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GTA IV: The Lost and Damned

We go hands-on, including the multiplayer mode

Grand Theft Auto is big business. So big, in fact, that Microsoft paid a rumoured 50 million dollars for the privilege of two Xbox 360 exclusive GTA IV episodes, to be released as premium content via Xbox Live. The first of these experimentally ambitious episodes is due out on February 17th, Rockstar's Dan Houser promising a different take on Liberty City than original Niko-led story.

Dispensing with Niko Bellic's rags-to-riches tale; his journey through the city's Eastern European crime underbelly, we'll now be immersing ourselves in an altogether different yarn - focussing on Johnny Klebitz, a member of notorious biker gang The Lost (hence the title). The titular gang popped up in the original GTA IV, and now Rockstar are honing in on an entirely new protagonist.

Cleverly, The Lost and Damned's story will interweave with key parts of the original tale - depicting events in a post-modern fashion, from Johnny's rather different perspective. Johnny's been placed in temporary charge of the gang, while big chief Billy Grey is in rehab - and all seems to be going well with rival gangs - Johnny forging peace in a bid to maximise drug dealing profits. This being the violent world of GTA, Johnny's illegal eutopia is unlikely to last, and when blood-letting does eventually break out with rival forces in the metropolis, our hero is at odds with Billy; while at the same time beating back attacks from the Angels of Death.

The game world is very much the same as the main game, and play pans out in a similar fashion - the player controlling Johnny across various missions, some just for fun, others key to the furthering of the narrative. Beyond these guide-lines, players can also just muck around in the city, indulging in various side diversions, or just driving/riding around causing mayhem. Bikes have always been in GTA, but not like this; Rockstar having lavished much TLC upon the handling of the various 'hogs' you'll be mounting, and there is also a broader range of rides on offer, different models suiting different styles of rider.

Another series pillar are the radio stations, and these too are back en masse - featuring just as much darkly satirical mock ads, shock jocks and the usual selection of famous and obscurely brilliant tunes. Once again, Liberty City's a cocoon of cool; a cinematic adventure in which you influence the script on the fly. I'd be lying if I said it doesn't feel good to be back - and the game's superb lighting, detailed environments and all-singing all-dancing variety are still a joy. In this episode's Alderney setting we also focus on a less-traveled part of the Big Apple, while players will also be glad to pick up some destructive new weapons: a grenade launcher, pipe bombs, a sawn-off and other new shotguns.

During our play test of the DLC we were afforded a particularly extensive look at the multiplayer side of the game, Rockstar showing off five of the modes that will look to add a little variety to online play. The first mode on show was Racer - a classic race option which is all about bikers competing over a traditional, linear course. The first contest saw us marauding our way through Liberty City on a course called Middle Ground. Rain-soaked streets made the going hazardous and in multiplayer mode this race was highly entertaining - random traffic making for some epic collisions and dramatic changes in placing.

The second course was titled Beached, and included a segment along, that's right, the beach. Jostling with your follow riders while Phil Collins warbles over the radio is certain to bring a smile to even the most cynical face, and the atmosphere is palpable, hydrants bursting, mailboxes exploding and telegraph poles collapsing as you careen around the track. Next up was the Own the City mode - players grouped into rival gangs, competing for control of city districts by taking check-points and dominating via AI controlled 'defenders'. This mode boiled down to a frenzy of fighting, a percentages game that is far 'lighter' and more arcade-like than the tight characterisation and plotting of the singleplayer campaign.

Another novel twist on multiplayer action arises via the Witness Protection mode, which sees one team assuming the role of the law - trying to protect witnesses on the way to court - while The Lost must beat the cops and kill these witnesses before they can testify. Driving-focussed mayhem is the order of the day this time, the cops struggling to drive buses around town, under a barrage of fire from the gang, while the police race around in a panic, attempting to hold on to their witnesses.

A classic game of ultra-violent, biker 'tag' is next up, Lone Wolf Biker seeing one rider become the 'lone wolf', to be pursued by the baying hordes, the eventual assassin earning the lone wolf title until he is in turn murdered. While all the other riders have to catch and kill this rider, that player is tasked with surviving long enough to make it to checkpoints, in a highly playful, fast-paced mode, that was perhaps the most chaotic of all those on show. Lastly, we have Chopper vs. Chopper - helicopter against bike; the bike racing through checkpoints while pursued from the air. Roles are reversed upon the biker's demise, although players will need to start practicing their flying skills by the look of things.

The Lost and Damned is certainly shaping up to be far more than the usual DLC update - a few maps, a few weapons, the odd mode - as what it effectively represents is a full-blown expansion pack. Rockstar North's maneuverings with the story are clever, and we're keen to see how this pans out, while the sheer quantity of new content really could add a new lease of life to the game - and that's before you consider the multiplayer efforts, which are more than cursory. You wouldn't bet against it.

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