Header Art by Major Sniper
[Editor’s Note: This article was written before Tarkov’s “game wipe” 0.12.11 update, which took place on June 30, 2021]
I was warned.
“There’s a lot of people playing the game right now, a lot of inflation.” “The developers kind of screwed up the economy because anyone who had any kind of money could buy an in-game Bitcoin farm that prints cash 24/7.” “There’s no bell-curve to player progression right now: all you have is a bunch of new players who are poor and a bunch of old players who are rich and can run all the meta gear and stomp.”
Out-of-control economies, you say? Learning cliffs? A hellscape of dead newbies and knowledge-gap chasms with no tutorials to help ease your crossing? A semi-persistent world where you stand to lose everything you bring to every fight, where you can quickly end up bankrupt, intensely frustrated, and ready to quit the game?
It all sounded so familiar to me: I wondered why I hadn’t tried this game sooner.
How It Started
I had bought a copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare back when it released. I had tried to play that game, but ended up being so frustrated by the poor client performance on my aging i5 4670 system (and the horrific netcode issues that seemed to plague the initial release) that I threw in the towel, telling myself I’d pick it up again when I upgraded my PC. Then the pandemic happened: tech spawns became so rare IRL that Tarkov’s portrayal of PC part acquisition on Interchange started to look like it might accurately represent the future landscape of PC-building.
Fast forward a year and change. The pandemic continued to grind on, but PC parts came back in stock, at least in some places. I made a pilgrimage to the nearest MicroCenter– a 2-3 hour drive each way– and got myself a Ryzen 5600X & accoutrements at-or-below MSRP. I bid farewell to my trusty quad-core i5, and after one unanticipated trip to the local hardware store to improvise a mounting solution for my old CPU waterblock, I was in business: I had a real PC again.
Now what to play?
I decided to revisit CoD: Modern Warfare. Where previously I’d have been lucky to maintain over 30FPS and had been plagued by constant micro-stuttering, the game now played fluidly. I played for a couple of months, getting to the point where I’d consistently rank in the top few players for a lobby, and it wasn’t at all uncommon to be top-of-team or top-of-game when the score screen rolled around.
Still, I was frustrated: the graphics and animations were phenomenal, but the gameplay itself seemed insubstantial. Normal mode seemed like it was more about reading the minimap than using your conventional senses. Hardcore mode pulled a lot of the HUD elements out, but took an already-insanely-fast TTK and bumped it what felt like one-shot kills (at least for me, with my FAL fetish :3).
My performance on hardcore lobbies was even better than normals, but the game still felt unsatisfying. I’d unlocked every weapon I was interested in using, and a lot of others I didn’t even care about, but discovered I really only liked a few. Matches became repetitive: an endless hellscape of objective-less, random gunfights. TDM on Shipment, so. Many. Times. It got old. I lusted for something that would engage parts of my brain other than the lizard bits that let me aim and click on something before my conscious mind could even establish what the target was.
добро пожаловать в Тарков
Wondering what that header even says? Yup, that’s how it is here. Welcome to Tarkov, land of wondering when the tutorial voiceover will begin until you’re abruptly shot in the head. Let any wistful imaginings of an orientation process drift free from your minds. “Now, press F to open the door and engage the target dummies?” Nyet, comrade former-mercenary. Bois, I don’t think we’re in the Activision-Blizzard product stack anymore.
I’d watched some gameplay. I’d searched out streamers’ opinions on what hardware spec was required. It looked like an interesting game. I bought it. The studio’s website displayed a message saying “Thanks for purchasing Escape from Tarkov.” That was all. No download buttons to be found. No “would you like to install?” First hurdle: find out where they hid the client. Ten minutes of googling later, I’d dug up my link and the installer was fire-hosing data onto my new SSD. Ready or not, it was time to fucking die.
The Horror… The Horror.
Tarkov is billed as a survival game, which it is. That’s what Karmakut (my streamer / VODer of choice for his excellent teaching style / ability to effectively verbalize his thought processes in real-time) always says: gunfights are nice, but surviving is what it’s about.
With that in mind, and my general familiarity with harrowing nature of learning-cliffs, I decided play a few rounds of “Offline Mode”: a locally-hosted raid where you can choose to enable NPCs or not (and which kinds of NPC / behaviors). Offline Mode is a fantastic tool for getting the client configured how you like and learning the ropes. I loaded up my first offline raid: Customs map, with NPCs toggled on. I was not entirely prepared for what happened next.
