I really didn’t like Escape from Tarkov when I first started.
I’d load into a map and be dead in less than five minutes. Rinse and repeat. To put it bluntly, I was miserable. Then, I had my first big score. I had some middling loot—just some ammo and other junk, but I was alive. Nearing the extraction point in a sprawling building complex, I spotted another player skulking around outside. He turned the corner and—bang bang—it was over before he even got a shot off. I got medkits, ammo, a grenade, and a snazzy new sniper rifle. With my newfound wealth, I made like a bat out of hell for the extraction point, all the while hearing other players in a shootout nearby. I made it to the extraction point, my heart racing. From that point forward, I was hooked.
Escape from Tarkov is a survival first-person shooter title from Russian studio Battlestate Games, currently in early access. It is set in 2028 in a fictional region of Russia called Norvinsk—once a thriving economic region, then a flash point of armed conflict led by two private military companies (PMCs). The game is centered on the sealed-off city of Tarkov, where all the structures have collapsed and which is now abandoned but for the soldiers fighting over the scraps of this dead city. Don’t expect much here; the story is pretty flimsy and almost entirely in text form found on the game’s website.
There’s an undeniable influence from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise here—scavengers and military men eking out an existence in a barren landscape dotted by Soviet Brutalist concrete buildings, trading bullets and food for rifles and armor.
Gameplay in Escape from Tarkov is somewhat oddly set up. Instead of having a free-roam map, you instead choose a location on a map of Tarkov, such as the shoreline or a customs checkpoint—this is called going on a raid. Once on the map you have a preset amount of time to explore and escape, usually 30 minutes to an hour. Most maps are quite expansive, taking a few minutes to run from one side to the other. There’s loot to find in the environment, but the real treasure comes from enemies. Scattered about the maps are Scavs, AI-controlled enemies that carry low-level gear, along with human players playing their PMC characters. There’s no real encouragement of “impromptu alliances” here; in the field it’s shoot-on-sight when it comes to other players. The number of human players varies per map but is always on the smaller side to maintain a desolate feel. Larger maps hold up to 13 players but can feel like a war zone at times, while playing smaller maps I could go an entire raid without seeing another soul. Even so, I never felt able to relax on a raid, my head on a constant swivel. This has to be one of the most stressful games I’ve ever played.
Escape from Tarkov is a hardcore simulation shooter, where just a few bullets are deadly. Magazines for your guns need to first be loaded with bullets in the inventory screen, which can take a good 15 seconds for an empty magazine. After firing the first bullet your ammo counter will read “?,” so you have to either take several seconds to check the magazine in the inventory or keep track in your head of roughly how many bullets you’ve fired. The game does not hold your hand.
When you die in the field, every item in your inventory or your equipment space is lost forever. Before entering a raid you can buy insurance on items, but even then you only get the item back if a player doesn’t carry it out of the map. There’s a definite risk/reward balance to be weighed: bringing some of your best items along will give you an edge against other players, but losing your gear would be a big loss. You can’t hoard items, either; you get a limited storage space and have to arrange your items like Tetris into an optimal layout, with the rest being left in the field or sold off to merchants.
Currently there are five maps available to explore, with a further five to be added. Each map has roughly 12 extraction points, the only locations you can leave from. When you’re put into a map, you’re given a list of four points, and only those four will work for you. There isn’t any indication of where these extraction points are, other than vague names like “old gas station.” As you might guess, that puts new players at a disadvantage and had me scrambling online to find maps and videos of extraction points.
This means map knowledge is paramount. Be prepared to spend a decent amount of time committing landmarks to memory and gaining the ability to quickly orient yourself on the map when spawning into a raid. Once you’ve done that, repeat for every other map you want to play on. A second computer monitor would definitely come in handy to have a map up, but alt-tabbing out to another window, albeit risky, can also get the job done.
Thankfully, there are offline modes to learn map layouts. If you’re not up for gambling your inventory, there’s a secondary mode where you can play as a Scav, loaded into raids a few minutes after they start. You don’t gain any experience on your main character, but any loot you escape with is yours to keep. It’s an interesting concept that alleviates some risk for new players while allowing them to get a feel for the game. To encourage you to play on your main character, if you’re killed while playing as a Scav you’re locked out of playing another for 10 minutes. It’s a unique mode that I’d like to see other games take ideas from.
On the visual front, Escape from Tarkov looks great. The locations are unique and varied. From the train yards to the shopping center, the maps are laid out in a way that it’s easy to believe people actually used to live there while still being easy to navigate. There’s a good variety of open vistas and claustrophobic interiors that lend themselves to different strategies and play styles. I would like a greater amount of options in the graphics menu, though tweaks are probably still being done to the engine behind the scenes.
The sound design is top-notch. Often there were times where I found myself hiding in a closet or dark corner and just listening. Footsteps in the hallway? Someone traipsing through the underbrush? Headphones are almost a must to listen for small sounds like someone reloading their rifle or the carrying echoes of a faraway gunfight.
There’s currently no date for when Escape from Tarkov will leave early access, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was in mid-2019, given how complete the game feels at the moment. If you’re not keen on waiting, it does go on sale several times throughout the year. One caveat is the game has to be purchased directly from the official website and has its own launcher, so you’ll have yet another game launcher on your computer.
It certainly isn’t a game for everyone, even among avid FPS players. You have to rethink your entire play style coming from other games, including movement, positioning, and risk management, to name a few. The “homework” of learning map layouts may also off-putting, not to mention the general difficulty of building up a new character. But if you don’t mind a challenge, and don’t mind uttering a few curses along the way, it’s shaping up to be a great survival shooter that’s carving out a niche of its own.
Escape from Tarkov is available on PC.