GTA IV: The Lost and Damned
There's not much of a shift in tone with The Lost and Damned. Much like GTA IV, it's all about a group of characters being trapped in modern American society: stuck by their choices, their friends and their past. Niko Bellic and new central character Johnny Klebitz long for a clean slate. Both protagonists have hope dangled in front of them at the start before Rockstar snatch it away. Niko begins by arriving in America with the dream of change, and Johnny's been running his biker gang in a (mostly) peaceful, conflict-free manner whilst his superior is in jail.
The narrative revolves around The Lost, and whilst there are a few obligatory new additions everything else feels very much the same as it did before. Rockstar haven't sprayed any new graffiti onto the apartment complexes in Bohan or added more flashing lights to Algonquin. Riding down Star Junction in rush hour is still a sight to behold, and the hiatus between GTA IV and this has been long enough that Liberty City is now a welcome rediscovery, like finding a ten pound note unknowingly nestled in the sofa. Rockstar have done what they're trying to do best, weaving a new story, connecting new characters and sprinkling occasional hints at resentment, jealousy, revenge and despair.
The DLC is, expectedly, shorter than the full game. This gives the developers the chance to portray a tighter narrative, with more interconnected features and a sense of unity across the missions that the exhaustive GTA IV couldn't possess. Rockstar tell Johnny's story with a versatile gusto, with the tension between him and gang leader Billy rising between every mission. For a series and developer often accused of being so hyperbolic, the story is handled with an effortless subtlety.
It wouldn't be Rockstar without some sort of gratuity, though, so they've bunged in some full-frontal male nudity.
At its heart The Lost and Damned is a tale about business, and it competently handles issues of economy, politics and ethics whilst having its radio stations scream the same themes at you with Rockstar's traditional satirical emphasis. But it's also a story about love, and it just as proficiently engages with the difficulty of those emotions.
This is all going on underneath the gritty surface of a motorcycle gang in the middle of a gang war. There are many missions where Johnny doesn't ride alone, taking his place within a pack of The Lost, with the player doing their best to position him in rank and file to hear as much of the dialog and receive health bonuses. The sight of a leather-clad, scarred, gun-toting group of The Lost screeching down the Northwood Heights Bridge is a treat to behold. You can practically smell the cocktail of whiskey and asphalt.
With the larger group numbers come bigger fire fights, and turf wars with the rival gang explode with aplomb: bullets flow, bodies drop and well-placed explosions create havoc, panic and destruction. The addition of the sawn-off shotgun and grenade launcher help keep the body count rising and, perhaps as a result of criticism against GTA IV's initial sections, are quickly given to the player.
The chief flaw, though, is inherent to the title. There's only so much Rockstar can do with the format that's on the verge of being exhausted. Missions ultimately boil down to driving to one location, shooting things and driving back whilst avoiding the police. It is, however, a testament to the versatility of the developers that they can keep the formula feeling fresh and varied for most parts of the game. Even nonsensical, intentionally contentious missions like pretending to be a terrorist and shooting an RPG at a plane are well executed.
As side orders to the story-driven main course there are races and gang warfare mini-games. Neither mode is particularly complex, although they do offer the occasion brief reprieve from the action and allow the player to settle in an altogether more basic style of driving fast and shooting things. Johnny is able to use his baseball bat on his bike, and the game makes no attempts to hide its Road Rash inspiration.
The handling of the bikes has been changed slightly from GTA IV, as well as the general stability. The subtle tweaks make races, as well as the whole of the expansion, much more palatable.
Johnny also never wears a helmet.
As the game progresses, everything comes together in an expectedly poignant manner. It's a memorable conclusion for an important release, but at the same time it hinges on the player's opinion of GT AIV to begin with. Rockstar haven't tried to reinvent the wheel, here, and they certainly haven't attempted to change the tone of their modern Liberty City so their game won't appeal to those who were disappointed with their direction. Saints Row 2 in a leather jacket it is not.
The Lost and Damned exudes confidence alongside competence. It's all the better for it. The developer might be occasionally accused of arrogance, but they're producing material of such quality that they can get away with it. The Lost and Damned is intelligent to the point that parts of it are advancing storytelling in videogames. It is, however, juxtaposed against wanton violence, a desire to stir up controversy and shots of penises.
It's of so much worth that most publishers and developers wouldn't be hesitant to slap a full retail price on it and sell it in a box. It has set the bar for DLC far higher than any other developer, exploring ideas for the format that most studios haven't yet conceived. The Lost and Damned isn't episodic, it's a complete story. The size, variety and polish of the thing shows just how much regard Rockstar have for the gaming community, producing a batch of content that sets itself up as the polar opposite of Horse Armour. The Lost and Damned is DLC that, for the first time ever, will be impossible to have cries of exploitation and disappointment levied against it.
The Lost and Damned is an excellent, well-produced, complete title. It, deservedly, makes Project Anchorage, Bring Down the Sky and Knothole Island look timid. It makes Half-Life's Episodes look miniscule.