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Escape From Tarkov has us excited about the hardcore survival genre again

Could this be the STALKER successor we've been waiting for?

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

When DayZ broke onto the scene some years ago it single-handedly created a new, best selling genre. Since then survival games have been coming out quickly. Some might say too quickly. For every unique, influential title like Ark: Survival Evolved or Rust there's a half dozen half-finished budget titles with wonky gameplay. From what we've seen in an early live demo, Escape From Tarkov could be the next title to push the genre forward.

Just a few weeks ago the team at Battlestate Games hosted the first ever live gameplay demo of Tarkov on Twitch, and after watching the entire stream I reached out to the developers to learn more. After a bit of translation from Russian, here's a breakdown on what we know about the game.

Tarkov is a fictional Russian city located near St. Petersburg. In the fiction of the game, it's been recently ravaged by war and both UN and Russian regular army forces are still operating in the area.

Players can take the role of one of three factions. BEAR is a team of Russian private military contractors. They're opposed by USEC, a similarly geared-up Western PMC. A third faction, called Scavs, is made up of residents and migrants trapped inside Tarkov and trying to survive. Gameplay is squad-based, tactical and first-person.

What initially sets Tarkov apart is its gunplay. The game includes a full ballistics model, including bullet drop, ricochets and bullet penetration. That means rounds can deflect off hard surfaces like concrete walls and even roads, making suppression fire extremely effective. Penetration even takes into account internal deflection, meaning rounds can enter soft objects — including other players — and exit going in a different direction.

The other unique aspect of Tarkov is that unlike DayZ, which is played on a single massive map, Tarkov intends to be broken out into discrete connected environments. During the demo the team showed only a single area of industrial buildings, including gas stations and worker's dormitories. But the vision is to have this area connected to a nearby factory map on one side, and a suburban area on the other.

In order to get to a particular raid location, players will have to fight their way in across multiple maps.

Play sessions focus around scenario-based raids. In order to get to a particular raid location, players will have to fight their way in across multiple maps. Maps will have multiple exits and entrances, and it will be up to experienced players to lead their fireteam carefully through the environments by dead reckoning.

Of course you can drop in solo, or get matched up with other random players in the same faction. Eventually, the team tells us, you'll be able to create parties of up to five friends and drop in together.

Once in the game world though, there's no way of knowing who else is in there with you. There's no map, no radar and virtually no HUD.

"Just like in real life, to detect enemies, you’ll have to rely on your eyesight, hearing and attention," Nikita Buyanov, project leader and producer, told Polygon. "You have no way of knowing if there is anybody at the location you enter, just like when you enter an unfamiliar room or building in the real world. You can’t see who is playing before starting the game, and even after starting the game, you won't know who's in there."

The game is so hardcore that even checking how much ammunition is in your weapon requires you to drop the magazine and visually inspect it.

An unusual, and as yet poorly defined feature, is a so-called karma system. It's not recommended that players go around engaging in firefights indiscriminately in Tarkov. When you kill PMCs or Scavs it sticks with you, and the effect is that you'll begin to "draw the short straw" more often, Buyanov said. That can result in more frequent weapon jams or persistent illnesses. Nothing game-breaking, but bad karma is designed to be annoying for "those who have wronged their fellow players."

At your disposal will be at least six weapon platforms, including a Kalashnikov and an M4 variant as well as pistols and shotguns. Weapon customization is a quantum leap from the Call of Duty series, and looks to be even more complex than Arma 3. It includes dozens of points on each weapon to add different stocks, furniture, firing pins and even multiple sets of optics on the same or different rails.

"Everything, and we mean everything, on your weapons can be replaced," Buyanov said. "Although it’s not yet implemented, we're making it so you can even replace the trigger [action] or place a rubber butt plate on a stock. Basically, the main idea behind customization is that you have to be really familiar with real-world weapon modding —we don't try to simplify it."

Buyanov says that the game's graphical fidelity is thanks to his team's years spent working on FPS titles in the Contract Wars series, while the authenticity and attention to detail comes from his team's real-world military experience.

"We have a mix of talent, some veteran developers, some new to game development. But everyone loves guns and FPS games. One of the studio leads is actually a former Spetsnaz officer, the Russian equivalent of the U.S. Special Forces."

Adding to such a large feature set, the team also showed off a deep skill tree that adds perks to your persistent avatar in the same way that the Elder Scrolls series does. The more you use a weapon or a skill in the game, the more experience you gain and the more perks you unlock.

Most exciting is what the team isn't saying right now. The Russia 2028 universe, which Tarkov and Contract Wars both share, has elements of the supernatural along the same lines as the legendary STALKER franchise. The conditions screen clearly shows elements like stamina and hydration, but also radiological and biological counters. The team has hinted at an overarching story, along with plot twists and multiple secrets to be found.

No release date has been announced, but the team seems primed for a 2016 release. So far, few people have actually had hands-on with the game, but right now Escape From Tarkov is at the top of our list for the most-anticipated survival games. You can watch the entire archived livestream above.

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