Last year I hit 40. The big 4-0. The point at which life is supposed to begin. I’ve never really held with numbers being significant when it comes to age. There are various milestones people tell you that have some kind of cosmic bearing on your life but it’s all generally bollocks. Well, I thought it was all bollocks.

Not long after my birthday I noticed I couldn’t focus on close up stuff very well. It turns out I need reading glasses which would be fine if somehow the glasses didn’t magically make me look like my dad. Awesome. No. Really awesome.

Then a month or two after that I went for an asthma check up and found that my blood pressure was high and I was borderline type two diabetic. I’m not sure how we got there from just an asthma check but here we are. The nurse was thorough if nothing else.

It’s something of a running joke amongst friends and family that when I get my blood pressure checked and it’s normal they go “How is that possible? You’re so highly strung! Lololololol!” Hi-larious bants, mate. Every time. But now it’s caught up with me.

I was not actually diabetic, but on the way to being. I Was 15st 3lbs (213lbs for the yanks and 96.13 kg for you European types)  and lazy as fuck. So I stopped drinking, cut out the junk and started exercising. It’s one thing to go “Well I’m fat and unfit so I really ought to do something about that.” while sitting in front of the Xbox and scoffing Dairy Milk with a can of lager but entirely another when a health care professional says it. Or at least it should be.

For some reason mentally changing gears for this has been very easy for me. I literally just decided to stop buying alcohol and sweets and started supping just water (outside of my morning cups of tea, because there are limits). You can’t consume ’em if they’re not in the house.

One habit I didn’t change that could impact my blood pressure was gaming. It’s my primary hobby and my main means of escapism and I’m buggered if I’m stopping playing games, no matter how stressful they are. As the world continues its steady slide into hell, escapism is essential for my sanity. I like ignoring the bad things and games are a good way to ignore things. And it’s video games! Y’know, kids toys. It’s not like they could contribute to a deterioration in, say, something like your blood pressure, is it? They’re only games! Haha! That’d be fucking stupid!

Enter Escape From Tarkov.

EFT (because, for the lazy writer, abbreviations rule) was gaining traction on Twitch and some of the PUBG streamers I’d been watching were latching onto it. It intrigued me greatly, which is a bit bizarre as it’s really not my type of game at all. I like games which don’t tax me; where I can shoot something with lots of large bullets, or hit something in the face with a cartoonishly large hammer. Catharsis AND escapism. EFT is not one of these games.

I’ve never played a game that’s like Escape From Tarkov before. I’ve played games that are like it’s constituent parts, but nothing exactly like it. EFT is part MMO, part battle royale, part military tactical sim, part looter shooter, but is much more than the sum of all of those. You can kind of compare it to PUBG, Day Z and ARMA III. Kind of. To be honest, I’m terrible at all of those games as well.

The meat of the game is split into two; playing as a Scav and playing as a PMC. A Scav is a randomly generated character who’s dropped into one of the maps with some basic gear. The goal is to loot shit and get out alive. Sometimes you get spawned with a decent weapon, semi decent ammo and a bag. Occasionally you’ll even get a helmet,  comtacs (a headset to amplify sound, to us non-military tech types) and an armoured vest. More often than not you get just a pistol and a balaclava. Because, and I cannot emphasise this enough, Escape From Tarkov fucking hates you.

Usually the spawn point is on the opposite end of the map to the exit, so you have to make your way through the map, loot valuables to sell or use as your PMC and avoid death.

However, in EFT  that death can come from anywhere and at any time. Because Escape From Tarkov fucking hates you.

The game world is populated by AI Scavs, player Scavs and other PMCs. AI Scavs will only retaliate if you kill one of them and they see you do it but it can be difficult to tell which are AI Scavs and which are other player Scavs (because they have the same types of gear) so you tend to take them out before they get chance to do the same to you. PMCs, however, are a different matter.

PMCs are other players, so the chances are they’ll have much better gear on than you. There’s no level based matchmaking in the game, so you will likely come across some level 40 nutcase geared to the teeth with strong armour and the best ammo while you’re cowardly crouch-walking your way through with your AK, level 1 vest and helmet, desperately trying to avoid any and all attention.

However, it’s not a forgone conclusion that you will lose engagements to another player. That’s the beauty of Escape From Tarkov; given the slightest advantage a player as a Scav can take down a geared PMC and if you do all that hard earned loot is ripe for plucking off their rapidly cooling corpse. Of course, then you have to get out with said loot.

And it’s all about the loot. You find items for vendor quests, ammunition, components for your hideout, guns, cosmetic garbage, armour, bags and stuff that serves no purpose but to be sold for lots of roubles. Loot is king. And as such the anxiety you feel from trying to get out of the raid (to use the games parlance for a run through the maps) is astronomical for me. It’s like a gargantuan troll, lurking behind me with it’s club raised and ready to beat me into a gibbering wreck.

