As Paul and I make our way through Sandy Shores towards the Alamo Sea, I can't shake the thought of Michael's burning corpse. I picture him terrified, trapped and tethered by his seatbelt, the undead mindlessly clawing at the stationary SUV's windows, his backwards maroon cap melting with the car interior around him.
"There were too many of them," I tell Paul in an attempt to both reassure him and appease my conscience. In my head, I relive the fire, the smoke, Michael's futile screams. "It was him or us. And I sure as hell wasn't meeting my maker by one of those monsters."
The rain falls heavily as we start our swim towards Grapeseed. I've never seen San Andreas so sparsely populated, which is grossly unsettling in itself. Then again, with one less mouth to feed, we might just make it out alive. Get to the air drop, then the safe zone and we're grand.
I'm not proud of myself. I mean, my record in Los Santos, city of crime, indulgence and debauchery isn't exactly clean to this point, but I feel like I've really pushed the envelope this time. The world has gone to shit, mercenaries run the streets, the undead stalk the sidewalks… and I'm still the biggest monster in San Andreas.
Housed within Grand Theft Auto 5's community modification FiveM, RottenV is an in-development online server that turns the game's otherwise bustling metropolis into a lawless zombie apocalypse. Members fight to survive the bloodthirsty NPC hordes, and communicate with other human players via voice chat in a world scant in resources and rife with disease.
Those familiar with GTA Online will know mods are a big no-no in its vanilla state, and getting caught using them can result in a permanent ban. FiveM, for those unaware, isn't officially affiliated with Rockstar's enduring crime simulator, but is ostensibly an online mod for GTA 5, that uses the base game solely to verify ownership.
Having surpassed 50,000 concurrent users in May—against Steam's peak of 108,557 for GTA 5 in the same month—the increasingly popular FiveM plays host to a range of servers, including a number of roleplay maps and quirky modded offshoots. RottenV straddles both camps, and, for my money, is one of the most entertaining roleplay playgrounds the Grand Theft Auto 5 RP scene has to offer.
During my previous GTA 5 roleplay adventures, I've uncovered some cracking stories—some thrilling, some twisted, some funny and some that are difficult to categorise. From experience, roleplaying in Rockstar's crime sim can be immensely satisfying, but with such a vast open world to explore, filled to the brim with activities, jobs and distractions, engineering wholesome RP tales isn't always easy.
One thing I love about RottenV, then, is the structure it forces onto each session. You start off by parachuting into the map, similar to modern battle royale games, and then make your way to centralised 'safezone' hubs, which offer refuge, water, food, weapon and item upgrades, as well as missions and quests. The base game's ambient traffic, civilian and emergency services background audio is switched off throughout, the weather is normally terrible, and the only bodies found wandering San Andreas are up to 32 human players and NPC zombies.
After landing on the beach, I wonder at RottenV's familiar but isolated setting, and struggle to get to grips with its unfamiliar format. Zombies stalk me from Vespucci to La Puerta as I make my way to the Legion Square meeting point, and I quickly learn that, like many a zombie movie, these blighters won't go down unless they're struck or shot in the head.
Once at Legion, I strike up a conversation with a young Russian fellow named Michael, who describes himself as a veteran of the apocalypse. As a newbie to this whole end-of-the-world thing, I decide to follow his lead and set about clearing the immediate vicinity of roaming zombies by his order.
I grab a baseball bat and, like Negan from The Walking Dead, start battering the blundering undead upside the head. Michael fights by my side and before long, we're flanked by an English chap named Paul, and a Scotsman named Craig—and the latter nominates himself to take on a swell of baddies that have gathered at the far side of the square, so long as the rest of us can provide cover from above.
Equipped with sniper rifles, Michael, Paul and myself duly climb the apartment block to the west and follow Craig's path. He kills one, two, three zombies, before being floored by a fourth.
"I got this," says Michael, before icing his target with meticulous precision. Paul cheers, but as Craig makes his way back, I notice something is off. He looks light on his feet, his face has changed, his arms are limp.
"He's infected!" cries Michael. "That last one must have got him. But don't worry we've got plenty of antibiotics at the base, let's help him out."
