Death is as natural a part of any shooter as the crack of an AK or the sizzle of a silenced pistol; after all, with all those bullets flying around, it’s bound to happen. But whereas conventional shooters like Counter-Strike jolt you back to life with the simple press of a key, life in BattleState Games’ Escape from Tarkov isn’t so easy: if you go down, the scavenger who blew your brains out might strip your body of all your hard-earned equipment, and you can’t get it back. According to studio head Nikita Buyanov, this single axiom serves as the cornerstone for Tarkov’s entire design philosophy. “In classical shooters, the player isn’t afraid to lose anything,” he says. “If you have that fear, it changes everything. The game hooks you emotionally. That’s what Escape from Tarkov is all about.”
Buyanov describes Tarkov as a “hardcore” game, and it’s not hard to see why. Set in a fictional war-torn region of the developer’s home country of Russia, Tarkov follows in the heavy tread of ultra-realistic tactical shooters like Operation Flashpoint and the infamous Arma series, complete with exhaustive customization of your munitions and full damage modeling on every limb. Unlike the frenetic melee of an Overwatch match, Tarkov’s raids are brutal and brief, with only the highest-spec armor preventing the sort of staccato two-shot gunfights that veterans of the genre have come to expect. And unless you’re a certified operator already, it’s fair to say that your first few hours of the game will be a little less than pleasant. As Buyanov puts it: “Newcomers should expect to die early, and die often. You have to suffer a lot. You have to adapt to this environment.”
When you’re really struggling against your competition of kitted-out commandos, however, Tarkov lets you play a different role: that of a nameless Scavenger. Computer-controlled survivors roam the dim forests and collapsed warehouses of Tarkov’s “Raids,” barking out Russian phrases as they hunt for caches of ammo to snatch and fellow looters to blast. Scavenger mode lets you commandeer one of these poorly-equipped marauders for your own devices - usually resulting in a swift and bitter end. Still, if you manage to scrape by and make it to one of the raid’s exits, anything you gathered on your trek will drop into the inventory of your primary character. When I expressed concerns about the game’s accessibility to less-experienced players, Buyanov pointed to the Scavengers as a possible solution to that issue. “For a casual player, it’s really hard to start playing the game and win,” he says. “Scavenger mode allows players to familiarize themselves with the game without losing everything. It gives you a little breather, but it doesn’t let you relax.”
Many have compared Tarkov’s high-stakes, loot-heavy schema to the veritable explosion of battle-royale games first ignited by Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, the biggest shooter of 2017. And while they certainly share some undeniable similarities - especially in their post-Soviet bleakness, rendered in husks of Brutalist concrete and prairie growing through shattered sidewalks - Buyanov downplays the comparison. “Escape from Tarkov has been in development since way before PUBG,” he says. “We don’t compare Tarkov with battle royale games, but some people do. Those people haven’t played Tarkov, though. The only similarity is that you shoot in PUBG, and you shoot in Tarkov. We don’t want to make our own Battleground, or our own battle royale. We know that our game is unique, and we’re bound to that idea. We don’t want to get on that hype train.”
In its current closed beta, with its scattering of smaller maps rife with predators aching for the kill, it’s easy to draw similarities between the battle royale orthodoxy and Tarkov: the scramble for loot, the shock of the sudden encounter, the sting of losing it all - or the thrill of making it out. But, as Buyanov is quick to note, the current state of the game is only a shadow of the final product, which will focus on a persistent progression of scenarios that, in his words, resemble the co-op campaigns of Left 4 Dead more than the discrete multiplayer matches that some early adapters might expect. “The point of the game is to move through these levels, get better gear, and then eventually, yes, escape from Tarkov,” he says. BattleState also plans to refine that central structure with role-playing game-esque mechanics, like maintaining a hideout, or completing side quests for the vendors who buy and sell your gear. For those who prefer to make their own fun, Buyanov outlines a free-roam mode that combines co-op and competitive play in a less-structured setting.
Overall, Buyanov sums up Escape from Tarkov as “the game of their dreams” - a shooter that applies the “ultra-realistic” mantra beyond just the interactions between bullets and brains. But describe its reputation as a bastion of the hardest of the hardcore, Buyanov feels that, with time, the general audience of gaming may come to appreciate the punishing, ruined world of Tarkov. And, overall, I think he might have a point. Losing everything to a lucky shotgun ambush might not sound like everyone’s definition of a good time, but after decades and decades of pointless viscera, it’s a little refreshing to have something to lose beyond just another tick on your kill to death ratio.
“I see people say that you have to be hardcore, that you have to have played hours of Arma,” says Buyanov. “It’s true that right now, with the closed beta, we’re focusing on the hardcore player. But when the game comes out, we’ll have really good tutorials, an encyclopedia of in-game terms, and other helpers. We will help in the self-adapting process of going from a casual gamer to a hardcore gamer. We want to blend the two audiences. We want to give the game to everybody.”