Hank receives a message. ‘Raise your altitude or be shot down’. Before either of us have time to consider it, we can hear the telltale crack of gunfire beneath us. Hank lifts the helicopter higher and higher until the gunshots ebb away. We are flying high over the orange streetlights of Kavala now, over the main street of the town, the bank, the fishmongers, the pub. I turn to Hank. Was that the police shooting at us?
“Yeah,” he says, hand on the stick, “that was small arms fire.”
It is the first time I have come ‘face to face’ with Hank. He is one of the hundreds of players who frequent the Altis Life UK servers, where people come to play the roles of police officers, paramedics, bank robbers, drug traffickers and even taxi drivers. Many of the jobs have special powers and you need to undergo an interview to even play as them. For example, police officers can impound vehicles, and medics can revive fallen victims of gun crime (there is a high rate of gun crime).
Hank, in his current role, is playing as a ‘rebel’. Someone who exists outside of the law, who has turned to crime to fund his in-game lifestyle. He shrugs off the gunfire from the police as we fly over the town.
"Let's go mess with them," he says.
He banks sharply, a ninety degree turn that makes my eyes widen.
"We'll go to the police station and fire flares through their windows."
I ask if this is considered an illegal activity.
"Oh, yeah," he laughs. "If they get time, they'll pull out a speedboat [with a] minigun and shoot us down."
Hank, although he is currently firing white-hot flares into the windows of the police headquarters, is a different class of criminal in this mod. He is very different from someone who kills you for nothing. Such players have a special name.
"We call them 'hobos' in Kavala," he says. "They just run over people and when a cop dies they just pick up their guns and shoot everyone without talking to them."
I have already encountered some of these anti-roleplay server-surfers. On my way to meet Hank, I was run over by someone in a rustic-looking car. Surprisingly, I didn't die. The game counts being hit by a car as 'VDM' (vehicle deathmatch) - a misdemeanor that, if reported, is punishable by a server ban. Because it is "against the rules", a script ensures that you don't die and lose all your expensive gear when it happens. Another rule - RDM (random deathmatch) - is in place to discourage people from firing on others without roleplaying first. This is also a bannable offence, although there is no script to ensure you do not die when hit by a stray bullet.
I turn to Hank, who has finished shooting flares. Is this the kind of thing he would get up to as a rebel usually?
"Myself, yes. Some people don't. Some people find pleasure in other ways. But I like to mess with the police... and since everyone on the island knows they can't shoot helicopters to save their lives."
Each new player on the server is given £100,000 to start with, which they can spend on cars, tools, food and clothes. A set of meters tells you if you are hungry, thirsty, or hurt. Fresh spawns will often become fruit pickers to earn some money, then upgrade to mining salt and transporting it to a processing factory. Most of the senior players, Hank tells me, made their money in salt.
I am sitting in the co-pilot seat of the chopper. I am wearing a pair of cream-coloured chinos and a shirt with the word 'PRESS' embroidered on the back. This outfit cost me an eye-watering £20,000 in one of the island's clothes shops. In comparison, a cool, rugged-looking civilian outfit costs about £700.
"I think the press role isn't played very often," says Hank. "It was talked about being a whitelisted faction at one point but it never came to be. So I think they raised the price just due to the fact it was going to become a whitelisted faction and never lowered it."
Whitelisted factions, like the police or NHS, are groups that you must personally apply and get approval to play. Anyone who plays as a rebel in one role is barred from becoming a police officer in another, presumably on the grounds of the obvious conflict of interest. But someone who plays as a rebel can still play “part-time” as a NHS employee.
We fly over the countryside, shrouded in night. Everything on Altis is based on the Greek island of Lemnos, Hank tells me. It is "spot-on exactly". Lemnos is the island where two Bohemia developers were arrested for spying in 2012, after taking photographs of military installations while there. They were later released, but only after four months of imprisonment.
Hank brings us down over an airfield and lands close to some large cylindrical hangars. We get out and he spawns a car for us. It is a small hatchsport. I will come to learn, thanks to Hank's dangerous love of speed, that this is one of the fastest cars in the game. As we prepare to set out on the road, I ask him about his rebel life. Is he a part of a larger gang or is he a lone wolf?
