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Escape From Tarkov is a daunting and savage evolution of battle royale

(Image credit: Battlestate Games)

Online shooters won't stop mutating into weird new genres. First came survival shooters like DayZ and H1Z1, then came the battle royales that took the tension of open combat and distilled it into something more consistently fun. Escape from Tarkov feels like the next leap along that evolutionary branch. When I'm crouched in a bush trying to listen for the sound of footsteps over the thumping of my own heart, that shared lineage to DayZ and PUBG is crystal clear. But Escape from Tarkov recontextualizes all that lootin', shootin' chaos through the lens of an MMO like EVE Online, where bad decisions (or bad luck) can mean losing gear that I spent hours working towards.

Most battle royales are like a single hand of poker, a quick series of bets and bluffs on whether you have the better cards, but Tarkov mirrors all the ups and downs of an entire poker tournament, with the very real possibility that I might go bust and lose everything.

There's a good chance you're already aware of Escape From Tarkov already. Though it's been in development for over half a decade, the extremely complex FPS set in a fictional war-torn Russian city recently exploded on Twitch as all the big FPS streamers like DrLupo and Dr Disrespect (how do all these doctors find time to stream?) migrated to playing it full-time. All that spotlight also unearthed Battlestate Game's terrible excuses for why it wouldn't let players choose the sex of their character.

It's a shame that developers are hiding behind what feels like dishonest and antiquated reasoning, though, because Escape From Tarkov is genuinely innovative and fun. It's only in closed beta with a roadmap of ambitious features that could almost rival Star Citizen, but its mix of hyper-granular gun customization and loot economy significantly ups the tension and challenge. Forget being the last man standing, I'm just excited if, by the end of a match, my character is able to stand at all.

Get rich or die trying 

Tarkov is like being a grizzled, Russian dragon amassing a hoard of treasure—except it's all guns instead of gold.

Instead a 100-person deathmatch format, Escape From Tarkov's "raids" have a different objective: get out alive. You (and possibly your friends) spawn on one side of an expansive map, are given an exfiltration point on the opposite side, and have anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes to get there depending on the map. Along the way, you'll cross paths with up to 14 other players trying to reach their own exfiltration zones, bandits who are typically controlled by the computer but are sometimes actual players, and loot. Lots of ridiculously tempting loot.

While the primary goal is to stay alive and escape, items and equipment don't disappear when the match is over. Everything you have with you can be stored in a stash and used on subsequent raids, sold to NPC merchants for cash or to complete quests, or traded to other players via the Flea Market. It's like being a grizzled, Russian dragon amassing a hoard of treasure—except it's all guns instead of gold, and in order to get more you have to gamble what you already have. If you've played Hunt: Showdown, this will sound somewhat familiar.

In order to offset the risk of dying and losing everything on my body, scavenging becomes absolutely necessary. While the usual stuff like guns, ammo, and clothing have their value, even a can of condensed milk can fetch an astonishingly high payout from one of the NPC vendors. Those who learn how to hunt and survive will slowly amass an arsenal of high-end tactical armor, weapons kitted with advanced mods, and enough rubles to cover the cost of a raid gone bad.

Not me, though. I'm so poor and terrified of losing what meager wealth I've acquired that most times I'm headed into a raid with just a pistol and a dream. Even after 15 hours, I've failed to survive a single proper raid.

Below: Even NPC Scavs can have ridiculously good aim now and again (all these gifs have sound).

Fortunately, there's the option to play as a Scav, one of the raiders typically controlled by the computer that wander around as juicy loot piñatas for players courageous enough to take a shot and risk giving away their location. As a Scav, I'm given a random loadout of gear and the same objective to escape alive. If I succeed (which I've managed to do a few times), I get to keep everything I have on me. It's a valuable way for new players to learn the game or to help those who might have gone destitute after a bad losing streak get back on their feet. But even the times I was lucky enough to spawn with body armor and a decent assault rifle, death was almost always assured. 

Geared up 

Combat in Escape From Tarkov takes most of its cues from hardcore military sims like Arma but with an even greater emphasis on simulating how you manage your gear. Instead of just running over to a dead player and quickly pulling items into your backpack and moving on, you have to first spend valuable seconds searching the pack, revealing silhouetted items that have to be individually identified before you know exactly what they are. Tarkov turns every opportunity to loot something into an agonizingly slow series of tough decisions and it's great.

I once found an incredibly valuable silencer, for example, but didn't have any spare inventory slots to carry it. I thought my only option was to ditch healing items and hope I didn't take a bullet. I then realized that two of my magazines were each half spent, so I took the bullets out of one, loaded them into the other, and dropped the empty mag with the remaining ammo to make room for the silencer. That whole time I was a sitting duck.

Getting good at that kind of inventory tetris is very satisfying. I'm starting to recognize most of the hundreds of possible items with just a glance, knowing their purpose and, more importantly, their value—an equation that becomes a lot more complicated when I'm not simply appraising whether one gun is better than the other. I never thought I'd see the day where I'd give up a spare helmet because I found a graphics card, which fetches a considerable sum from other players or NPC vendors.