I pause. Don't get me wrong, Craig seems alright, Scottish and all (Editor's note: Joe is Scottish), but if zombie films and telly shows have taught me nothing else, letting this guy back into HQ in this state is not a good idea. This isn't Shaun of the Dead. We can't chain him up and keep him as a pet.
"F*ck that," I reply. BANG! One between the eyes. See you later, Craig.
Michael is not happy. Like, really not happy. That's not how things work here, I'm told. What if that'd been you out there, I'm asked. He would have been fine, I'm advised. If this were a Telltale game, the whole charade would have a ‘Michael will remember this' header attached at the top of the screen, I'm sure of it.
In order to make peace, I volunteer for the next run and insist on going solo. In honour of Craig, I knock it out of the park.
By the time I get back, Paul and Michael are preparing to head north to collect the airdrop that's landed in Grapeseed, just next to Mount Chiliad. I agree to go, and board the base's shared off-road truck alongside the guys. On Michael's advice, we travel down the map's most eastward freeway, US Route 15, because he reckons we'll have a clearer view of encroaching monsters on that stretch.
Sure enough, we soon hit a quarantine roadblock—models and assets purpose-built for this server—and get caught off-guard by a swarm of roving undead. Still determined to get on Michael's good side, I opt to make a dash for the Norinco Type 56-2 assault rifle that's up the hill to our right (in RottenV, item and weapon drops glow white), and ask that Paul provide cover. He obliges, and it's only when we approach the weapon that I fully-appreciate the extent of the horde.
"We're not making it back, are we?" asks Paul rhetorically. He catches on fast, this one. I grab the gun, turn, and rain down on the truck below. Michael bursts into a tidal wave of profanity, and I can hear him furiously clicking his mouse and bashing his keyboard in real life at his end. In his fit of anger, I realise he's forgotten to unbuckle his seat belt (by pressing B) and is trapped.
Eventually, the truck explodes and the flames wipe out more than half of the enemy crowd. That was the plan. Paul and I pair off and start picking off the rest, before traipsing inland towards the curve of the Alamo Sea. Michael is gone, but I assure Paul this is how it had to be.
The sun is up by the time we enter the water, and it's not long before we face another setback.
Paul, God rest him, must have gotten infected during that melee on the hill. Putting him out of his misery was the only thing for it, and, for better or worse, I'm a lone nomad once again.
By the time I make it to the Paleto Bay safezone I'm shattered. I've not encountered a single soul since dispatching poor zombie Paul, floating at the bottom of the Alamo, so I decide to make my way down the Great Ocean Highway in search of supplies and civilians.
I spot a zombie, giving me the stink eye. What the hell is it looking at? By this point, I find myself talking aloud to no one in particular, the isolation making my squirrelly. But, seriously, what is this pale-faced prick looking at? I sort him out with my trusty bat, and, just as I'm about to walk away, I hear the screeching of tires. I look up. A car. Heading for me. BANG. I'm down. Is that? It is! It's Michael. He's alive! Ho-ly shit.
In a flash of panic and excitement, I knock my microphone from my headset in real life, before realising Michael has parked, exited his ride and has stationed himself atop his truck's mobile gun turret. But wait, he's hasn't spotted the zombie gunning for him from his blind side.
The undead mounts the truck's bed and wrestles Michael to the floor. I flank the vehicle and lay the beast down on the tarmac. I turn to Michael, he aims at me, and I take a swipe—in self-defence, I swear—but connect with his bumper. He takes me down with the stock of his rifle, and finishes me off with a blow to the shoulder. We don't speak a word during the fracas. We don't need to. Too much shit has gone down. What more could we say?
I don't remember getting up from that. I don't remember waking up in an abandoned hospital or parachuting in from above. Instead, the next thing I recall is running down the train tracks after sunset. I don't remember leaving Michael. I don't remember it getting dark. I don't remember that skull hovering over my health bar before now. I must find Michael, but my legs are heavy. I'm light on my feet. My arms have gone limp. My face has changed…
I must have been bitten by the zombie behind Michael's truck. I'm losing consciousness.
Itchy itchy Michael.