Inside 2008’s re-drawn and re-imagined Liberty City, Rockstar declined to change the shape, structure and content of the game, or even the average mission. Niko Bellic’s freedom to roam around the city was comfortably stifled by constant prompts telling him what to do next, whether it was getting in a car, following the mini-map, losing the cops, or shooting a man with an arrow floating above his head. Grand Theft Auto IV’s sandbox element was mainly punching women’s shopping bags out of their hands. Gunplay was never the game’s strongest card and GTA IV’s new cover mechanics did little to enhance it. Now, you just slog along the odd corridor with your back to the wall, instead of facing it.
Let’s not be too down: it’s important to remember what GTA does with majestic, and rarely equalled, excellence: tell stories in a way that makes you feel. Take GTA IV: Brucie was a charming mentalist, and the futility of his missions was a superbly deflating payoff. The constant pestering of your phone might have been frustrating, but it created bonds with certain characters that gave their eventual betrayal a genuine sting. The much-vaunted openness of Liberty City – and the dry and meaningless cliche that it was “living and breathing” – paled next to the lives of its mission-dispensing stars. They might not be sympathetic characters, but they’re never boring, and they’re dripping with satire that the tabloids never acknowledged.
With Rockstar’s skilled writers providing redundant reams of character dialogue and satirical radio chat, Episodes from Liberty City develops the game’s strongest assets admirably – and even fixes one of the more tedious problems of GTA IV with mid-mission checkpoints. The release as two chapters that are playable independently of one other and GTA IV, even makes sense of the game’s bipolar attitude to gritty realism andover-the-top dick-waving. If you want real, get on your bike. If you want to jump out of a golden helicopter, go gay.
The Lost and the Damned drops you into the leathers of Johnny Klebitz, the second-in-command of The Lost, one of Liberty City’s motorcycle gangs. He’s been acting up while the proper boss, Billy, went through rehab. During this time, he negotiated a ceasefire with the rival gang and got the business side of the gang (selling drugs, naturally) sorted. Basically, he’s greatly improved the standard and life expectancy of the average gang member’s life.
But this isn’t a situation that pleases Billy when he returns. He doesn’t own a Biker to Pussy translating dictionary, so he’s not sure what “ceasefire” means. And he isn’t prone to respecting the boundaries of his enemy’s territory. So that’s the journey you take on in The Lost: the role of the reasonable man forced to watch his hard work being undone by a stubborn old-timer with mental health issues. This tense relationship is so expertly written, and with such self-control, that you’ll wince at the constant anticipation of Lost-on-Lost violence.
In terms of what you do in the world, few things change. You ride as part of a pack now, and riding over the icon that appears in the center of the pack triggers bonus dialogue that you’d normally get from being in a car.
The pack mentality extends to your members – they’re not a lot of nameless, faceless people. If someone dies, they stay dead. If they’re replaced, it’ll be with less helpful rookies. Group AI and health is always something of an opaque art in GTA IV – it’s difficult to tell what help your friends are actually offering, or what damage they’re taking. You often suspect they’re simply there to add to the spectacle rather than the battle.
Beyond that (and the excellent handling on the bikes that undermines beefs about the GTA IV cars) this is classic DLC. More of the same, but with new characters that wouldn’t fit into the main story. Rockstar aren’t selling you the last level they didn’t finish by deadline.