When you first begin in Tarkov, it’s not a survival game: it’s a horror game. Karmakut has a lot of Tarkov time under his belt; he knows what to listen for, and has an uncanny learned ability to spot other characters. If a cracker falls from a hand and hits a wood floor halfway across a map, Karmkut can tell you what flavor cracker it was and if its owner was upset about spoiling that cracker or if they merely reached nonchalantly for the next one in the package. Karmakut frequently pauses mid-sentence to shoot inexplicably at a tree branch or rock, which appears ridiculous until the body of a man clad head-to-toe in tactical gear falls onto the ground next to it. Karmakut is wise, and good at things.
You do not have these abilities.
You will stumble into Tarkov and, like it was your first spawn in Ghost Recon in 2001, you will appear alone, in a creepy fucking forest. You will listen intently to every noise: the wind in the trees, the light rain as it pitter-patters its way through the thick fog that’s covering the map. You’ll cringe and flinch every time you move and your character’s gear rattles around, or your feet crunch on loose rocks on a hillside, or – god forbid – clang on that piece of metal you just stepped on, you fucking clumsy idiot. Fool-of-a-Took!
You will discover that the game’s NPC enemies – the Scavengers, or “Scavs” for short – do not make these noises. They tend to move quietly, or not at all. In theory this makes them easy prey, as Karmakut is fond of demonstrating with his measured headshots.
But you, young hatchling, will be blissfully oblivious to their presence much of the time, due to the inability of your newborn pattern-matching wetware to discern the difference between a man’s camouflage and the general chaos of the forest itself. You will walk some distance, seeing no man, hearing nothing but the wind and the swaying brush. Eventually you will relax, somewhat. You may find yourself wandering toward some point of interest.
Suddenly, a man’s voice screams something in Russian. The sound is deafening: impossibly close and probably behind you. You first jump out of your chair, probably, then wheel around to face the sound, only to see nothing but more forest. Gunshots split your years, the edges of your screen begin to turn grey, black and red. You try to run, but you can barely limp. One final crack: your character stumbles face-first into the ground. Your screen goes black.
Welcome to Tarkov, сука.
Preparation Is Key.
The horror of my first death now behind me, I decided to set some goals. First: offline mode a few more times, sans NPCs. Step 1: learn the map. A map is a fine thing – and there are some excellent third-party maps for Escape from Tarkov (sound familiar?) – but a map is only useful if you can determine your position. It is technically possible to orient yourself in completely new surroundings using just your wits and a map eventually; that said, it’s not exactly a practical way to spend your time while on-the-clock and being actively hunted.
So it was time to simply spend a few hours running around the map, getting familiar with the major terrain features, and trying to figure out potential pathing. Of course, you will build familiarity and stronger associations with particular places later on, but for now a minimal academic study is strongly encouraged. To be honest, the landscapes of Tarkov are so gritty, realistic, and beautiful that exploring was pretty fun in and of itself.
Next: play some practice raids with NPCs turned on again. I played some of these rounds with the “Scav war” setting toggled on, which causes the NPCs to fight each other. This is helpful to simulate the soundscape you will hopefully encounter in a live raid with players: you will learn which gunshots should be concerning and which pose no threat and are simply providing you with helpful information.
Exploration was fun. Combat practice was still generally stressful and continuing to provide plenty of blind-sidings and jump scares. Still, as a veteran of another open-world, high-stakes online game, I knew it was time to rip the band-aid off and get down to business: it was time for babby’s first live raids.
Setting Realistic Goals
As we have mentioned, Tarkov is ultimately a game about survival. So, as I geared up and prepared for my first raid, this was my goal: try to survive. If I could figure out how to live through my trips across the map, I reasoned, I would at least have some solid ground to build on. These raids were kind of a blur: I loaded up my scav character first.
Your scav is a true “Battle Royale”-style character, equipped with a randomly-generated set of equipment and sent to a randomly-selected scav-only spawnpoint somewhere on the map, usually late in the match with only ten or fifteen minutes left on the doom-clock in which to die gloriously or earn your freedom. Other NPC scavs will not shoot at you (unless you shoot at them first, which you can), but other player-operated scavs are unpredictable and will often dome you: whether this is out of malice or sheer confusion is difficult to guess.
