Sunday, March 15, 2009

Grand Theft Auto IV : The Lost and Damned - That's The Way You Do It

It's been almost a month since I downloaded Grand Theft Auto IV : The Lost and Damned, a twenty-dollar XBox 360 exclusive package that takes the incredible playground of Liberty City and refreshes it with a new character's story and great new gameplay elements. In many ways, it's just more of the same, but when the same is GTA IV, that's a really good thing.

What I like most about these sandbox games is the huge amount of content, and The Lost and Damned dumps more content into an already overflowing package. Players take on the role of Johnny Klebitz, second-in-command of the Lost biker gang, and play through a story mode that deftly weaves concurrently with that of Nico Bellic, the main game's star.

Nico and some of the characters from his tale make cameos here and there, but the Lost and Damned rolls out another great batch of new characters, once again skillfully crafted to make the player actually like and feel for the morally bankrupt psychos. It's wonderful and astonishing that such writing skills go into games these days.

The biker aspect is greatly featured, with some new twists added that make riding motorcycles in a sort-of formation fun. While following the gang's leader, a mechanism is present that rewards staying in formation by boosting health, giving players a chance to get fully healed up en route to the next shootout. Later, as the gang's leader, camera options show the player the whole pack if they so choose to view it.

An improvement of note is a more reasonable checkpoint system that prevents multiple rides to missions in many cases. It's a time-saving, frustration-preventing design choice that makes the gameplay flow more freely.

What makes all of the Lost and Damned such a complete package, though, is that every other aspect of Grand Theft Auto IV gets additions. There are new TV shows (including another hilarious episode of Republican Space Rangers), new internet stuff, and of course lots of great hard rock classics added to the radio that perfectly fit the motorcycle theme - songs from Iron Maiden, Deep Purple, and Motley Crue make cruising on the bike a more immersive expereince.

There are also motorcycle races, and DAMN they're hard. I haven't beaten one yet due largely to what I suspect are sweeping improvements made to the opponent's AI. Where the car races often featured pileups of your foes around corners and other silliness that made taking first place easier, the motorcyclists you face handle corners with skill. On top of that, the races feature combat in the form of a baseball bat that you can swing left and right, and your opponents have that, too.

There's a set of 25 turf war missions where you run down a rival biker gang and fight it out - these seem pretty easy so far but are nonetheless fun. There are new weapons to use including a sawed-off shotgun, and new multiplayer modes to try them out in that I have yet to play.

With your cell phone you can call up your gang brothers for backup at times, and eventually do some side missions for a corrupt politician whose first scene in the game features a little something for the ladies - full frontal male nudity. Rockstar's designers must be laughing their ass off at the inclusion of that, pushing the envelope of what you can do in a game in yet another bold new direction, at the same time making its largely male audience a bit squeamish.

And in my last play session I encountered a new random-character-on-the-street mission, so there must be more of those too. As with the main game, radio newscasts often mention the things you've done recently, and it's always cool to hear them. You hear the reports of Nico's antics as well, which helps you keep a rough idea of the timeline together in your head.

The safehouses of Nico are replaced for Johnny with a solitary gang clubhouse, which features the usual - a place to sleep/save, a TV and computer with internet access, and a safe place to park. Your gang brothers hang out there, too, and you can engage them in a game of pool, or try new challenges such as arm wrestling or the card game High - Low. That game is particularly fun, if just to watch and listen to your gang brothers' reactions to changes of fortune in the cards.

And finally, there's a system of gang member skill and experience that I've yet to fully grasp. All of this makes a far more total package than say - Fable 2 : Knothole Island - which pales in comparison, and in spite of my kind words about it at the time, ended up having some major bugs for which there are no excuses. But I digress.

What The Lost and Damned represents is a move toward something I've always wanted to see in an expansion or sequel. It takes the immense and detailed playground provided by Grand Theft Auto IV and gives players new adventures in it. A city that big must have a million stories to tell, and The Lost and Damned is the way to tell another one.

I'd like to see more games come out and then add new chapters as was done here. The old model of release a game, then a sequel that rarely follows the timeline, characters, mythology, and even locations of the first one (thus creating a dissonance, a detachment, and often continuity issues) has been one I'd like to see go away. Try to string together all the Zeldas and you'll know what I mean.

Imagine a game release where a design like this was planned all along. The team puts out a complete game, and concurrent with the design of that game plans a series of post-completion episodes that take the characters on new adventures. Crafted like a season of a television show, perhaps. If the writing is as good as it was for Grand Theft Auto IV, creating such interesting characters, I'd want to follow their story beyond the main game.

What the Lost and Damned has done is the best step in that direction I've yet seen. In addition, it's the most robust downloadable content package I've encountered. Another new chapter of Grand Theft Auto IV is planned for this fall, and I'll be there. Maybe by then, I've have actually finished The Lost And Damned and be really ready for more.

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