It's a shame Gray Zone Warfare is a performance nightmare, because it fixes so many problems I have with Escape From Tarkov

gray zone warfare
(Image credit: Madfinger Games)

I sometimes question if I can call myself a fan of extraction shooters when I don't enjoy the most popular game in the genre: Escape From Tarkov. I bounced off the hardcore milsim after a few painful gear wipes at the hands of extraction campers. I've almost reinstalled it a dozen times in the years since, hopeful that I could get into it with the right mindset, but always stop short of pressing play.

That's why I'm eager to give Gray Zone Warfare, the latest tactical FPS pressed from the Tarkov mold that's oozing with buzz from EFT devotees, a real shot. If I'm gonna suck, at least I'll suck right alongside a bunch of other new players.

Turns out I was very wrong to assume Gray Zone is another Tarkov clone. The first clue was discovering there's a whole cooperative element to the game you won't find in any other major extraction shooter. Before I even picked up a gun, I had to join one of three factions. It turns out this is a pretty important decision—you can only group up with players in your faction, and you can only change your faction after a full server reset that'll happen "every few months." Mandfinger says a feature is in the works to wipe your character and switch factions whenever.

The other reason factions matter is that each one has a persistent base camp on the 42km x 42km island of Lamang, and players in your faction are automatically allies. I was surprised by how much the faction system eases the tension of playing solo. Even if my faction mates are ultimately playing for themselves, it's really nice to have strangers watching your back.

At least during this early launch period, the geographic divide between the factions creates these "safe" zones in the corners of the map where you can be fairly confident there are no real enemy players. In my first hour exploring a town outside camp, I only encountered friendly players and NPCs. The closer you get to the center or opposing corners of the map, the more likely you are to run into the other factions. It reminds me of the Horde/Alliance dynamic in World of Warcraft, except the PMCs of Gray Zone Warfare are fighting over loot caches with shiny guns and water bottles.

Factions make for such a friendlier introduction than the minute one beatdowns you get in Tarkov or Marauders. And Gray Zone's other standout feature, its persistent map, slightly softens the blow of losing your loot. When you die, you respawn in the same session back at your base camp. From there you can start fresh with a new loadout like you would in Tarkov, or you can head back to where you just beefed it and try to recover what you lost. If a player killed you, then they probably pocketed your best stuff. But if it was an NPC, it'll all still be there.

Easy corpse runs are the reason the few deaths I've had so far in Gray Zone haven't bothered me too much. The first time, I died as soon as I stepped out of the helicopter in some sort of freak accident. The second time, I had to go AFK just as an NPC found me and scored an easy kill. Both times, I was able to recover everything I lost, something you won't see in Tarkov without a group of helpful friends willing to be your corpse mule.

Grayzone Warfare rucksack full of items

(Image credit: Madfinger Games)

Too early access

These smart, welcome adjustments to the Tarkov formula make Gray Zone stand out in an increasingly homogenous genre. I want to play more Gray Zone Warfare, which is way more than I can say about the games that inspired it, but that makes its glaring early access messiness all the more frustrating.

As day one Steam reviewers will tell you, it's nearly impossible to get Gray Zone running at a smooth, competitive shooter-friendly framerate without a very powerful PC. If you're in the vast majority of Steam users with several generations-old hardware, you'll have to settle for a choppy 30-40 fps average with frequent chugs in busy areas (and that's at a humble 1080p with DLSS on). It's a nice looking game, but nothing about it suggests that only the might of 30 and 40-series cards can render its glory.

Gray Zone Warfare helicopter"

There are also some early balancing problems players have noticed. Since the preview period, Madfinger has been tweaking how helicopters work to discourage players from camping landing zones looking for easy kills. In a change made for the early access launch, players now have five seconds of invulnerability to safely reach cover after disembarking from a heli. Seems like a good measure, though ultimately I think players deserve to know when they're dropping into a zone with nearby enemies.

So yes, this is early early access. What you can play today feels like the beginnings of a much larger game, but it's hard to recommend dropping $35 on it (or a lot more, if you want more inventory space) as is. You only need to read this list of planned features to see how far Gray Zone Warfare still has to go:

  • A complete map featuring all locations and diverse biomes
  • A hazardous Ground Zero area with end-game enemies and new storylines
  • Different types of AI behaviors based on the enemy type, situation, time, or weather condition
  • Faction-based AI with its own agenda involving quests, patrolling, scavenging, and attacking others
  • Factions featuring progression systems and diverse reputations
  • Immersive environmental storytelling featuring mature and engaging plots
  • Advanced quest system encompassing both main and side storylines
  • Game-changing, captivating seasonal events
  • Resource-intensive and survival-focused crafting
  • Dynamic weather changing the gameplay experience
  • An accelerated day and night cycle
  • Unique skills system based on the player's achievements, not grind
  • Customizable "hooch" player's base quarters
  • Enhanced weapon customizations
  • Fully customizable gear
  • Complex trading system for players

Developer Madfinger Games expects early access to last years, and is leaving the door open to change its plans based on player feedback. 

Recent updates

5/2/24: In a previous version of this story, I mentioned that you couldn't shoot out of the helicopters in the preview version of the game, but failed to realize Madfinger changed how this works for the early access release. You can now defend yourself while landing and taking off in a heli, and disembarking players have five seconds of invulnerability.

Morgan Park
Staff Writer

Morgan has been writing for PC Gamer since 2018, first as a freelancer and currently as a staff writer. He has also appeared on Polygon, Kotaku, Fanbyte, and PCGamesN. Before freelancing, he spent most of high school and all of college writing at small gaming sites that didn't pay him. He's very happy to have a real job now. Morgan is a beat writer following the latest and greatest shooters and the communities that play them. He also writes general news, reviews, features, the occasional guide, and bad jokes in Slack. Twist his arm, and he'll even write about a boring strategy game. Please don't, though.