Everyone and their dog seems to be creating survival games these days. You can’t move without stepping on the toes of a zombie apocalypse game or some kind of survival sandbox, especially in the wake of DayZ. It’s only going to get worse now, with PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds adding its own (admittedly excellent) twist on the genre, prompting others to add similar modes to their existing games. Battlestate Games’ Escape From Tarkov fits somewhere in between the two major players.
In a fictional state that sits on the border between Russia and the rest of mainland Europe, Tarkov and its surrounding lands have been sealed off due to a war involving greedy and not-exactly-above-board corporations, its people trapped in a warzone. Making matters worse, there are two factions constantly fighting in Tarkov; BEAR, working to uncover evidence of the corporation’s illegal activities, and USEC, employed to actively oppose and hinder the ongoing investigation. You get to choose which side you’re on.
Once you’ve selected your side and your starting area, you can decide whether to go in during the day or night, and even if you want to have AI-controlled enemies join the fray. Once you’re tooled up and ready, you will jump into your chosen zone on the map. Immediately you’ll notice how polished the world already looks, whether it be in the bright afternoon daylight with its shifting shadows, or in the pitch darkness of the late hours with only the green hue of night vision to guide your way. Much like the games that seemingly inspired it, Escape From Tarkov has a distinct eastern European flavour to its visual style. Muted colours and grey, concrete military bunkers; dull industrial areas filled with rusting metal; even the lush green forests are filled with dilapidated wooden buildings and broken down vehicles, often little Russian numbers or old flatbed lorries.
The atmosphere in all of these areas is palpable, the tension grabbing hold of you as you’re searching for supplies, weapons and treasures to keep or trade when you escape. Well, if you escape. Much like PUBG, you’ll want to move quickly but carefully through each area, checking every container you find, while always keeping an ear out for approaching dangers. Sound is an especially important tool at your disposal, but it’s a double-edged sword, with your own movement sometimes throwing you off. The number of times I started at the sound of my own arm brushing a tree branch, is frankly embarrassing. I was always paranoid that I was being followed.
Of course, paranoia is part and parcel of games like this. As are those moments when players interact in surprising ways, such as that moment of indecision as a player has his gun pointed at you. Do you shoot or not? I chose not to shoot, but the bullet embedded in my brain said that I chose wrong. Death is just another part of your time in Tarkov, which means that you’ll be tensing up whenever you hear anything. In my case, the sound I heard was a faint laughter on the air; I saw nothing, but found myself on edge, clumsily pointing my shotgun in all directions as I continued on my way. It was only when that laughter was right behind me that I realised I wasn’t crazy, as a scavenger wandered past me. No idea if he missed me somehow or deliberately left me be, but I wasn’t about to take any chances, so I blew a hole in his back. It really is a dog-eat-dog world here, not to mention a terrifying one. Hell, maybe I’m the real monster in this scenario.
Being in beta, it’s no surprise that there are some issues present in Escape From Tarkov’s current build. The UI is incredibly awkward at the moment, having to use the mouse cursor to drag and drop everything into your inventory. Finding empty magazines that you need to handload feels like it’s taking the realism to extremes, and in a game that often requires speed the current inventory system is simply too cumbersome. That’s assuming you actually find any ammo suitable for the magazine or gun you’re holding. This wouldn’t be a big problem if you could see the names and descriptions of the items you pick up, but even playing on my 32-inch screen at 1080p, the text was far too small. This is easily fixable with an update though, as is refining the UI.
Another issue, which is one of the biggest reasons why online games have betas, is the way the game punishes the player for disconnects. You simply cannot play the game for a short period; the only way out is through either death or escape. Only one of them is a quick route. This isn’t a problem by itself, because each raid is designed to last at least an hour or more and you know that going in, but it could really do with safe spots in which you could leave the game and return at another time. Plus, if the game server fails and you’re dumped unceremoniously back to the main menu, you will still be punished for disconnecting. Not only can you be labelled by the game as a deserter if this happens a few times, you are also in danger of losing all the gear you found in that raid. You are at least given a set amount of time to rejoin the server before that happens, but it’s a little irritating nonetheless.
This irritation comes because the game works almost like a Roguelike, as death means the loss of any items you took into the raid from your stash, as well as forfeiting anything you found out there in the field. This risk/reward mechanic only enhances the tension of searching the warzone; even when you don’t actually meet anyone out there, you’ll still be living in constant fear of that potentially violent encounter. Or any cackling lunatics that may be roaming around the place.
Now, I told a little white lie earlier in this preview, saying that BEAR and USEC are the only two options to play as in Escape From Tarkov. There is actually a third option: Scavs. This changes the game a little, as you’re given control of a generic scavenger with random equipment, and no penalty for death. Sure you’ll lose whatever you found, but it won’t affect your main character’s inventory. Escaping the area will, however, as anything the Scav discovers out there can be transferred to your main character’s stash. Whether your Scav lives for five minutes or an entire hour, you won’t be able to simply jump straight back in as another random scavenger; you would never play as your own character if the game didn’t place a timed block on using the Scav option again.
Now, to offset that little white lie, I’ll be exceedingly honest: Escape From Tarkov is not the kind of game I would customarily play. Survival sandboxes are often quite dull for me, and I am not particularly skilled in the art of PvP shooters. This game adds an extra element to that; the in-depth military precision of the weaponry and its upkeep (repeated use will cause them to jam), not to mention the fairly realistic way in which injuries affect your performance and movement, sometimes causing very slow deaths as your vision blurs and you bleed out; none of that interests me one bit. That said, I have found myself really getting into the atmosphere of Escape From Tarkov. The maps are huge and full of detail, and my heart pounded every time I had to run over open ground (it pounded even more heavily the first time I was wounded during one of these runs, left to die slowly and painfully as I desperately searched for medical aid), and playing as a Scav is particularly fun. But until the UI is streamlined and the text size issue is fixed, it remains on the list of games that could potentially keep me playing, but not right now.
For fans of extreme military precision and survival simulation though, Escape From Tarkov is certainly one to watch.