Below: With so many items to find, it's not always easy to tell what's the most valuable.

Tarkov turns every opportunity to loot something into an agonizingly slow series of tough decisions and it's great.

That's not even close to how absurdly detailed Tarkov's inventory system gets, though. Every one of the dozens of assault rifles, SMGs, and shotguns can be broken down into its constituent parts like gas tubes, dust covers, grisp, rails, sights, stocks, muzzle breaks—oh god, it's overwhelming. Keeping track of these pieces, their upgraded counterparts, what functions they serve, and what guns they're designed for is daunting, but I also love that Tarkov treats weapons as the highly complicated machines they are.

The attention to detail extends to how guns handle. Glancing at the control menu made my eyes glaze over the first time, but I've come to appreciate all the ways I can maneuver myself and my gun. The mouse wheel, for example, is used to control how fast I move and how much noise I make, but it can also be used to determine just how low I'm crouching so I can get that perfect angle over a piece of cover.

Because Tarkov doesn't give you an ammo counter like in most shooters, not counting your shots or looting guns and magazines is risky until you take the time to count each bullet using your inventory screen. Fortunately, I can press a button to have my character eject the magazine and weigh it, giving me an approximation of how full it is. One time I looted a shotgun just as I heard footsteps behind me. With just a split second to react, I pressed the button to glance in the chamber, saw there was a round, and blasted my would-be ambusher.

While I'm aware of Escape From Tarkov's reputation for unstable netcode and frequent lag spikes, my experience so far has been smooth—especially when I think back to the glitchy nightmare of DayZ's pre-release state. Aside from a few crashes while loading into a map (I was always able to reconnect and get back into the raid), I haven't encountered many bugs, which is promising.

Below: Managing your stash can be time-intensive, but it's satisfying to own so much loot.

Field surgery 

As if Tarkov wasn't complicated enough, its health system is just as modular as its guns. Like Fallout 4, each limb has its own set of health points. Taking damage might fracture a limb or cause blood loss, requiring bandages or a splint to fix. If a limb's health is reduced to zero (it only takes a shot or two with most guns) all sorts of nasty effects will begin to hinder your combat effectiveness. Lose a leg and you'll have to limp to extraction. Get hit in the torso and your character will begin wheezing, giving away your position. When these complicated systems like inventory management and health start to overlap in the midst of a firefight is how Escape From Tarkov's obsession for detail and realism create brilliant moments of tension.

During a recent Scav run, I was dismayed to realize my only weapon was a Saiga-9, a semi-automatic SMG designed for "shooting sports and plinking"—which can be roughly translated to mean fucking worthless. Still, I forged on and came across nearly 100,000 rubles worth of gear and made it to my extraction site.

Below: Being severely wounded makes you a loud and very easy target.

I just wish Tarkov had in-game voice communication (it's an upcoming feature) because I love the idea of diffusing a stand-off with some hasty diplomacy.

Just when I was a dozen or so meters away, a player ambushed me from around a corner and we both unleashed hell. Miraculously I survived, though I was severely wounded. Taking cover behind a shed, I was able to patch up the bleeding in my leg but I was dangerously low on health. I went over to my victim and looted his body and laughed when I discovered he was also cursed with a Saiga-9. 

Taking what I could, including an expensive piece of armor, I rounded a corner only to find another player staring straight at me from across the road. We exchanged fire as I turned for cover, but in that brief moment I'd taken nearly fatal damage. My leg and stomach had been torn to bits, leaving me with a nasty limp, a loud cough. I quickly popped a painkiller to fight the tremors and reduce my wheezing.

Backing away from my second attacker, I tried to flank around the wall separating us in desperate hope I might get the angle on them, but they weren't there. Unsure of what to do, I pushed forward into a bush and went prone. So badly damaged and with so much good loot, my only hope was that this other player was as startled by me as I was of him and also didn't want to continue the fight. Laying in the bushes, I swapped out my body armor to the new one I had looted, dragging over magazines and spare ammo into the chest pouches. Then I waited.

Below: Firefights happen fast. I only won this one because my enemy ended up having a wildly inaccurate AK-74u.

Five agonizing minutes went by and the time limit on the raid was almost up. It was time to run—or limp—for it. Getting up, I stumbled across the barren parking lot to my extraction zone. The 60 seconds it took were so stressful my actual stomach hurt too, but I was too sluggish to take a safer route. I still can't believe I made it out alive.

That kind of limp across the finish line doesn't feel possible in other battle royales where elimination, not escape, is the only objective. I just wish Tarkov had in-game voice communication (it's an upcoming feature) because I love the idea of diffusing a stand-off with some hasty diplomacy. But even in its unfinished state, Tarkov unearths a new vein of potential for online shooters.

Steven enjoys nothing more than a long grind, which is precisely why his specialty is on investigative feature reporting on China's PC games scene, weird stories that upset his parents, and MMOs. He's Canadian but can't ice skate. Embarrassing.