I'm standing outside of the local market in Kavala, a large Grecian town recreated by Bohemia Interactive for Arma 3. I just grabbed enough supplies to last me for the next few days, if I survive that long. Some water, a couple peaches to snack on and a can of tactical bacon are stuffed into my brand new backpack.
Fuck. Gunshots. They were close, too.
This is the world you're thrust into in the Arma 3 mod, Altis Life. It's the game that Grand Theft Auto Online always should've been, an open world of absolute freedom, and a mod that will transform the PC version of GTA V in due time, with the modding community hard at work. There are a few different versions of Altis Life available, originally spawning from Takistan Life, a mod for Arma 2.
I walk out of the heart of downtown slowly, to not draw attention, but then my walk turns into a jog, like I'm Keyser Söze at the end of The Usual Suspects, when I notice two men walking behind me. In a second, I'm quickening my step into a sprint. They keep up.
"Hey buddy, slow down. We just want to talk with you."
I move into the nearest backyard and attempt to open the door of the house it belongs to. Locked. My pursuers step into the yard, blocking its only exit. I jiggle the handle a few more times for no good reason. My two stalkers look like they're dressed ironically, beach-goers with a lack of style, but I know that this is just the mod's default clothing loadout. This is how both criminals and newbs alike tend to dress in Altis Life. And I don't think these guys are playing for the first time.
"Why did you run?" asks one of them. "It makes you look like you're hiding something." I'm digging through my backpack for my goods. I take a bite out of a peach and down a bottle of water. They aren't getting my shit.
"Put your fucking hands up," the pastel-shirted one instructs, pulling out a .45 and pointing it at my face. His buddy cracks up.
That's what I'd been waiting for. It was only a matter of time. I press the Tab key and reluctantly put my hands behind my head.
"C'mon, guys. I'm just a fisherman. I don't have anything." It's true, too. I've got maybe $50 in my pockets, and my aforementioned supplies. My captors bind my hands. I'm at their mercy. Disappointed, they take everything I've got anyway, laughing, and then step back into the street.
"Can you at least untie me?"
"We would, if it was worth our time," one of them cackles back, like a hyena in flip-flops. With that, they turn, confer for a moment and then do me the "favour" of shooting me in the kneecap. I fall to the ground, writhing in pain. At least my hands are free now – albeit as a result of the Altis Life mod's screwy but acceptable gameplay rather than any kindness on the part of these bastards. They laugh again and wish me luck, immediately before a speeding pickup truck crashes into them, killing one and severely injuring the other.
The driver of the truck stops and surveys the damage, repeating, "Oh my god, oh my god," over and over again. I slowly crawl across to the gruesome scene and tell him to call the cops while I summon a paramedic on my cell phone. Within seconds, sirens are wailing and an EMT unit, as well as a patrol car, are on the scene.
In Altis Life, the citizens, criminals, drug dealers, cops and bounty hunters are all real people. My accidental hero saved my life. I explain this to the cop, who also happens to be running for Governor of Altis on the legal marijuana platform. He understands, but has a job to do. I tell him that the driver of the pickup saved me, but he gets a ticket for speeding through town regardless, although manslaughter charges are swiftly dropped. Had the Altis authorities taken him to court, I'd have gladly appeared as a witness in his defence. To be honest, I'd have lied my ass off to the jury, to get him off the hook.
All of these things are possible in Altis Life. And the best part is that the mod downloads automatically when you join any number of servers in Arma 3. For Asylum-Gaming's mod (the best version of Altis Life, in my opinion), you'll download the mission file in a few short seconds and then you're good to go, wandering a town full of ridiculous and dangerous inhabitants.
The cop walks calmly over to the surviving hooligan, desperately crawling from the scene, legs broken. He cuffs him and takes him to the courthouse. He'll go to jail for a few minutes as a punishment for robbing me. By the time the EMT is done with me, the scene is clearing. A few rubberneckers had stopped to scope out the incident, but were told to move along.
Nothing to see here.
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Altis Life is the best game hardly anyone is playing. At any given time, Asylum-Gaming's four servers are nearly full, with maybe a total of four hundred or so players logged on simultaneously. These servers are home to the criminal underworld and citizenry alike. Personally, initially, I do my best to not break the law. I'm just here to live my life.
A week after my mugging, I've recruited four of my friends to Altis Life. We're a crew of fisherman, staying out of trouble if we can; but we quickly realise that bandits prey on our kind when we're unloading our day's take in the bay. So we take precautions. We scrape together enough cash to buy everyone a weapon license, and are soon enough engaging in intense stare-downs with strangers who fancy a free swipe of our haul.