Dying on your scav does not affect your main character in any way, but similarly you are unable to complete any quests or level any skills applicable to your main character either. You can – if you survive – transfer any items you’ve managed to extract with to your persistent item stash, but this (and the fun / actual experience of playing) is the only contribution your scav can make to your long-term gameplay. True to the Battle-Royale experience, though, sometimes you’re the guy who gets handed the Uzi, but other times you’re the guy who gets the pot-lid and the decorative paper fan.
If I recall correctly, I survived. I loaded up my PMC – the main character – and played another raid. I survived. It wasn’t much to write home about: I began by simply attempting to more or less follow the northern edge of the map from side to side, going slowly, keeping myself in concealment and cover, sprinting when necessary to cover open ground, and looting anything I thought I could get away with.
Finding a Groove
I actually survived quite a few of these early raids, and although I wasn’t very aggressive about looting, I managed to scavenge things here and there. My stash was beginning to fill up, as was my bank account. My entry-level account began with a complimentary five-hundred-thousand Rubles (the default currency of the game, although there are several others).
Over the course of the week-and-change I’ve played (at the time of writing), I’ve managed to bump that up to a cool ~1.2 million liquid, and the game now estimates the value of everything in my stash at something around 3.8 million Rubles. I scored a VSS rifle and a clean AK74, a Five-Seven, a 9mm Vector SMG, and plenty of other goodies off a combination of scav runs and looting the fallen on my PMC. I don’t know if this is particularly good or bad, but considering the harrowing accounts I’ve encountered of people going bankrupt and rage-quitting, I guess it’s not too shabby.
I’ve tried to follow Karmakut’s spiritual guidance: play smart, don’t get greedy, survive and thrive, and don’t be scared to reinvest in yourself when you make out OK. I’ve never done “pistol runs” in raids – the practice of spawning in with absolutely minimal gear in an attempt to kill scavs, loot, and get ahead. I’ve always made a conscious effort to equip myself decently if I can. The way I reckon it, you wouldn’t head out to try solo PvP in EVE flying an Ibis… or if you did, you oughtn’t expect to encounter much success. Tarkov is the same way.
Now, no matter what you roll as a newer player, you’re probably not going to make a dent in some thicc-boi chad unless you happen to encounter them under some seriously favorable circumstances. But that said, a little armor and some kind of proper rifle go a long way toward increasing your lethality and survivability. It doesn’t mean you should be running around looking for fights, but it certainly helps with dispatching the scavs you encounter and gives you a decent leg up on other smol-boi player characters who are playing more risk-aversely than you are.
There’s Also Insurance!
The combination of the in-game insurance system for items and the general shittiness or at least mediocrity of your gear also work in your favor. The way it works is, you can insure non-consumable items (such as weapons and armor) with one of the NPC vendors for a fee. When you take the room-temperature challenge, all your gear will drop (like EVE online during one of those 100% drop special events). If another player loots your gear and carries it out of raid, that gear is gone and the insurance premium is not returned.
But on the other hand, if that gear is undisturbed (or– more likely– is thrown back on the ground when an older player scoffs at your kit, curses their terrible loot luck, and tosses it), the gear will be returned to you by the NPC vendor within a day or two. Because you’ll be rocking pretty basic kit, you’ll often find that when the worst happens, a healthy chunk of your equipment will find its way back to you: a nice surprise package in the mail when you log in later. This really helps mitigate a lot of early-game losses.
So this is how it works: is your scav available? (It goes on cooldown for 20-30 mins each time you use it) Play a round on your scav! It’s free experience! (For you, that is: the human at the keyboard– not your PMC character) Even if your scav doesn’t have good gear (you can visually see the equipment on your character model at the character selection screen), playing that scav round will trigger the cooldown and generate a new set of gear for next time, re-setting your random chance of being gifted a scav with a nice gun or gear.
If you’ve got something nice, you can just try to sneak your way to extract and throw that nice stuff in your item stash to use or sell to a vendor. If you’ve gotten the proverbial pot-lid – or worse, a Toz shotgun, which resembles a firearm but has the terminal ballistic effects of your average airsoft gun. Please don’t ask me about the time I got into a fight with another player-scav (who was also cursed with a Toz), during which we emptied multiple magazines into each other at close range until we realized this going nowhere and simply decided to go our own ways.
