You can tell from the moment you first open your digital eyes in Escape from Tarkov that it's a game born of the survival shooter genre. Battlestate's online FPS takes elements that you might expect to see in an Arma mod - teamwork and betrayal and scavenging in equal measure - and drops them in more focused scenarios based around the anarchic Russian town of Tarkov.
This isn't set in a huge open-world, then, but rather locations from around the city that players are dropped in and must then advance through in search of the exit. For example, we started off our first game on the bank of a river next to a road leading into town, with abandoned vehicles cluttering up the tarmac, offering cover for those who get into a scrape as they pass through. A second attempt at the same map saw us start on the other side of the road, further back in the same area. Our first attempt took place at night and was more spooky for the darkness and our lack of knowledge of the area, but the second pass took place during the day and was less ominous thanks to the sunlight.
The visuals are a strong point, that much is instantly clear, and the environments look good and they're very detailed. Assets get reused quite a bit, but not so much that it's a distraction. There are plenty of places to hide away, and the design of the environments seems to nicely mix up open spaces with more confined areas. We spent a lot of time moving nervously through corridors waiting to encounter enemies, or dashing between cover and hoping not to get spotted by patrolling enemies.
Inventory management is one of the most important aspects in Escape from Tarkov, and there are a lot of options in terms of how you arrange your gear. There are various items/bags that impact the gear that you hold and how readily accessible it is. You can map your weapons to the keyboard, but this has to be done manually, although once done it's easy to scroll through your options. Picking your weapons is a big part of going into battle, and you can grab a couple of options to suit different scenarios. You can also find items out in the world and further bolster your inventory, and of course you can loot the bodies of fallen enemies.
Looting the dead is going to be an important part of the experience, by the looks of it. Actually, let's spin that around the other way: it's going to be a real pain when you take good gear with you into Tarkov, only to die at the hands of an enemy who then rifles through your pockets and removes anything of value from your newly-deceased person. If you've got enough credits you can insure your best gear, which takes away some of the tension, but if you get to keep your favourite gun, that's a sacrifice we're sure most of us are willing to accept.
In the beta version we tested we were also able to play an offline mode. It's good for checking the maps, but that's about it, and the lack of a genuine threat from player-controlled killers makes for a dull overall experience. We spent what felt like an age looking for someone to kill, to the point where at first we thought this mode was broken (and maybe it was, although we can't rule out human error on our part either). We went back for another look (see the comments below) and after running around the woods for ages, we eventually found an NPC character. After shooting at us from range with a shotgun he ran face-first into a porta-loo and waited for us to climb down the hill and dispatch him with an axe. We got shot in the back while we looted his unfortunate corpse and there endeth the mission. It works, then, although we hope this part of the game gets fleshed out with some new options and smarter AI.