"You try to rob us, and at least one or two of you are going down."
We usually fire off a shot at one of the bandits' feet. They usually let us go. We invest what we take into our growing business. Eventually a single, modest fishing vessel has become a powerful fleet of four speedboats.
As with every business venture, profit margins are carefully analysed. We need to up the ante. There are dozens of shipwrecks in the ocean surrounding the 270 square kilometres of Altis, so after picking up wreck excavators and a few mini-submarines, we begin a profitable excavation business. It's much safer to work underwater, and far more profitable. We gather oil, gems and even some cocaine (which is as illegal in the game as it is in real life). Some of us are playing as straight-edge characters, and not one of us wants to sell the coke to the drug dealer on the edge of town. Instead, we either throw away the blow or snort it once we're back to the surface. I start to develop a drug habit, and even OD a few times. In the game.
The money is flowing. We buy a mansion with an attached garage where we can store our clothes, weapons, extra items and drugs. Cars, ATVs and trucks to move large quantities of materials are purchased. Another week passes and we bring in more employees to our now extremely profitable "company".
But word travels fast. Moving almost $100K of legal materials per run means that pirates become an issue. A particularly fruitful excavation is hijacked. Fighting breaks out between friends, and moral stances are taken. I buy an illegal rifle that can fire underwater – I do so for protection, yet it creates a divide within our ranks. I'm doing more and more cocaine, which has become a debilitating (yet fun) habit. Some of the more upstanding members of our crew go back to fishing. They move to a town 50 kilometres away from our home base. The last time I speak to a trio of former compatriots, they tell me they're going to be investing their money into the heroin business, which is currently under control by a vicious gang that gets a cut from every harvest. It's dangerous work, but the turnaround is fast and profitable. If they're smart, they can be millionaires in a relatively short amount of time. But there aren't many unique endings for heroin pushers in Altis: they can be killed, robbed or put in jail. Maybe they'll get away with it for a while, and I wish them luck. But I've got wrecks to excavate.
The remainder of my cocaine-fuelled business partners agree with me that we need weapons to protect ourselves, and night-vision goggles for working in the dark depths of the sea. Our gear is now several times more expensive than what I was robbed for by those two goons when I first started playing, and while I can pay for a new wetsuit and rebreather if necessary, it's not something I really want to do. I'd rather put a few bullets in a motherfucker's chest than have them take my shit. I'll cross that bridge and deal with the cops when it comes.
I'm not exactly sure when the change in my philosophy came, but it might have been when I was sitting in my personal submarine, doing lines of coke off my diving mask. I saw a couple of divers make their way to a sunken ship about 40 yards ahead of me, looked over at my partner, and a decision was made disturbingly quickly: why go through the trouble of excavating when we can let these jokers do the work for us, and then rob them blind.
We silently exited the sub, and clicked on our goggles.
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"Look at these suckers, they have no idea we're here," I whisper while drifting closer to our oblivious targets. I stifle a laugh, somewhat unsuccessfully. We're about to double our profits. I take out my gun in the dark, cold water and sidle up to the divers.
"Hey, guys. We can do this the easy way or the hard way, and I'd much rather do this the easy way." They're compliant, raising their hands in surrender. We gather their materials and get lucky: one of them has almost $40,000 in cash on him.
Adrenaline surges as we swim back to our submarine, loaded with diamonds, pearls and oil. And all that cash on top, too. God damn this was a score. We pull away, albeit making sure to remain hundreds of meters deep in the waters.
It's daybreak by the time we're ashore, unloading our booty. Agreeing to meet back at the safehouse, my partner takes the oil and disappears into the blood-orange horizon. I head to the jewels dealer on my own.
Waiting for me, as I turn the corner, is a squad car.
I'm arrested for robbing the divers, and given the option of paying a substantial fine or going to jail. To make matters worse, I've a pinch of cocaine and my illegal firearm on me, which compounds my sentence. I chose to do the time. My assets are confiscated, and the next thing I know I'm being hustled to the courthouse. Once booked, I teleport to the prison and respawn in an orange jumpsuit. A few of my fellow inmates are talking in hushed tones near the free weights.
"Whatcha in for?" I explain that I was a model citizen until I tried to cut a few corners. They laugh, knowingly. One of them has been playing Altis Life for the last year, and he asks me to walk with him through the yard.
"So, you want to know how to make money fast?" he asks. Obviously, yes. "Let me tell you about the meth trade..."
My journey from being a lowly fisherman to becoming the next Walter White was underway. It was time to get my hands dirty.
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