"I'm a part of a gang of lone wolves," he jokes. "We're not a gang per se, we play together now and again but we mostly just keep ourselves to ourselves and help each other if needed."
The criminal activities of Altis Life are surprisingly numerous. Apart from indulging in player-on-player crimes, there are also NPCs that you can rob and there is even a treasury on the island to heist. Players can also process drugs like cocaine, cannabis and heroin, much in the same way as they can mine salt. As we drive along the dark roads of the countryside, I ask Hank if he has any history with this illegal trade.
"I rob places. I tend to stay away from drugs." Then he clarifies. "I've got a house full of drugs, from the last run that I never finished. But what I mostly do, with a drug dealer, is wait for someone to show up and rob them of their money. Drug runs take too long."
So he is a kind of vigilante almost?
"I guess you could say that."
Does he think a lot of people see themselves that way?
"A lot of people come on this game to let out their dark side."
A few minutes later, the police speed by in the opposite direction. Hank mutters something under his breath. Earlier he told me that he has a bounty on him for £925,000. Meaning both police and bounty hunters (the server's legally-sanctioned mercenaries) will be rewarded highly for bringing him in. I ask if the patrol car that has just passed us is likely to come after him. At first he considers it "one hundred percent likely", then he reconsiders.
"I tell you what, it's not a hundred percent likely because we're in a fast car. If [it was] a police officer in the same car as this, a sergeant or above, then we're going to have a chase. And a gun fight."
Hank's bounty is high. But it is nothing compared to the highest bounty on the server. This is proudly held by an illusive player who has gained almost legendary status. He has a £26 million bounty, the highest bounty Hank knows.
"His name is Wildman," Hank told me, shortly before we were due to meet. "He comes out of the darkness."
Is he someone Hank has personally seen?
"Only once. You see him mostly lurking around less populated areas. He doesn't do vehicles, he walks everywhere. You usually find him breaking into [people's] houses in the back areas... steals their guns, their drugs."
By the end of my time in Altis Life, the only evidence of this player I will have seen is the flash of his username, disconnecting from the server. It is spelled entirely in uppercase: WILDMAN.
Hank notes that the road we are currently driving along isn't usually a good place to travel as a rebel because it is the main highway. To me, the road seems far too small and secluded to be so busy. I can almost feel Hank smirking when he answers me.
"Well, let me show you some of the roads then."
He makes a quick turn onto a dusty and lonely path, barely wide enough for a single car. Briefly, I consider the possibility that at any point this man may take me out of the car and execute me. But, for some reason, I trust Hank not to do this. Earlier, he had been very candid about this ridealong. "I gotta say," he had mused, "you're probably going to be the first person in the last couple of months that's getting in my car and not dying. Nobody survives when I take them."
We turn onto a new paved road. He tells me this is the main route to the gun shops. Suddenly he makes a u-turn.
"I tell you what, I'm not going to go down there because big gangs hide down there, and I haven't died for a while."
Like in DayZ, if you die in Altis Life, you lose your possessions. You also lose any money that you are carrying. This is a big reason to kill people, to get their money. Hank tells me he never carries cash on him.
"I got £16. The main loss is my gun."
Suddenly, I feel very conscious of my wallet. I believe I am carrying over £4000 on me. Did I hear him right? Sixteen pounds?
"In my pocket right now. But in the bank I've only got £671,000. Most of the top players on the server have £180 million... I don't hoard money. I buy stupid things to have nice roleplay."
The car we are riding in cost him £100,000, the exact amount a new player to the server gets to start a fresh life. A good investment, considering we are speeding along the dark country roads at an eye-watering 350 kmph. But, although he likes to spend his money on big trucks and fast cars, Hank says he does not really spend so much on weapons or clothes.
"I tend not to gear up. I tend to buy myself a pistol and an armoured vest. That's all I need to buy on a daily basis. Because you'll always find a cop on his own and you can always put your gun to the back of his head and ask for his gun. And their guns are pretty much all I need."
The night road goes on. Hank is explaining the specs of his current weapon when we see a roadside assistance mechanic parked in a dark, lonely spot along the road. Hank pulls up alongside him and calmly gets out of the car. I sit in the passenger seat and watch as he points his gun at the mechanic, clad in fluorescent orange. The mechanic puts his hands on his head and starts arguing with Hank, who is lit up by the headlights of the man's ARAC pickup truck. Hank is demanding that he hand over something. Money? A weapon? I get out of the car and look on as they continue to argue, speaking louder and louder over the top of each other’s words. Suddenly, the mechanic drops his hands and pulls out a pistol. In less than a second, both of their bodies slump to the ground in unison. They have shot each other.
