I’ve always approached Escape from Tarkov with some trepidation. A hardcore take on the extraction shooter filled with survival game elements, I have constantly been battling the temptation to give it a try since its closed beta launch back in 2017.
A lot of this was thanks to its enduring popularity with streamers on platforms like Twitch but, as gripping as it is to watch someone else play, the seemingly endless flow of posts on sites like Reddit where new players vented their frustrations at the game’s notoriously high learning curve managed to repeatedly put me off from taking the plunge.
With loads of fond memories of messing around with friends in titles like Arma 3, I’m definitely no stranger to more difficult first-person shooter (FPS) experiences, but the prospect of spending anywhere from $50 to $150 on one of the many editions of Escape from Tarkov only to bounce right off it was a huge barrier that I didn’t manage to overcome until I saw it on sale a couple of months ago.
Smash and grab
For those not up to date with the all latest terminology, Escape from Tarkov is an extraction shooter – a different take on the massively popular battle royale formula. It follows a broadly similar structure to a game like Fortnite, with teams of players arriving on an open-world map and duking it out for survival.
The key difference here is that, rather than aiming to simply be the last group standing like in a battle royale, your goal is to try and get your hands on as much valuable gear as possible and get out at a marked extraction point. Anything that you find and extract with can then be brought back into subsequent matches, but you run the risk of losing everything you’re carrying if killed in the field.
The stakes are already high when your entire loadout is on the line but Escape from Tarkov takes things to an even more punishing level than most with its unforgiving commitment to realism. Firefights are almost always fast, brutal, and intense, with enemies (or you if you’re not paying attention) going down after just a couple of well-placed hits. Any injury can be lethal too, meaning that you’re highly likely to find yourself bleeding out in a nearby ditch if you sustain a serious wound without immediate access to any healing equipment.
Sound and positioning is also vitally important and, as a less experienced player, it took a good few hours and a surprising amount of concentration to stop myself from inadvertently revealing my position by accidentally brushing past foliage or stepping on broken glass. Throw in a very fiddly inventory system, tricky weapon handling, and the need for your character to frequently eat and drink, and it is an awful lot to deal with at first.
Into the woods
These systems meant that I didn’t have the best time back when I initially started playing about a month ago. My first priority was to try and get to grips with the sprawling Woods map, but my experience mostly boiled down to catching a last-second glimpse of a heavily armored player crouched in a distant bush before immediately dying of a shot to the head.
The only thing that stopped me from ditching the game entirely was the enjoyment of playing with friends. Under the watchful eye of our resident 3,500+ hour Tarkov expert and Editor-in-Chief Jake Tucker, I managed to get a decent grip of the basic mechanics without too much frustration – even if he hasn’t quite forgiven me for that one time I accidentally shot him in the back in the middle of a firefight.
Even though we had our fair share of memorable matches, the formula never really clicked with me until the game’s most recent update which features a brand-new map geared specifically towards newcomers like me. Called Ground Zero, the map is planned to have a separate matchmaking pool for lower level players and consists of a small city block with a handful of abandoned buildings to explore.
It seems like it’s been designed to facilitate close combat encounters and I got into a handful of memorable firefights in my first run alone. This included an absolutely incredible ambush in the central street, where Jake and I mercilessly pulverized two clueless level 10 players while we were perched on a sneaky vantage point at the top of an elevated walkway which resulted in me gaining a whole loadout of valuable plundered gear.
The map’s small size means that you’re almost always guaranteed to run into other players which, although terrifying, has done a far better job at getting me comfortable with the combat mechanics than trudging around a seemingly endless forest without so much as seeing an enemy player ever could.
It’s also the absolute perfect way to help develop key vital navigational skills. Escape from Tarkov doesn’t feature any kind of conventional map for players to check their positions, meaning that much of your traversal relies on memory and trial and error.
Most environments are absolutely massive, and I was barely able to wrap my head around a small portion of Woods even after consulting a fan-made map. In contrast, the simple, compact layout of Ground Zero is super easy to learn. There are lots of easily recognizable landmarks and I can already get to most of the extraction points after just one afternoon playing.
It also definitely helps that I chose to jump back into the game so shortly after a wipe (a periodic event where the progress of all players is reset) as I meant that I was very unlikely to run into any seriously kitted-out players. I’ll have to wait and see if this remains the case in a few weeks, but I’m optimistic that the map’s unique queuing system will help keep it a relatively even playing field until I’m comfortable moving on to the big leagues.
There are definitely still some sore points in the rest of the package, like the confusing main menu UI or the frankly bizarre hideout-building minigame which I still don’t really understand. But, the arrival of Ground Zero has gone a long way to take much of the frustration out of the newcomer experience.
Escape from Tarkov has already been very successful for an in-development title, but these efforts to help make it more approachable suggest a bright future for the game.
If you’re looking for more great FPS games to play, see our guides to the best FPS games or the best free games for our top recommendations.