Grand Theft Auto: Episodes From Liberty City Review

By Sterling McGarvey - Posted Apr 13, 2010

If you're looking for a reason to jump back into GTA4, then Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City -- a disc comprised of The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony -- is definitely worth a playthrough.

The Pros
  • Delivers both downloadable episodes in one great package
  • Undoubtedly worth the wait
The Cons
  • Lengthy mandatory install like GTA4 PS3
  • GTA4 engine is showing its age two years later

In the two years since Grand Theft Auto IV became a worldwide smash hit, millions of gamers have logged time in Liberty City. While some gamers have moved on, Xbox 360 owners have had heavy incentive to stick around, thanks to Rockstar's platform-exclusive downloadable episodes. And while Rockstar remained mum on an eventual multiplatform release, the phrase "timed exclusive" rears its head yet again, as the episodes have branched out. Was it worth the wait for PS3 owners? If you're looking for a reason to jump back into GTA4, then Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City -- a disc comprised of two eight-to-ten hour downloadable episodes, The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony -- is definitely worth a playthrough.

Episodes from Liberty City Review

Friendship Gained and Lost

The Lost and Damned drops players into Liberty City seen through the eyes of Johnny Klebitz, a high-ranking member of the gnarly biker gang, the Lost. The story begins with the gang’s president, Billy Grey, being released from rehab. Tensions immediately rise between Johnny and Billy over what direction the gang should head in now that its leader has returned. Johnny wants a business-based truce with rival gangs, while Billy wants to recapture the Lost's prior penchant for violence and drug-fueled mayhem. Those clashing ideals can't coexist for long.

The dynamics of the relationships between the various gang members as well as the other characters that pop up throughout the game -- many of which you'll recognize from hours spent in GTA4 -- are all compelling and fleshed out enough to make for a riveting and well-balanced story. TLAD's story isn't quite as nuanced or layered as Niko’s tale, but it conveys plenty in its stripped down play time. It's quite a gripping little tale of loss, damnation, redemption and retribution. In other words, there will be blood. Lots and lots of blood.

The charm of both Johnny's story and Luis' story in The Ballad of Gay Tony (more on that later) is the way that both stories are woven into the GTA4 fabric that makes it something truly special. Being able to see the lead up to the botched heroin deal between Niko, Playboy, Johnny and the undercover Feds; fighting through the museum shootout and seeing the bodies of people that you (as Niko) took out just moments ahead of you (as Johnny) and also crashing the party (as Luis); and really, just being able to be on the other side of several memorable GTA4 moments is quite simply awesome.

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Narrative, Smarrative. Bring on the Mass Murder!

If there’s one thing that never changes in Liberty City, it’s the ridiculous levels of high-intensity death and destruction that crops on a regular basis, mostly at the hands of a lone, heat-packing citizen. TLAD introduces new shotguns, a grenade launcher, pipe bombs and an automatic pistol, each of which packs a devastating punch. Combat plays out almost exactly as in GTA4 with the same cover and targeting system, which some love and others simply work around.
There's also biking-related mayhem you can get into, such as races and gang wars. Bike races are reminiscent of the EA classic Road Rash, since you can smack rival racers in the face with a bat. Gang wars pit you and your crew against a group of enemies (representing every gang in the city). There is some variation in the objectives, but they all play out like any random story mission and aren't as deep as the gang wars seen in San Andreas.

Say, That’s a Nice Bike

TLAD features over a dozen new vehicles with which to cruise around town and commit vehicular manslaughter. As you'd expect, most are motorcycles of differing looks, feels and sounds. Fortunately, bikes are far more stable than they were when Niko drove them, thanks to Johnny's hog prowess. As such, you now have more control, and you’ll find yourself able to maintain your balance through hard impacts. You'll still get tossed if you get into a high speed collision, but for the most part, the bikes handle well. And best of all, the improved handling is the result of the narrative, not some random vehicle patch that was thrown in to satiate whiny players.

Episodes from Liberty City Review

Liberty City is Still a Knockout

Unlike GTA4 and Gay Tony, TLAD's color pallet is muted and grainy to accentuate the grittiness of the story -- though you can adjust the sliders if you want. The level of detail present in the character designs and animations is also stunning. Unlike fit former soldier Niko, Johnny lumbers along with every step, and when he “sprints,” he’s affected by a heavy limp, which reminds you that he's seen his fair share of hard living. The lip-synching is also top notch, and thanks to some very solid voice acting (from both familiar characters and especially the new ones), the characters just pop off the screen and make for an even more engaging story.

Gang Up Online

On top of all the new single player content, TLAD also comes with a handful of multiplayer modes as well. The game's online features base modes with a biker-based twist. Lone Wolf plays out like Kill the Carrier. Witness Protection pits one team playing as cops escorting and valuable witnesses around the city, while the other team plays as gang members trying to destroy the armored bus transporting the witnesses. It’s a bit like an inverted Cops N’ Crooks, and it offers just as much mayhem and carnage as you’d hope it would. Chopper vs. Chopper is the real standout here. It's a one-on-one mode in which one player in a helicopter hunts down another who's racing a motorcycle through checkpoints. The mayhem factor is quite high, so if you're going to check out any of TLAD's multiplayer modes, you can't miss this one.