At this point, I am not sure what to do.
"Are you okay?" I ask.
"No," says Hank. "I'm dead."
I walk over to Hank's body. There is a pile of money next to him. I ignore it and rifle over his corpse. Without intending to pick anything up, I now have a gun in my hand. Hank's ghostly Teamspeak voice tells me to have a root around in his gear using a special command. As I am looking at his inventory. I hear a voice behind me.
"Put your hands up!"
I freeze. I exit Hank's goodies and try to speak back.
"I said put your hands up!"
I don't know how to put my hands up. I turn to ask the unknown assailant. I have forgotten that I am still holding Hank's pistol in my hand.
"How do I--
I am immediately shot and killed.
* * *
Hank wasn't always a rebel. There was a period of time when he was a policeman. He patrolled the island as part of the constabulary for as many as 60 hours a week. As he pointed out to me, that is more hours of work than an actual policeman. As a road traffic unit he got to learn the roads of the island by heart. This, like any gaming binge, could not last forever. He left the server for a while. Now, he plays as a rebel. (The police are "very serious" he says.) But he also moonlights, somewhat surprisingly, as an NHS medic.
When you die in Altis Life, you get an option to respawn or to call for medical assistance. NHS players have the power to see how many people are "down" and where on the map they are. They rush out, sirens blaring, to revive the fallen players. It is often considered bad form to respawn if there are medics patrolling on the server, because if everybody simply respawned, the NHS staff would have nothing to do. It seems that magically respawning half the map away doesn't gel with the ideals of roleplay.
In a future ridealong, Hank takes me with him in a medical car as he zooms from emergency to emergency in exactly this way. He will save five lives during my time with him. I ask him what the busiest time is for a medic.
"I've seen about 50 [downed players] at a time. Saturday night maybe. Saturday night, 7pm, there's a police meeting. Every police officer logs off the server. It's a killing spree."
So, I ask, with the police gone, people just run riot? I use the phrase "run riot" in a general way, but Hank tells me that crime on the server can often match it in the literal sense.
"There's riots daily. An actual riot happens once a day I'd say."
And during the holidays, is it busy then?
"The worst weekend of this year so far has been the Arma 3 free weekend... "
This is the weekend when Arma 3 was downloadable on Steam for free, as a trial for new players. The influx of 'hobos' put medical and police teams on high alert. Hank is unambiguous about what goes on during a free weekend.
"Rampant rule breaking. People who were just trying it [and] didn't know any better."
At one point, we drive by some people waving and shouting for a medic. But Hank keeps his foot on the accelerator.
"They've got guns out. Medics don't stop for people with guns."
A few moments pass. We hear some distant “pops” from behind us. Neither of us say anymore about it.
We decide to go for a ride in the air ambulance. Hank's role as a troublemaker does sometimes bleed into his life as a doctor. Even as a medic he cannot help confounding the police. He says: "Let's go and wind the cops up a little bit then." He lands on the helipad at their headquarters. He says the police do not like this because of how strict and serious they are. "It pisses them off. We're allowed to do it, but they still don't like it."
He is not the only medic who the police get cross with. The relationship between cops and docs on the server is complicated by the fact that a lot of the other medics, like Hank, live a double life as rebels, while the cops are prohibited from doing so. In Hank's words, all the medics are also “full metal terrorists."
We take off from the police helipad and begin flying away from the town. We follow a long road overhead, trees and shrubs zooming by underneath. Does he think people feel safe when they see a medic flying over them? He laughs.
"They shouldn't. The amount of times I've crashed this thing."
My nostrils widen involuntarily.
"It's usually on this stretch of road too. Because there's one set of power lines that always catches me out. Oh, there they are."
We fly over the powerlines.
Later, we switch to a medical car. A police officer, PCSO Summers, drops into our Teamspeak channel. He is a police desk sergeant who has been on the force for 10 months, and he is hoping to get promoted to Inspector that very weekend. Summers is a sweary officer but one that Hank tells me is well-respected among the police service. He is shouting loudly about the MH17 plane that was brought down over Ukraine, and the finding this week that it was a Russian-made missile that brought it down.
