

Switching from Source

Insurgency Sandstorm source

As part of the mod team that put together Insurgency for Half-Life 2, New World’s creative director Andrew Spearin worked with Valve’s Source engine for the best part of a decade. However, by the time development began on Sandstorm, Valve had long since moved away from licensing their tech to other developers. New World looked elsewhere and became early adopters of Unreal Engine 4.

“Working with Unreal is night and day versus working with the Source engine,” Spearin says. “Our artists are pleased, our programmers are pleased, we’re all very happy.”

Back when the Insurgency team relied on Hammer, the Source editor, they would meticulously block out a level using a brush tool, before compiling the map to see how it plays. Like many developers working with the last generation of engines, they compared compiling to baking – not just because it’s the point where all the code and design rises into something you can enjoy, but because it used to take absolutely ages.

The Insurgency team became accustomed to waiting upwards of two hours for their PCs to become usable again – only to discover small errors, tweak the map, and begin the compiling process all over again.

In a contemporary engine like Unreal Engine 4, by contrast, it’s possible to spawn a player in a Sandstorm map and play it without leaving the editor, all while making changes on the fly.

“The speed, the amount you can do with lighting, in such a short time compared to Source, is amazing,” Spearin notes.

New wheels

Insurgency Sandstorm vehicles

Traditionally, an infantry focus has been one of the things that distinguished Insurgency from its peers – particularly the careening, driving-on-two-wheels hedonism of Battlefield multiplayer. But with the move to Unreal Engine 4, the call of vehicles has proved too tempting to pass up.

“It’s primarily infantry-focused close quarters, but with UE4 we’re able to expand the environment a lot, and that allows us to introduce vehicles,” Spearin explains. “Especially on the story side of things – it’s basically like a road trip.”

Insurgency Sandstorm quote

Rather than plump for heavy tanks or helicopters, New World have stuck with lighter vehicles suited for transportation and fire support – machines that compliment the infantry game rather than replace it. Despite the new technological possibilities, Sandstorm will for the most part still keep its, erm, boots on the ground.

“With the vehicles, we’re going to introduce a new mode,” Spearin says. “I believe we’re going to do a Convoy Ambush from both sides, so you can be in the convoy, or you can set up an ambush.”

Going solo

Insurgency Sandstorm story

That road trip Spearin mentions is, in fact, a three-hour story that concerns a volunteer fighting force in Iraq. Sandstorm’s campaign is seen through the eyes of a female former slave, an atypical protagonist for the genre to say the least.

For New World it’s, well, a new world of dialogue, pacing, and AI. They’re travelling in the opposite direction to other hardcore shooters like Rainbow Six: Siege, which have eschewed campaign problems to focus on crucial multiplayer issues like balancing and networking.

“For us it’s on top of all that balancing,” Spearin notes, by way of explanation. “We spent a lot of time with the multiplayer and co-op side of things. We’ve got the design down, so we want to expand our horizons.”

Which is to say: New World already have a decade of Insurgency multiplayer tweaking behind them. The creative and technical challenge for them instead lies in single-player.

“Personally I have a background in photojournalism, so I’ve got that visual storytelling and cinematic background that I can bring into it,” Spearin says. “We’re very ambitious and we think that, in order to set ourselves apart from the big guys, we need story. Because, like you said, they’re throwing that aside. Or when they do it it’s the same old shit, new engine. We want to take a tone more like an indie film than a blockbuster, Michael Bay movie.”

Insurgency: Sandstorm will come to PC in 2018. Unreal Engine 4 is now free.

In this sponsored series, we’re looking at how game developers are taking advantage of Unreal Engine 4 to create a new generation of PC games. With thanks to Epic Games and New World Interactive.