Escape From Tarkov: Arena preview - intense, but inessential

 Gameplay in Escape From Tarkov Arena
Gameplay in Escape From Tarkov Arena

TechRadar Gaming is reporting live from Gamescom 2023 on the latest and greatest developments in gaming and hardware.

My hands are shaking horrendously after my first round of Escape From Tarkov: Arena. It could just be the fact I'm playing it halfway through Gamescom 2023, and I'm running on fumes. However, I'd wager it's because Arena captures the terror of a close-range Escape From Tarkov firefight and makes an entire game out of it.

If you're not familiar with Escape From Tarkov, it's a PC-only first-person shooter that sends players scurrying around for loot in huge areas filled with AI-controlled enemy forces and other players and tasks you to get in, complete missions, scavenge loot, and get to an extraction point. You choose the gear you enter each of these Raids with, and if you die before you reach the extract, you'll lose everything.

There's more to it, though. A detailed medical system means rounds can break bones, a food and water system bolsters this by letting you become dehydrated or just so hungry that you drop dead out of peckishness. It's a survival game that plays like a savage battle royale, and it's hugely popular.

Escape From Tarkov: Arena takes those latter bits and squishes them down, pitching teams against each other in arenas that are closer in size to Call of Duty or Halo, while keeping the whole "you'll fail a lot and you'll like it" ethos of its parent game.

Sadly, there's very little new here, especially if you ignore the party system and loadout systems that were created for this game, both of which have already been added to Tarkov.

This doesn't mean I don't enjoy it, but this is a biased opinion: I'm a Tarkov lifer and I'm already bought into this universe, able to effortlessly parse armour classes and ammo types in the scant moments we had between rounds to best decide on a new loadout. For those who aren't on that wavelength, it's hard to see what Arena brings here that isn't done better in original Escape From Tarkov. 

Everybody's Tarkin

Escape From Tarkov Arena class selection screen
Escape From Tarkov Arena class selection screen

It almost feels like Arena is, if I'm being cynical, a way to get arena shooter fans looking for something different to try and convert them into Tarkov players. While the game is free to everyone who already owns Tarkov's pricey Edge of Darkness collectors edition, everyone else will have to cough up more cash. If I were even more cynical, I'd say this is a chance for the team to get their loyal fanbase to buy the same product again, offering a slightly different flavor for those willing to pay top whack all over again.

The smaller scale loot-free battles feel more like they'd function as a training area for wannabe chads who are struggling with gear fear - the panicked feeling unique to extraction shooters where you are so scared of making a mistake and losing your sack of loot that you make a mistake and lose your sack of loot - and want a low-risk way to practice the mechanics and learn the do's and don't's that are essential to survival.

While I enjoyed my initial rounds with the game I quickly found that without that loot as a prize, Arena's battles can feel a little flat. The extraction shooter works not because of its dreary hypermasculine PMC fantasy or the muted colors that make up its world, but because the game offers up a near-perfect risk and reward mechanic. Strip that out and boil it all down to firefights between players just a few steps from each other and it feels like a weaker version of the title that brought Battlestate Games all of the attention in the first place.

Stupid decisions have always meant death in Tarkov's almost unfairly brutal combat, but the victor in a scrap between different players was often decided not by reflexes but by whoever was smarter. As a 34-year-old with his better days in FPS games behind him, this has always felt like Escape From Tarkov's unique selling point.

Sadly, as Arena squashes down the urban warfare of Tarkov to Call of Duty-sized arenas, that intelligence feels less essential. You can still pull off a cracking flank and sneak into the back of a ruined aircraft to blow two men in half with a shotgun, but more often than not you'll be fighting around tight corners with the fastest finger getting the win.

Up close and personal

Escape From Tarkov Arena player showing middle finger
Escape From Tarkov Arena player showing middle finger

If you're reading this and rolling your shoulders, ready to jump in, this could be the game for you. These firefights are still some of the best in video games: incoming fire cracks and whines, bullets tear through cover, bursts of gunfire feel lethal and unpleasant, and heavy armor is your only savior until it very suddenly isn't. Combat detritus adds another level of complexity to proceedings, as blood spatters walls behind hit enemies, dust and smoke hang heavy in the air, and spent magazines little the ground. I haven't been in any real gunfights so can't claim to know whether both the original game and Escape From Tarkov: Arena is actually realistic, but it sure feels authentic.

Tarkov is a game you play with your ears more than anything else, listening to enemies crunch around you, timing attacks as you hear your opponents reloading or fixing broken limbs. A show floor isn't the ideal venue for that sort of play, but luckily my opponents here aren't that familiar with the game's foibles. Tarkov’s depth means that some shotgun shells can carve through armor like butter, some will kill a player with a single blast to the legs but won’t scratch anyone protected by armor. Others are armour-piercing slug shells that require pin-point accuracy but will fell an enemy like you’ve shot them with an anti-tank gun if you manage to hit them.

Without that information, several of these fights saw me being peppered by rounds that hit like Nerf darts or had players jabbing themselves with injectors that actually lowered their chances of survival. For Escape From Tarkov: Arena to find real success it's going to need to find a way to onboard the players that are making their way across from other multiplayer shooters, and I haven't really seen any evidence of that here.

While there is a pleasing tension to hurling yourself to the ground mid-fight to try and reload or stitch up a gaping wound, this exact same tension is in Escape From Tarkov too. It's the same, but up close. Perhaps several of the EFT players obsessed with player vs. player combat will find their new home here, but that will take them away from Escape From Tarkov and I'll miss their absence.

Games seem to revolve around one death pulling you out of the action. First, we played a 5 v 5 game mode in a map called Air Pit, which has a crashed helicopter in the middle of a few stores. These matches could swing on a knife edge as players were removed from the board, and injuries incurred early in a round could lead to the end of things.

Later, we tried a 2v2 game mode that saw several different teams coming together to fight for the top spot. This felt like a Gunfight match from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, with players sticking close together as they picked from Equator, the hotel that bears the level's name looming large over one-half of the map. For those who aren't competing, they're watching like the Gulag from Call of Duty Warzone, which feels like a nice way to watch those sublime firefights play out and calm your nerves when there's less risk to yourself.

I say less risk because even though you're not in the raid, the fighting players below can still wing wounds up into the watching spectators, hurting them and in some cases even killing them.

I see a lot of Escape From Tarkov: Arena in my future, but it is a recruitment poster rather than a unique mode, and for the Tarkov faithful it's a €37 (about $40 or £32 in conversion in today's rates) training mode to help people improve.

We played Escape From Tarkov: Arena at Gamescom 2023. There's currently no release date for the game, but you can already preorder it. For more action, you might want to check out the best FPS games too.