In Escape from Tarkov, the grass sways gently around me, I am laying prone in the weeds, and I’m increasingly certain that the footsteps I’m hearing aren’t just me.
Tarkov is beautiful, in the haunting urban decay sort of way. The glaringly bright sunlight distantly sinking an the sky paints the fields ahead in uncannily gorgeous highlights. The wind, what little whispers it manages to get past the arrhythmic percussion of the raindrops, is creating a rich soundscape for me to fret over.
Gunfire, sharp and sudden, erupts in the distance. I tilt my view carefully in that direction, but I’m less concerned for the gunfire. That fight will begin and end likely before I can stand up from my position, so I wait in my shroud of nature, and listen for what I’m certain will be the rest of my life.
Tarkov’s woods are entrenched in some of my favorite physical and digital memories, and I’m enjoying this moment of decadent silence, for at least as long as it lasts. The light drizzle is pleasant, the distant sunlight feels spiritually warm, and for a moment I forget that I only have 4 rounds left in my MP443. The grass sways gently, and I wait.
In more urban settings, Escape from Tarkov is jarringly harsh. The lighting is dull, footsteps crunch with shattering debris underfoot, the sounds seem to echo in all directions, and the numerous heights and angles of attack are dizzying and impossible to keep track of. Every step, noisy in the shattered remains of the disused factory, could be the last. Every explosion of gunfire in the distance promises to potentially be the fraction of warning before blackness and silence swallow life away.
Doorways lead to narrow corridors, whose edges are ballooning with debris. Cautious steps through these deathtraps are the only way to go, but the debris acts as inches-tall impassable barriers. Explorers have to leap up over or around the junk, sending hideous amounts of noise to the shadows of other fighters around. It all feels a little animatronic—movement is gangly, stiff, awkward, and the naturalistic sway of the gun makes shooting feel stiff. If an opponent appears at the end of the hallway, the debris is almost certainly a death sentence. The jutting garbage can (and probably will) halt a retreat or advance without an immediately clear reason, and attempting to hop over the sudden obstacle will disrupt aim exactly as an enemy is turning the corner.
As a single person in a warehouse full of noise and garbage, every second could spell the end. With no warning, just a single distant crack of firearms, it’s all over. There doesn’t seem to be a consistent strategy that works, or can work. Being alone in a world trying to kill you will mostly amount to you dying. Thanks for coming, I guess, but the name on your invitation was also written on someone else’s bullet.
Trading Life and Limb
Unlike most shooters, Escape from Tarkov doesn’t let the player stay equipped. Every run out into the wild landscape of lawless Russia comes with no guarantee of safety for the player’s equipment. Death means that everything on that body will stay on that body. It can be insured, but insurance only covers things left on that body when the insurer’s scavengers head out after the mission. That means that everything dropped on death is probably gone permanently, with only a small handful of things likely to be recovered.
This means that primary weapons are certain to be lost, secondaries likely to be lost, and odds and ends are the only things probable to be secured. Also, things picked up are likely gone, meaning that entire raids into the danger zone are more than likely to return nothing, and only come with loss. The only good way to secure new material is to not get shot.
Given that any given shot, even from a pistol, can mean a sudden death from an unknown direction, most runs will end in loss.
Operating in the red almost constantly comes with its own set of exhaustions, but the game offers little solace. Insurance, for as ineffectual as it is, also comes with a cost. That means that buying insurance—the only way to get any certainty with one’s equipment—also bleeds resources with no guaranteed return, and almost certainly no significant return. Add in runs that end due to glitches, or getting caught on near-invisible debris during gunfights, and the sense of progression mostly feels like poison.
Slowly, Tarkov bleeds its victims dry.
One Man’s Trash
Although the intent of Escape from Tarkov is to get out of the game’s skirmish-like raids with one’s life, the other goal is to gather equipment. Despite being backed by private military, the player’s stash only comes with a limited amount of weapons and ammo, and anything else needs to be either bought or recovered from the mountains of corpses left behind after all the gunfire has stopped.
The problem is that Tarkov offers little of value. Packets of cigarettes, one or two weapon modifications, a few magazines, and a handful of shotgun shells are largely all there is within the dangerous walls. For an overwhelming majority of the time, a soldier going into the raids will already be wearing or holding the most valuable items that come out of that raid. Things found inside, maybe excepting what’s stolen off of other soldiers, will almost never be worth the effort.
As a result, a lot of time will be spent in the menu with the game’s vendors, sending money and selling items in order to pay for new guns, new magazines, new mods, and more ammo to restock from the thirte-… Wait… Fifteen? Twenty? Twenty-seven? It’s easy to lose count. Last dozens of losses of equipment. Money comes slowly and spends quickly, but at least there’s plenty of money to go around. Players will likely never have to feel entirely nude on the battlefield, but they certainly shouldn’t go forth with the expectation of survival.
To borrow a phrase from EVE Online, don’t run what you can’t afford to lose.