"No shit Sherlock, it had a big fucking hole in the side of it! I could have told them that."
He is also refreshingly candid. He tells me all about corruption in the police. Some officers give out weapons to civilian friends, he says. Although this is "very very rare!" This is a bannable offence and one of the worst forms of corruption on the server.
"There used to be a whole constabulary that was corrupt," says Summers. "A whole section of high-ranking officers and no-one could do anything about them because the corruption went right up to the third in command.
"If one of them got into trouble... if someone did something blatantly wrong, they wouldn't do anything about it.
"They did some nasty stuff sometimes. The majority of the time they were nice people. But, as I said, a bit corrupt."
As PCSO Summers is talking, Hank is driving down the road at his characteristic 350 kmph. Without seeing it in time, he flies between two police cars that have been forming a road block. He narrowly avoids running over an officer. He yells with guilty glee at the close shave. Then he slows and starts to turn around.
"I have to go back now and check on everyone."
It is important that he does not get into too much trouble. While he is in his doctor form, the bounty of "Rebel Hank" is sealed within his other role. He can't be arrested by the police for anything he did in his other life, no matter how frustrated they get with his wind-ups.
"But I have been thrown into prison for my crimes as a medic," he admits. I ask him what crimes. "Aviation law crimes," he says. "Flying low, endangering life."
Despite this, for Hank, it does not seem unusual to a be a crook and a lifesaver at the same time. In the medical car, we respond to a dying man by the side of the road. After treating him, the patient, dressed in military gear, asks Hank if he took the rangefinder from his body while reviving him. No, says Hank, sorry, the robbers who shot you must have taken it. The patient says thanks anyway, and we get back in the doctor's car.
As we drive away, Hank turns to me.
"I stole his binoculars."
"But he did ask you --
"And you said --
"But you did take them?"
"Do you consider that one of the perks of the job?"
"Yeah. Because they are like £60,000."
* * *
A red car pulls up to the crossroads in Agios. I get in. It is interesting to see Hank in his everyday clothes. He lost all his gear when the roadside mechanic killed him. Now he is wearing only a polo shirt, shorts and a pair of sandals.
"Yeah," he says, "we all come from the same thing."
It has only been a few minutes since our run-in with the armed ARAC man. But the sun is rising over Altis. A timer labelled "NLR" to one side of the screen is counting down. This is the New Life Rule. We can't go back to that area, within 1000m, until the timer runs out. Presumably, this is to stop people immediately respawning and rushing back to where their stuff is. Or seeking revenge on the people who killed them. The idea is that when you begin a new life, the immediate memories of your previous life are not applicable.
Nevertheless, Hank explains that we need to go see the guy who killed him. He has made a an agreement via some messages to be reimbursed the cost of his gear. He tells me that a mechanic having a firearm is against the server's roleplay rules (medics are also not allowed to own guns). Hank has asked for the cash to cover his lost weaponry and armour. In return, he will not report the mechanic to the admins. I do not say anything but this sounds a lot to me like extortion.
I ask him about the server rules. There seem to be a lot of odd regulations that aren't always transparent.
"To be honest I've been here for over a year," he says. "You just get used to them. You just know what is allowed and what isn't allowed. Now and again a new rule will pop up and you'll just be, like, whaaat?"
One of these new rules came along recently. He tells me about a rebel gang who were enacting gang rape on any police officers they captured. Historically, there have been similar problems on DayZ servers. The admins instituted a new law, stating that "rape scenes" were against the server's rules.
We pull into a town and find the man who owes Hank money. He is wearing a stylish hat and scarf, and is standing, conspicuously, beside a cash machine. Hank goes into a separate Teamspeak channel to speak to the leader of the man's gang. This man isn't happy at having to pay for the lost weapon. He is the leader of the NLA, the National Liberation Army, a known terrorist organisation. After a long dialogue, he agrees to hand over the money. But his man on the street, the guy with the scarf, does not recognise Hank, and mistakenly gives £300,000 to a stranger. This is the danger of wearing the server's default shorts. You look just like everybody else.
