I spend the majority of my time playing Escape From Tarkov listening. I spend most of my time crouched behind a bush, listening to the telltale sound of someone hoofing it with their stash of loot, or standing outside a building, chest-thumping, trying to work out if the crunch I heard is my three friends nervously moving behind me or someone inside, ready to put an AP20 slug into the first player in the door.
Escape From Tarkov is not a relaxing game. It's also somewhat notorious already: It's been in active development for half a decade, and it's in a years-long beta that players can access by preordering.
There's nothing quite like Escape From Tarkov
For the uninitiated, Escape From Tarkov is a survival game that takes the rules of battle royale and supersizes them - you choose what you take into each "raid", before trying to complete quests, loot valuable items and kill enemy players and NPCs. Die, and you lose everything you bring in with you. On top of this, you have to manage a fairly robust medical system that simulates fractures, pain and the effects of starvation and dehydration.
In addition, your armour will degrade, in line with the caliber of bullet you're shot with and the ballistic profiles of the particular round: the same gun could fire different rounds that either ping harmlessly off your armour or blow a hole in it and kill you near-instantly. Tarkov is probably the most "hardcore" shooter currently in development, with all the positives and negatives that come associated with that.
Still, once you've graduated with your degree of not dying instantly from Tarkov's bloody syllabus, it's actually quite an enjoyable romp. The best trick Escape From Tarkov has up its sleeve is the way that it contextualises the loot and shoot gameplay, so you care about every CPU, water filter or even USB charger you find along the way.
That rifle could be worth plenty
My favourite part of the game is that one of the game's big-ticket items is Bitcoin. A Bitcoin can be sold to an in-game merchant for a number of roubles that's tied to its real-life value. This means the in-game economy is constantly in flux, with graphics cards, fuel and even pineapple juice skyrocketing in price as players scramble to get the pieces to keep their Bitcoin farms running.
Bitcoin — in the real world — is a barely concealed pyramid scheme that's destroying the planet. However, it does add a frisson of excitement when you find a can of fuel on an enemy player, knowing that it's going for 700,000 Roubles instead of the usual 150,000, because the pretend currency in the real world is making the even more pretend currency in the pretend world sell for megabucks.
This meta-game merry-go-round, initially appearing to be little more than a sideshow from the smash and grab looting of the first few runs, soon becomes the primary aspect of the game. "I've just upgraded my toilet to max level" is a text I have received in the last week. "Pineapple Juice is 50k now and I didn't realise till I drank some :(" is another.
Playing with friends, there's always a perceptible bitterness when you're the one that finds high-tier items like a graphics card, golden lion or rolex, and the game suddenly becomes less about finishing the stated goal of the run — often murdering NPC Scavs or picking up/putting down an item somewhere on the map — and more about getting you and your precious cargo off of the map so you can sell it.
Not For The Faint Of Heart (Or Stomach... Or Legs)
Expect to be hit from nowhere
This can be easier said than done when it's not uncommon to be taken out with a single headshot at 200+ metres without ever seeing your assailant, and even if you win a fight, injuries to your stomach could cause a quick death without food, while a missing leg will slow you to a sluggish crawl as you try to escape (as you can imagine).
The game's lethality, and the constantly ramping stress when you find something that you want and really want to get out with, is the best reason to play. It's often impossible to know whether taking it slowly or charging in a straight line to your current objective is the best option, and this tension is the reason I can't put the game down.
Escape from Tarkov thrills me so much because it is a world where economic power comes from the barrel of a gun, where you can take an experienced player by surprise and then make off to an extraction point with all of his stuff, either to flog it to one of the game's merchants, or use it yourself. Killing an enemy player and finding out that he has a nicely customised weapon, chunky piece of armour or even just a mag full of bullets – the good bullets.
Crouch-waddling through a patch of quiet woodland, Escape From Tarkov can seem almost peaceful. There's a jankiness to the game that's almost charming, but the environments are often stunning, even when you move away from dense woodland and explore the storage rooms of a gloomy off-brand IKEA.
No Honor Among Thieves
If they're not with you, they're not friendly
However, there are some thorny bits. The Escape From Tarkov community is unfortunately filled with complete arseholes, meaning every now and again when you kill another player you'll get a friend request from someone that will lead to them telling you to kill yourself because of some perceived slight.
Quest design encourages further toxicity because it often requires you to kill people in certain creative ways, and the easiest way to resolve most of these situations is to lay in a bush and shoot people in total silence. It's miserable when it happens to you, and it's not all that much better when you're doing it to other players, but because the quests are the game's real form of progression, inevitably you will spend 20 minutes facedown in a bush, hoping to snag players before anyone stumbles upon your hiding spot.
The earlier mentioned jank also persists in the game’s menus, and navigating the game's UI out of raid is a form of torture. Improvements do roll out as the patches roll along, but inventory management, quest clarity in the menus and even just making sure you're going into the same game as your friends is full of friction that some may find unwieldy.
Also, while it's not super noticeable in the game, it's always worth highlighting that the developers once said there were no women in the game because war was only for hardened men. They walked it back, but it's 2021 and it rankles to hear people make nonsense excuses. This may or may not impact your enjoyment, but it's something that makes me feel weird — especially in a game with seemingly 10000 different variants of the AK — not to mention the absurd ‘justification’ from the devs.
So, is the game worth playing today? If you can hack the massive amount of learning involved, there's nothing else like it. Right now, it's probably one of the most difficult multiplayer games I've ever played, but it does offer a completely unique experience, and I can't keep my hands off it.
Some nights I'll check out of the game frustrated, but most of the time I appreciate a tactical experience and making meaningful progress towards having a huge stash. The game resets every few months, and each time there are meaningful changes that make me eager to get involved. No game has ever managed to get me hyped up for a "drop backpack" shortcut like Tarkov has.
So, yes. If you got to the end of this review and think it might be your kind of thing… give it a go.
If you do pick it up, maybe I'll see you in Interchange. Unless you see me first, that is.
Reviewed on PC