In conclusion, as one-half of the Episodes from Liberty City package, The Lost and Damned is a fantastic chapter that truly contrasts with GTA4's warped look at the American Dream and The Ballad of Gay Tony's irreverent approach to Liberty City. It's a rough and tumble tale filled with great set pieces and gritty moments. You'll probably be best off starting with The Lost and Damned, if only because Gay Tony's advancements will feel sorely missed if you play them out of sequence.

This. Is. Fierce.

Once you've wrapped up TLAD's grimy eight-to-ten hours of gameplay, a totally different take on Liberty City awaits you. The Ballad of Gay Tony tells the story of Luis Lopez, business partner and enforcer for aging club promoter “Gay Tony” Prince, who’s managed to rack up millions in debt to various unsavory figures. Pill-popping Tony might own the two hottest gay and straight clubs in Liberty City, but he’s up to his eyeballs in IOUs. Ex-con Luis inevitably gets wrapped up in odd jobs to keep the mob off Tony’s back. Fortunately for you and me, those odd jobs usually involve big guns, fast cars, and huge explosions. 
 
Gay Tony’s focus on the ups and downs of Liberty City’s nightlife contrasts effectively with the darker elements of TLAD and gives it more of an upbeat charm. As upbeat as you can get when you're pushing a guy off the top of the Empire State Building, that is. It’s much funnier and irreverent than the prior games, and the rather upbeat finale sends off Liberty City with a sunny smile and a wave.

If GTA4 laid the groundwork for gameplay, and TLAD lasered in on two-wheeled mayhem, then Gay Tony strikes the right chord between satisfying GTA fans who want story to go alongside their mayhem and giving giddy pseudo-anarchists something to pull them back into the fray from the likes of the Saints Row series. That means lethal sticky bombs, base-jumping, and automatic shotguns with explosive shells, and yet, these super-powered explosives weave credibly into the mission structure. 

Episodes from Liberty City Review
 
Relive It All 
 
Those of you who've gotten bent out of shape over GTA4's lack of mid-mission checkpoints will be relieved to discover that Gay Tony has plenty of well-placed (and well-paced) bookmarks that relieve you of the tedium of driving to some point and redoing the basics of a mission. It also borrows the mission replay feature from GTA: Chinatown Wars to let you relive great missions over and over, and they're integrated with Rockstar Social Club's leaderboards. There are some limits to what you can do, though. If you’re looking to capture the introductory cutscenes, they’re not available after clearing the game. Also, if you use any shortcuts, such as taxis, you’ll be disqualified from uploading your stats. But even with those limits, it’s a sorely needed addition to the series.
 
In both Episodes, the weaker points seem to come from extracurricular activities. Johnny's side missions, such as arm wrestling, aren't worth calling home about. Likewise, Luis' odd jobs at both of Tony's clubs, while loaded with some hilarious moments, aren't going to hold you attention for exceptionally long. I strongly advise you go for the "Bus Stop" trophy at Hercules, however. Your mileage will vary, but don't put too much stock into these side portions. You might be better off base-jumping. Fortunately, Luis’ dim-witted friends from the block won’t blow up your inbox like Niko’s pals -- their drug wars minigame is similar to TLAD's gang wars -- and fortunately, their perks unlock much earlier than those in GTA4.
 
Arguably the weakest part of Gay Tony involves Luis’ backstory. His family and friends from the barrio have potentially interesting (if not a little cliché) tales, but they never really unfold after the early missions. It’s funnier watch Luis sarcastically blow off Arab rich kid Yusef Amir’s coked-up ramblings than to watch him argue with his mother about straightening his life out. Also, you’ll never look at one of GTA4’s best characters the same way after clearing this episode. Indeed, most of the fun of Gay Tony comes from the fact that it assumes that you know side characters, you know the moments from the other Liberty City tales, and it delivers on them all with a wink and a smile.

Shake Your Groove Thing...Or That Old Lady Off Your Windshield

Music geeks will also find some of the new soundtrack adjustments to be interesting. Episodes from Liberty City has many revamped radio stations, from revamped badass rock that colors TLAD's grimy despair to K109's switch to obscure underground disco for Gay Tony and, most importantly, the disc-exclusive Vice City FM, featuring Fernando in full fatuous cry. If you can't get enough 80s, you might want to spare yourself the hard drive space and go for the disc.
 
From what I noticed playing the PS3 version of EFLC, it's not any different from what you got from GTA4 on PS3. Whatever differences there were between that version and the Xbox 360 version still stand (they were minor at best for me). Like the PS3 version of GTA4, a mandatory install is required, so make sure you've got a few gigabytes cleared for it.

A Fabulous Finale 
 
After close to twenty hours of extra content between both episodes, you'll probably wear the same grin I had when Gay Tony's credits rolled to the sounds of classic disco. Ultimately, the game's ending genuinely encapsulate the fifty-odd hours I invested in Grand Theft Auto IV on Xbox 360, and after logging in my fair share of hours on this other version, I’m confident that PS3 owners will feel the same way. Life goes on for these characters -- even if we’re not going to see new tales from the city -- and it’s a rewardingly upbeat celebration of the time you’ve invested in the world. If you've stuck with GTA4 for these nearly two years, you absolutely must play Episodes from Liberty City. In revisiting them on PS3, I'm solidly convinced that an anthology of ten-hour tales is the best way for Rockstar North to approach the series in the future.

Editor's Note: This article contains excerpts of G4tv.com's reviews of Grand Theft Auto: The Lost and Damned, originally reviewed by Jake Gaskill, and Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony, originally reviewed by Sterling McGarvey