The Monsters Are Out There
In short, most of Escape from Tarkov will feel more like a survival horror game than an action-paced shooter. Every turned corner feels like it has probable death behind it. Brief prayers are chased by sudden gunfire, and there are always enough players in any given raid that there is almost never a sense of safety available. As a result, the stimuli the game offers mostly feel like death knells of varying chords. There’s an omnipresent tension that goes beyond threat of death, which instead plays songs of hopelessness.
Escape from Tarkov is a pretty terminal experience. Every player is as big a threat to you as you are to them, certainly, but you’re always outnumbered. Always. Every direction can, and often enough, will have shooters aimed at you. You will die. The best reflexes will not be enough. Your sharpest shooting can’t save you from everyone. Equipment is a temporary companion: it will be dropped and it will be taken. Nothing can save you from defeat. It will come. It will come often.
You. Will. Die.
Out in the woods, hiding under the vats, in the bathrooms, at the end of the long corridors, skulking through the tunnels, perched in the warehouse, it’s all the same: the monsters wait for you. They will find you. You will die, suddenly. It will end. Your loot is not yours to keep. You can keep trying, but the monsters will always be there too.
The runs you survive, few as they will be, you will be the monster too.
That’s okay, but it also isn’t. There’s a bleakness baked into the very core of Escape from Tarkov. It’s in the DNA, and it by design it’s evocative, but it’s not really a feeling that should be evoked in a game. At least, not as frequent and unapologetically as this game does. You, the other players, and the game itself are all monsters here.
In Another Man’s Shoes
Thankfully, one of the ways Escape from Tarkov helps the player mitigate their losses is by offering the player Scavs, which are randomly generated characters who appear in raid maps, often mid-raid, and come with minimal equipment. They almost never have armor of any kind, their weapons aren’t particularly powerful, but anything they manage to pocket and escape with can be delivered to the main character’s permanent stash.
As a piece of flavor to the game’s general vibe, Scavs are a wonderful inclusion. They feel like a balm for the game’s brusk one-night stand with mortality and emphasis on survival. Random Russian scavengers with more hope than sense certainly fill a tone of quiet (and disquieting) desperation. The problem is that Scavs are—thanks to their lack of armor—even more mortal than the PMC protagonists, and are just as likely to die at the drop of a hat, or rifle shell, or grenade… Or whatever the case may be.
When a Scav dies, players cannot generate or play another for half an hour. Most of the raids will last roughly a tenth of that time, so scavs feel like they’re bandaging over the game’s terminality, rather than acting as a cure for it. However, tonally, their inclusion is a wonderful spice that certainly feels very decadent.
Between the Shots
But really, Escape from Tarkov is at its best when the gunfire isn’t happening and there are things to think on other the ticking clock of mortality. The scenery is gorgeous, and feats of urban exploration seem like they should feel as valuable whether or not the grim reaper is whoever sat languidly in the next room. The sounds, although they promise a jarring halt, genuinely echo around corners in a way that makes them haunting enough to flesh out the looming specter of death. The weather effects, which move in real time across the days, present a convincing and familiar reality. The woods damped sounds exact the constant frenzied whispers of leaves overhead, and some stretches of time feel like remote natural parks, just with 9mm souvenirs rather than animal photos.
In any case, you have to hurry to line up your shot before your subject scampers away.
In that way, Escape from Tarkov genuinely does something beautiful. Sadly, it plays fourth fiddle to a game that’s way more focused on killing and being killed, but for what it’s worth, it’s a visual and aural moment of decadence. Well worth laying prone in the middle of the woods, further from loot or risk, and just take it all in for a few minutes.
Then, back to the killing.
At its best, Escape from Tarkov feels like it’s pushing the envelope of what a shooting game can do, but hasn’t completely thought out what a game should do. A lot of the systems, though intellectually interesting, don’t really feel like they considered how enjoyable they’d be for the player. As a thought and social experiment, it’s interesting. As a game, it seems like players will most probably move to other games after long strings of losses, and only sparse respites of success that don’t carry many benefits.
At its worst, Escape from Tarkov is a meat grinder of death spiced occasionally with glitches and meager successes. The constant dying and losing and buying and dying and losing and buying and dying is a pretty bitter pill to swallow, and although the idea behind the game is pretty cool, the actual game is a little too rough to make the infrequent successes worth striving for. There’s certainly an audience to be found in those looking to become the scariest avatar of death in the exclusion zone, but a majority of players will probably find more to love elsewhere.
As an experience, Escape from Tarkov feels like it doesn’t quite nail the realism of the ARMA series it aspires to emulate. It doesn’t quite have the same in-and-out punctuality of the recently popular PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. It feels closest to the sobering atmosphere of the well-loved S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series but lacks the same heart that a full campaign can bring.
As is, Escape from Tarkov is an interesting experiment, but one that probably needs a bit more polish to sell itself to an audience of anyone other than diehards. Because much of the game starts and ends in hard death.Related: Escape from Tarkov, First Person Shooter, online games, Preview, Shooter, Survival