The world is burning and I'm standing outside a police station with Donald Trump and Kermit the Frog. A coast guard helicopter has spawned inside the lobby over my shoulder, its rotor blades slicing through the security glass doors like a knife through butter, and the former US president has opened fire. It's been a wee while since I last checked into one of the GTA 5 1,000-player FiveM online servers, and within minutes I'm simultaneously scraping my jaw off the floor and belly laughing at the carnage unfolding around me.
Better (or should that be worse?) still, I've discovered that the best way to take it all in, while simultaneously pissing off everyone around me and drawing a massive target on my back, is whipping out a guitar and having a wee strum. Screw the raining showers of bullets, the burning buildings, the planes falling from the sky – who wants a somehow more off-key rendition of Smelly Cat?
What is wrong with me and why has this become my new favourite way to play Grand Theft Auto?
Got 'em on a string
While a number of GTA 5 roleplay servers on PC encourage players to live by real-world rules, the one I'm playing in here, Impulse99, rips up the rule book. With its blend of RP and freeroam, players can still buy property and hold down legal and illegal jobs – logistics and meth slinging are among its most lucrative trades – but are otherwise encouraged to spawn cars, weapons and, evidently, musical instruments at will, in turn pushing the boundaries of the map and its player-count of up to 1,000 people.
Given GTA Online's regular servers can accommodate a maximum of 32 players, you can imagine how quickly things can, and do, hit the roof with a server full of folk determined to cause collective chaos. Seriously, it's like one big Kill Streak orgy, as dumper trucks tear through Legion Square at full speed, flying Deluxos collide with Apache-like F1-Hunters in midair, and jumbo jets casually roll down the thoroughfares of downtown Los Santos, with trigger-happy laser-cannon snipers perched on each wing for good measure.
The following map is far from capacity, but check out the blanket of player blips across San Andreas:
How cool is that? As the open source multiplayer mod FiveM continues to grow in popularity (it's seen over 10 million Rockstar Social accounts linked since early 2017, and now often exceeds 250,000 concurrent players), its developers have worked hard on upping server capacity. When I first sampled one of FiveM's 1,000-player joints last year, vehicle clipping and blue screen-inducing map holes were so commonplace I was barely able to play for 20 minutes before disconnecting. There are still issues today – mostly frame-rate spikes, even on my high-end machine – but stability appears to be much better across the board.
In Impulse99 – which itself recently surpassed one million players, having transitioned to FiveM from the GTA: San Andreas-powered Multi Theft Auto in recent years – I've found adopting a passive aggressive approach to play to be the most entertaining. Griefing is part and parcel of modern Grand Theft Auto, which in standard GTA Online often involves marathon shoot-outs, inter-map car chases and lots, and lots, of explosions.
Petty little thing
A level of pettiness is born from this relentless, back-and-forth one-upmanship, often galvanised by someone half your age screaming obscenities about your mother down their headset. All of that exists here (I've spared you the swears via the wonder of gifs), but I've found a passive, non-combative stance to really wind people up, more so than actively trying to kill them. And I love it.
Watching the world burn while you busk for your life is so much fun. Sick of the guitar, you say? Let's have a blast on the bongo drums.
Model clipping and frame rate dips are especially prevalent in that last clip, but, again, the gulf between the number of players this map is designed to facilitate, and the amount all mucking here is huge. With server stability steadily increasing throughout FiveM's 1,000-player playgrounds, the scope for serious, multi-narrative roleplay is bigger now than ever, and this combined with the sharp, creative minds of the GTA RP community bodes well for fresh new ways to enjoy a game now over eight years old, and showing little signs of bowing out any time soon.
That's not to say all of this chaos isn't fun, far from it. There really is a pure, unbridled joy here in sidestepping the bait, remaining calm, and not retaliating – a move so alien for so many in GTA Online, that it appears they don't know how to cope. It's such a break from the norm, and while you still cop an earful the longer you linger unflinching at a busy intersection, there's something freeing, and freaking hilarious, about bouncing back to your feet, dusting yourself down, and getting back on song.
If you've ever thrown yourself into a walking simulator as a means of relaxation-by-video game, I'd happily recommend picking up an acoustic guitar and taking a stroll through Los Santos at rush hour. It's got a serious apocalypse vibe to it, but it's great fun.