All this is happening unbeknownst to me. I am standing on the pavement, waiting for Hank to return to my channel. A police car pulls up and an officer gets out to keep an eye on the cash machine next to us, where a queue is forming. After a while, the officer approaches Hank's car and impounds it for being illegally parked. Hank comes back into my channel. "Did someone give you three hundred grand?" he asks.
After a short car journey, we are back in a helicopter - a small buzzer with a bulbous glass front. Hank starts doing barrel rolls. It makes me feel queasy. He starts to talk about his other job. This chopper is maneuverable, but the air ambulance is much more fun to fly. You can do more aerial tricks with it.
"That's why I keep getting kicked out of the air rescue department," he says. "We did a Kavala airshow a couple of weeks back. A couple of people with jets, a couple of people with helicopters, and halfway through it we came in unauthorised and did a backflip over Kavala and decked it into the hospital."
Wait. Did I hear that right? He crashed the air ambulance into the hospital?
"Yeah. We decked it with the helicopter."
I shouldn't be surprised. But his capers as a doctor shouldn't concern us right now. Right now, he is a wanted man for much greater crimes. I ask him what the best robbery he pulled off was. What was his best haul?
"The other night we robbed a guy in the wheat field for £8.2 million. Why the hell he had that much money on him, I don't know, but he did. He was just hiding under a tree."
He committed this robbery with one of the other community mentors - regular members of the server who keep the place in order. At the end of the haul, rather than splitting the money fifty-fifty, Hank let his partner in crime take all the money.
"He was saving up for his Chinook."
We drift into the skies above some deserted hills. Small stone walls split the land into fields. Dirt roads snake between sandstone cottages and ancient mills. Hank tells me this is a dangerous area. Rebel gangs are known to drive pickup trucks here with .50 calibre machine guns on the back. One of these guns could easily knock us out of the sky. Thankfully, we pass over the area without incident. Eventually we land in a deserted outpost. It is one of Hank's old bases. Here, he changes out of his shorts and sandals and back into combat gear. He equips a mask that means he is no longer identifiable. Instead of "First Sea Lord Hank" appearing above his character, there is now only the unsettling nametag: "Unknown".
We get back in the little chopper and take off, over the sun-kissed land and the glittering water.
"It's a very beautiful game, isn't it?"
He is right. Vast too, I say. Hank agrees.
"There's certain parts of the island I haven't been to in months. There's certain parts of the island I've never been to. It's a big island. It would take you a good hour to drive from one end to the other.
"A weed run, you're looking [at] maybe 30 kilometres. It would take you two hours. Which is why it is so important to have helicopters."
As we come in over the airfield for a second time, we find a man standing by the hangers, wearing khaki shorts and looking like pale meat. He watches as we land, frozen like an animal afraid of the noise of the helicopter. Hank hops out of the chopper, where the blades are slowly coming to a stop. I get out and follow him. He shouts to the man to stay there, even though the man has made no effort to run. He raises his gun at the man's chest and tells him to put his hands on his head.
"How do you do that?" asks the man.
Hank shoots him.
Looking at the fresh corpse lying on the dusty concrete, I ask Hank, for the record, how do you put your hands on your head.
"Shift-G," he says.
Out of nowhere a car comes screaming towards us. Hank is knocked over and the vehicle barely misses me. Luckily, the VDM rule from before has saved another life. Hank gets up and points his machine gun at the man.
"That was silly!" he says, and sprays bullets into his torso. The driver's corpse keels over, right next to the last victim. We are catching our breath when another car approaches the airfield. It seems to be unrelated to anything that has happened so far. Just another dude arriving on the scene. The car gets close enough to see the bodies on the ground, then it stops. The driver puts it into reverse, turns and immediately drives away. I turn to Hank.
“He seemed very wary,” I say.
"Yeah, you would be, wouldn't you? We're just two guys with two dead guys next to 'em.”
Hank's bounty has just increased by £100,000. For a millisecond, I am afraid. I have no intention of handing this man in. But he is now worth over £1 million to the police. All he needs to do is think I might betray him. Then it’s just is a short trip down a Grecian road. A single, lonely gunshot in the dark. But none of this seems to have occurred to Hank. After quickly rifling through the bodies of the two men, he spawns a truck for us.
"Come on," he says, "let's get out of here."