The Lost And Damned is Rockstar Games' first downloadable episode for Grand Theft Auto IV, an Xbox 360 exclusive expansion to the blockbuster 2008 release that introduces players to all new lowlifes and scumbags.
Gone (well, almost) is GTA IV leading man Niko Bellic, replaced by a gang of Liberty City natives with their own set of problems. The star of The Lost And Damned is Johnny Klebitz, the relatively level-headed Vice President of the drug-dealing biker gang The Lost. A few hundred murders aside, Johnny's a pretty stable guy, particularly in comparison to the gang's president Billy Grey. Fresh out of rehab, Billy returns to the Lost, only to start wreaking havoc city-wide, making Johnny's junkie ex-girlfriend Ashley the least of his problems.
Even if you already know the streets of Liberty City like the back of your hand, is Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost And Damned worth getting lost in?
Content: Even at 1600 Microsoft Points, the higher end of downloadable content for Xbox Live, price-wise, it's hard to imagine anyone feeling short-changed by the 1.8 gigabytes worth of new additions to Grand Theft Auto IV. With a single-player campaign that should take about 8 to 10 hours to blow through, not counting the 25 Gang War and 12 street race side missions, this is a good deal in terms of raw numbers. There are new relationships to max out, side stories to complete, and dozens of seagulls to exterminate. You get what you pay for.
Under The Underbelly: The Lost is headquartered in Alderney, likely a GTA IV player's least explored region of Liberty City. That, and an almost total avoidance of Dukes and Broker, Niko Bellic's original hang out, at least give the impression that one is treading new ground in The Lost and Damned. Rockstar does a respectable job, via new interiors and a darker, grittier aesthetic throughout, of making the episode feel surprisingly fresh. There are definitely moments of "been there, done that, got the Happiness Island tee shirt," but Liberty City rarely feels stale.
The Brothers: Having the majority of Johnny Klebitz's relationships already established makes jumping back into GTA IV a breeze. It also reduces much of the frustration of the original game, as you'll spend little to no time fostering or improving relationships—your brothers are willing to help you out with guns, motorcycles, mission backup or paying jobs right away—and very little time on the phone. There's no required dating to speak of, leaving Mr. Klebitz's social calendar open enough to let the player feel free to explore. The Lost and Damned does add a rudimentary leveling system, letting you "battle harden" your Lost brothers by taking them on missions. It doesn't have a huge impact, but you'll probably want to maximize Clay and Terry's toughness for your end game missions (and to get one Achievement).
Road Rash: The dozen races scattered about Liberty City bring the town's best bikers together for street races that are essentially EA's classic Road Rash. Players are armed with a baseball bat and can "whack off" bikers to get ahead. And you can do it online.
An Extra Layer of Multiplayer: The single-player additions would likely make the investment worth it for many gamers, but five all-new multiplayer game types will push it over the top. While the "Road Rash" races may wear thin quickly and "Chopper Vs. Chopper"—a battle between one biker and one helicopter pilot—feels like an excuse to have the title in print, genuinely fun new additions, modes like "Own The City" and "Witness Protection" mix multiplayer up in exciting new ways.
Johnny Is No Niko: Frankly, Johnny and his Lost brothers just aren't as interesting a set of characters as those introduced in Grand Theft Auto IV, making for a storyline that doesn't pack the punch nor have the interesting history of its bigger brother. Johnny's run ins with Niko (and other GTA IV cast members) add color, but not much else. Perhaps the most bothersome aspect of the story's progression is how forced, how confusing the motivations of its key players can be. Even in missions, few of which are memorable, some of GTA IV's gameplay feature set feel under-exploited. In particular—spoiler alert!—one prison bus carjacking feels almost silly in its mission design oversights.
Bike Quirks: While bike handling is improved enough to make the new hogs easily ridable, you may experience some bouts of frustration when game physics meet motorcycle. More than once during my play through, Johnny was launched spectacularly and bizarrely into the air courtesy of some unseen obstacle. Also, while riding in formation, the game's AI driving techniques can make the pack of expert bikers look like chumps with learners permits, bumbling and bumping into each other like the opposite of bad-ass bikers.
As far as an episodic expansion goes, The Lost and Damned is a huge success. It comes stuffed with new things to do, people to meet, and bodies to pile up in the name of brotherhood. While some of our quibbles with Grand Theft Auto IV's storytelling dynamics and game design quirks make themselves once again apparent, it also improves upon them. And although it shares some of its forebear's warts, it also addresses some of its faults, such as the welcome addition of mid-mission checkpoints.
As a side story that's a third the length of IV's, The Lost and Damned's tale of violence and friendship simply isn't as epic or satisfying as the struggle of Niko Bellic. Despite that, The Lost and Damned gameplay experience is ultimately fulfilling, if only for the new weapons, new adventures and the peculiar attachment one begins to feel for the game's motorcycles, choppers you'll feel almost obligated to ride throughout. After all, what self-respecting member of the Lost would be caught dead in a Blista?
Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost And Damned was developed by Rockstar North, published by Rockstar Games for the Xbox 360, released on Xbox Live on February 17th. Retails for 1600 Microsoft Points ($20 USD). Played single-player game to completion, tested multiplayer modes.
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