When your scav is on cooldown, play your PMC to complete quests and progress your persistent character!
Conclusion: EVE-Style Game, Made By Gun Nerds
Escape from Tarkov is a lot like EVE Online. The walls of endless item- and game-knowledge; the open-world, anything-goes gameplay; the intensity of PVP; the relatively slow pace and general strategery compared to its competitors: all of these elements will be familiar to EVE players. The developers clearly exhibit the same nerdy enthusiasm for firearms that EVE’s developers originally had for submarines-masquerading-as-spaceships: the game is a gun nerd’s wet dream, absolutely chock-full of weapons, all of which can be disassembled and reassembled using a seemingly endless array of parts and attachments.
There are meta guns that everybody agrees are good and serve certain purposes. There are also piles of off-meta guns which exist not to be the best at anything, but simply because the developers love guns and wanted to put that particular gun into their human-hunting simulator. Weapon modification has meaningful impacts on a weapon’s handling and capabilities.
Speaking of which, just generally the weapons in this game (and the gameplay in general) are by far the most realistic of any shooter I’ve ever played. Every machine you create is a compromise: bigger guns shooting bigger bullets can do more damage and can be more effective at defeating armor, but they can be heavy and cumbersome. Bigger means slower to shoulder, quicker to drain your stamina, and burdened with heavy recoil (which in this game, really can throw your sights all over the place).
Automatic fire can be clutch when pushing a tight stairwell corner, but can render a rifle completely useless at long range. Big optics can make headshotting dudes from across the map much more practical, but can severely impede your ability to fight at close range (no mach-three-jump-prone-spam-slide 360 no-scoping a-la-COD in this game).
Plus, the Graphics, and the Sound Stage…
The graphics in Tarkov are very good. The engine has kind of a funny look to it sometimes that’s hard to put my finger on. Sometimes this odd look makes it seem ever-so-slightly dated, but for the most part it looks great. Like EVE, the art assets in use are fantastic and give the game a unique, gritty, intensely-realistic vibe. It also has to be said that the maps are absolutely gigantic and extremely detailed, so for a game to be able to render so much at that level of detail and with acceptable performance seems quite impressive.
But if the graphics are good, the sound is a masterclass. The sound effects and positional audio are simply stellar: no Hollywood-style magic “silencers” with their tiny pew-pew sounds, just cracking and popping sounds and thunderclap-like grenades. I’ve used a few of the guns featured in Tarkov IRL, and (my hand to god) they sound pretty much exactly the way I remember them sounding in reality. Even the subtleties of the effects of different headsets are modeled by the sound engine – although you probably won’t experience this straight away as you’ll begin playing without “ears” (the colloquial for sound-modulating comms headsets).
Every action in the game has a sound-cue associated with it. None of these are intended purely for the player’s own enjoyment: everything you do causes true diegetic sound that can be heard by you and by everyone else on the map. Sound is a huge component of Tarkov and being good at it: the quip about Karmakut being able to determine the flavor of cracker that a player dropped? Not too much of an exaggeration.
You’ll use sound to determine where people are on the map. It actually works in this game, unlike certain other games where sounds are frequently missing, played at an entirely inappropriate volume, or – my personal favorite – played from what seems like a completely random direction. Tarkov faithfully recreates the sounds of any and all activity; the weather, the environment, NPCs, and other players interacting with all of those.
This is before you start using sound to understand what weapons are being used, how many weapons (and characters) there are, if those characters are working together or not, and so many other things. You’ll listen for every footstep, every sound of foliage being pushed aside by a hasty player as they move through the woods – even a player checking their chamber or moving the fire-selector on their weapon makes a discernible sound.
So, Decision Time.
At the end of the day, should you play Tarkov? If you enjoy EVE online, and you want an interesting, complicated, intense, strategic shooter experience, this game is a strong candidate.
There’s so much more one could explain about Escape from Tarkov, but I won’t do that here: afterall, negotiating the learning cliff yourself is half the fun, and there are others who are much better teachers than me. If you want to learn more, I highly recommend Karmakut’s Youtube channel, which has multiple series of videos dedicated to teaching new players how to survive and thrive in the harsh world of Tarkov. It was only many-hours into watching these videos that I discovered Karmakut is himself an EVE player. Color me surprised.