The problem for me with Escape From Tarkov is that I’m a mediocre gamer at best, with an old PC that runs EFT fine but only fine. If I had a fair encounter with another player chances are I wouldn’t come out on top because I can’t aim for shit with a mouse and a steady, higher frame rate absolutely gives you an advantage. I’m not particularly pissy about that, that’s just the way the game is. But this game makes no bones about how brutal it is. It is Brutal™. And it fucking hates you.

The developers have made no bones about the fact that the game has a very steep learning curve. They want it that way. The game prides itself on realism (which is a bit weird as you can revive broken limbs with the right medkit but whatever) and that the barrier to entry is so brutal that you will question whether you’ve wasted your £35ish. This manifests itself in ways that most gamers aren’t used to, in this age of patching games to balance them and hand holding assists.

Like, people camp Scav spawn locations, so when you spawn in you’re instantly shot in the head. There’s nothing you can do about this. It doesn’t happen often, but frequently enough to make it infuriating. I’ve had Scav runs that have lasted seconds which is so much bullshit.

If you do manage to get away from the spawn the raid will have already spawned the PMCs a while before the player Scavs spawn into it so they could be anywhere, waiting, ready for you to wander across their sights. They camp known loot spawns, lurk around high traffic areas and generally just pop up out of nowhere because this game rewards reaction, skill, patience and spatial awareness like no other game I’ve played.

Even then, even if you’re an amazing shot with the best gear, more often than not you’ll die. Even the most skilled people don’t have more than about 50% extraction rate. And if you die as a PMC and all your gear gets looted you’ve lost all that loot. You can insure it and hope that nobody loots you, but most of the time it’s gone.

This game introduced me to a new concept in gaming; ‘Gear Fear’. In the context of EFT, Gear Fear is the apprehension of using good weapons, armour and ammunition because there’s a chance you will lose it in a raid. So you deliberately under-gear yourself, leaving the decent stuff in your inventory for some mythical time when you feel you’ll be proficient enough to use it and not have the fear of losing it.

This is yet another layer of anxiety on top of the constant oppressiveness that death is lurking in every bush, doorway or open expanse of ground. The streamers I watched must have found some way of jettisoning the Gear Fear, but that probably comes with time and as you become more proficient at the game.

Gear Fear isn’t an issue when you’re on a Scav run because the gear you spawn with is disposable as it wasn’t yours in the first place. Get out alive with it and you can sell it or use it. Don’t get out with it? Doesn’t matter. The problem here is that you can only do one Scav run every twenty minute so you just can’t continuously do them.

As if Gear Fear wasn’t enough, the omnipresent dread that you’re going to get domed at any point has the knock on effect of the stress of worrying about getting things out so you can upgrade your hideout. The hideout has numerous functions like reducing the time it takes your PMC to heal, produces medkits, and even the ability to craft items. Most of these things require a laundry list of items you can’t buy from vendors so loot is the only way.

I didn’t get very much done in the hideout. I am REALLY bad at this game. And it fucking hates me.

And there is so much to this game. It’s part of the reason I rewrote this post, because 3000+ words about the way the myriad systems mesh and interlock is just *makes mind exploding gesture*.

For example the ammunition needs its own spreadsheet to fully understand which is best, which penetrates armour, which does best flesh damage and which goes with which gun type. The weapon modification system is ridiculous in it’s depth. We’re not talking just a scope and some gold skins and all that cosmetic wankery, we’re talking attachments to fix scopes, muzzles, stocks, grips and more because more often than not none of those can be fixed to a gun unless you’ve bought the right attachment to go with it. You absolutely have to have a web page open on a second screen or your phone for this game.

But it’s just too stressful for me. Psychosomatic or not I’d get vague chest tightness when I played it because it’s got me so utterly gripped with the tension. I never even got to play it with other people, which in and of itself sounds like a special kind of nightmare because there’s nothing to differentiate your teammates from the AI/other players and friendly fire is very much a thing in EFT. I KNOW it’d be the only bloody time I get pinpoint accuracy when I accidentally open fire on one of them. Your level of alertness needs to be obscenely high.

But for all my mediocrity at this game, I think it’s incredible. For every ten runs that go south due to my own ineptitude or because I got lasered out of nowhere, or I just got unlucky there’ll be a run that goes smooth as butter and you get out with a loot haul worth hundreds of thousands. And out of both of those types of runs you’ll get the occasional one that gives you a story. Like that one time  I got badly wounded and died from bleeding out, but still managed to kill the dick that mortally wounded me first.

Or the time I managed to scrape through a raid with 200k’s worth of gear and lucked upon a player who’d been murdered but not looted and found a 180k Lab card.

Or when I engaged two PMCs, wrecked them both with a pistol while taking serious damage and managed to scrape through a raid literally just as I was about to bleed to death.

I’d like to go back to it though. Maybe if I took up meditation I could get to a point where my heart doesn’t want to explode from strain this game puts on my stupid, clapped out body. Then all I’d need is the rest of humanity to stop being a dickhead and everything would be right as rain.

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