Escape from Tarkov is beautiful, frustrating, deep, challenging, and buggy at times, but its uncompromising adherence to a vision of a brutal and unforgiving world gives it personality that is lacking in many games. Tarkov is not a game for casual players, and I cannot stress this enough. It weaves together skill, reflexes, and map knowledge in a way that makes the game difficult to pick up. But if you put in the time, the firefights are second to none, and the questing and leveling system, while frustrating at times, are rewarding in ways few modern games are.
The gameplay loop can feel like trial and error as you die over and over to poorly explained gameplay elements or more experienced players, but I can distinctly remember the moment that the gameplay clicked for me. It was in the claustrophobia of Tarkov’s health resort. I crept through the dark and abandoned buildings, and as I scavenged through discarded sports bags, lockers, and safes, gunfire erupted on the floor above me. Not the tinny puerile sound of games like Apex Legends or Fortnite, but the pop and roar of heavy automatic fire. The room shook, and plaster flew from the ceiling as grenades detonated above me. As quickly as it began, there was silence. For a long time, all I could hear was the wind, then footfalls as the player headed to loot his kill. I turned the corner and crept up the stairwell. There in the hallway was the body and the killer looming over top of him. He was loot drunk and did not hear me. I found weapons and armor on him that I’d never seen before. The class 6 armor was three levels above what I could buy from the vendors. The guns had ACOG scopes and laser pointers. His backpack was massive. Just like that, I was addicted. Each Tarkov raid brings the promise of reward or ruin. It instills a paranoia. No corner is safe; no dimly lit hallway is absent danger. More shots, far off now tell me that there are players or NPC scavs (scavengers) somewhere that will have to be dealt with before I can escape the map with my loot.
There is no way to play this game casually. Every death means you lose everything you have taken in the raid. And everything in Tarkov is deadly. There are no easy kills absent the hatchlings – axe-wielding players who are either too scared to bring gear into a raid or stuck on a difficult quest. To keep the items looted in a Tarkov raid, you must make it to an extract point on the map. There is no in-game map or compass; you must learn to navigate Tarkov’s various levels manually, learning the landmarks as you go. It is perhaps this aspect that will frustrate and vex new players the most. There are online maps, but until you learn them, you will be stumbling around trying to make sense of the map as it represents the game world. With your attention drawn elsewhere, you will die, frequently — either to the NPC scavs who are frightening by themselves or the veteran players who stalk the halls of high-value loot areas. As you get lost in the map, the scavs will chip away at your limbs until your character is limping and shaking from injuries sustained during gunfights. Hearing scavs close in while you limp towards an extract with a broken leg, and a bag full of expensive loot is dread inducing.
Once you extract, you are presented with a screen that shows you the results of the raid, your kills, the experience you have earned. After that, you can decide whether to keep the loot or sell it to vendors. Money you accumulate on raids can be spent either building reputation with vendors to unlock high tier gear, or to purchase new guns, armor, and ammunition. Ammo type matters a great deal in Tarkov, as it is tied to a gun’s ability to penetrate higher tier armor. Ammo with a higher penetration value can only be purchased from vendors once you have reached a high reputation level with them. None of this is particularly well explained, and the gameplay can seem frustrating when your ammo does nothing against players with top tier armor. The need to unlock armor-penetrating ammo is mitigated by the in-game marketplace where players can buy and sell any item they find in-game, typically at a premium. But unless you’ve done research beforehand, it can seem like you are pointlessly emptying magazines into players who don’t die. The game does give you an after-raid damage report where it tells you how much damage has been absorbed by armor, but Tarkov is one of the only games I’ve played that has this sort of mechanic, and I didn’t notice it until it was pointed out to me. There are dozens of different kinds of ammo of the same caliber, and if you want to see the penetration value of a particular type of ammunition, it’s far quicker to pull up one of the player-made spreadsheets that list the ammo type, penetration, damage, etc., than to individually examine every single variation of 7.62 ammo you can find on the auction house.
The game is still in beta, so there are bugs both in the game world and with the netcode. It is particularly frustrating when one of these elements gets you killed. There are also a small number of quests where the spawn rate of the item is so low that it makes the task almost impossible to complete. Most of these quests can be bypassed by purchasing the item on the marketplace. However, some use a “find in raid” mechanic where you must find the item in-game and successfully extract with it for the vendor to accept the item when turning in the quest. Perhaps the biggest flaw in Tarkov relates to the in-game economy. There’s no explicitly stated goal other than completing quests and making money. Every time you bring gear into a raid you risk losing a significant portion of your profits if you die, and some players have taken to rushing high value loot areas as hatchlings, scooping up any of the more valuable items and placing them into their gamma container— which is a small inventory slot in-game where loot does not drop after you die. If you bring gear into a raid, you’re typically not going to suicide rush high-value loot areas, because if you do, you are at higher risk of losing your gear. If you want to take your time navigating the game-world, most of these areas are picked clean by players that risk nothing and sprint straight towards them. There are several potential solutions to this, but in the current state of the game, the hatchlings are a problem.
Despite all of these flaws, Tarkov is still one of the best multiplayer shooters that I have played. I have trouble transitioning to other shooters because they don’t have the same fusion of good shooting mechanics and the adrenaline spike of gear loss. A friend of mine called this the post-Tarkov shooter affect, where other games of a similar type are ruined after playing Escape from Tarkov. Most of the flaws in the current beta are fixable, and the game is improving with every patch. If you’re looking for something challenging with a tremendous amount of depth, and you enjoy first-person shooters with survival and loot mechanics, Tarkov might be the game for you.
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