Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost & Damned Review

By Jake Gaskill - Posted Feb 18, 2009

The first DLC for 'Grand Theft Auto IV' is here, and Adam and Morgan have a review of the episode 'The Lost and Damned' for the XBox 360.

The Pros
  • Gang dynamics provide a drastically different feel than GTA 4
  • Best use of parallel storytelling in gaming since Blue Shift/Opposing Forces
  • Fantastic voice acting
  • Another dozen hours of Liberty City madness + tons of new content
  • A steal at $20
The Cons
  • Gang A.I. can be worthless at times
  • Auto-targeting still has its occasional problems

Grand Theft Auto IV: Lost and the Damned Review:

Grand Theft Auto IV: Lost and the Damned for the Xbox 360 represents Rockstar North’s first foray into the world of downloadable content, or “episodes” as they are appropriately calling it. It’s a wild, brutal and tragic ride that exposes players to an entirely different side of Liberty City’s criminal underworld. So strap on your boots, throw on your scruffiest leather vest and prepare for battle, biker style.

“There are a Million Stories in Liberty City”

Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and DamnedThe Lost and Damned drops players in the same sprawling metropolis of Liberty City that played home to all those countless hours of Eastern European-flavored chaos that marked the painful and epic journey of one Niko Bellic. Only this time, it’s 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.

For Johnny, the path is one that favors finding relative peace and balance with rival gangs in the city. For Billy, the path is one of continued violence and drug-fueled mayhem. Not that Johnny is above laying waste to Liberty City’s finest hoodlums, gangsters and thugs with a sawed-off shotgun and a Molotov. However, to Johnny, violence (paging Michael Corleone) is strictly business, and his motivations are tied directly to the livelihood, social standing and continued financial success of the gang. Billy is motivated by personal gratification at the expense of others, despite his proclamations of loyalty and brotherhood. (Because apparently, being a good gang leader means becoming addicted to heroin, getting busted for drug trafficking, leaving your gang without a leader and causing hidden fissures to form among its members. Then, shortly after completing rehab, reverting to your old destructive habits and driving your “family” towards almost certain destruction.)

The dynamics of the relationships between the various gang members as well as the other characters that pop up throughout the game (some familiar faces include Elizabetha, Ray Boccino, Roman, and of course Niko) are all compelling and fleshed out enough to make for a riveting and well-balanced story. It’s not quite as nuanced or layered as Niko’s tale, but given the amount of time that it’s told in, L&D’s story is quite a gripping little tale of loss, damnation, redemption and retribution. In other words, there will be blood. Lots and lots of blood (as well as one particularly shocking revelation that will cause quite a few gamers to plead, “Aw man! Was that really necessary?”).

And while Johnny’s story is one that should please fans of the franchise, it is the way that the story is weaved into the GTA IV 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 really, just being able to be on the other side of several memorable GTA IV moments is quite simply awesome.

In terms of parallel storytelling in video games, the high-bar, for me anyway, has always belonged to Valve’s Blue Shift and Opposing Forces, the first two expansion packs for the original Half-Life. Crossing paths with Gordon Freeman, as well as other familiar faces, from two different viewpoints at key moments from the original game was insanely cool from both a gaming and a narrative perspective. With L&D, Rockstar has managed to raise that bar in several surprising and impressive ways, and the result is nothing short of brilliant.

This is an advertisement - This story continues below

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. This time around, players have access to a handful of new weapons, including a couple new shotguns, a grenade launcher, pipe bombs and an automatic pistol, each of which packs a devastating punch that is as terrifying to hear, as it is to see. Combat plays out almost exactly as in GTA IV. Johnny can take cover, popping up for targeted shots or spraying blindly around corners. There are some pretty spectacular firefights this time around, and there are a few sequences that are so gloriously intense that they would be right at home in a Call of Duty game.

The auto-targeting is still a major source of frustration, especially when you repeatedly find yourself targeting some pedestrian down the street when all you want to do is take out the Uzi-wielding maniac standing right in front of you. Fortunately, the combat is so fun and each scenario plays out is such unexpected and exhilarating ways that the auto-targeting issues are more of an acceptable annoyance than anything.

Without giving anything away in terms of the story, Johnny eventually becomes leader of the Lost, and as such, has the ability to call for backup and fight alongside his biking brethren. The more time your AI brothers spend dishing out death with you, the more “battle hardened” they become. This improves attributes such as their durability and weapon efficiency. However, even at their most hardened, your allies won’t be able to take out a group of baddies without some serious help from you. Still, being able to call for backup and then having your crew cruising behind you in formation is pretty damn cool.

When you feel like taking a break from stomping guys in the face with your boot heels, there are plenty of options waiting for you, including new internet sites, new Johnny-tailored TV shows and a new comedy act. There are also a few new mini-games (arm wrestling, hi-lo, and the atrocious air hockey) that are appreciated but forgettable. As far as bike-related activities, you can participate in races and gang wars. The races are your standard checkpoint fair, except you have the ability to smack rival racers in the face with a bat while you’re riding. It’s a particularly brutal ability to have, and it makes for some  equally brutal races as well. The 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. They are definitely intense, but since they don’t influence territories like in San Andreas, they don’t feel nearly as rewarding as they perhaps could have.

Say, That’s a Nice Bike

L&D features over a dozen new vehicles with which to cruise around town and commit vehicular manslaughter. Given the game's subject matter, the majority of them are motorcycles, with different gangs sporting different rides, each of which has a unique look, feel and sound. Now before you throw your controller in disgust, you should know that this time around, bikes are far more stable than they were when Niko drove them, thanks to Johnny's hog prowess (and sturdy thighs). As such, you now have more control, and you’ll find yourself able to maintain your balance even through the hardest of collisions. You'll still find yourself being launched into the sky after hitting tiny bumps in the road, 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. As for the other new (and old) vehicles, there is still a bit of a learning curve as each one handles almost entirely different from the next with a good number of them feeling like tanks on wheels.

Liberty City is Still a Knockout

Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and DamnedRevisiting Liberty City after a few month hiatus gave me a newfound appreciation for the ridiculous level of detail and immaculate design that permeates every nook and cranny of the city. Of course, for this installment, the color pallet is more muted and grainy, thanks to some saturation filters. The filters can be tweaked, so if you find yourself a bit overwhelmed by the dinginess, you can lighten things up a bit.

Once again, the level of detail present in the character designs and animations is also stunning. Unlike the ex-military, fairly in fit Niko, Johnny lumbers along with every step, and when he “sprints,” he’s affected by a heavy limp, which acts as a constant reminder that he is a road warrior who has seen some serious action in his time. 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. Musically, the game is as strong as ever, thanks to the 54 new tracks and new dialogue spread across the game’s 19 radio stations.

Gang Up Online

On top of all the new single player content, L&D also comes with a handful of multiplayer modes as well. Old favorites such as deathmatch, team deathmatch and free mode are back, while the six new multiplayer modes each offer something unique (even though most of them are basically slight variations of modes found in GTA 4 with more emphasis put on using motorcycles). Lone Wolf plays out like Kill the Carrier and requires one player to pass through checkpoints while the other players try to take them out and assume the role of the lone wolf. Witness Protection is a really fun mode that has one team playing as cops escorting and transporting valuable witnesses around the city, while the other team plays as gang members trying to kill the witness and destroy the armored bus being used to transport 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. There is a territory-based mode, where you and several bots must defend sections of city from other human players. The bots can’t travel between territories, so there is quite a bit of strategy involved, which adds another layer to the combat. The races play out just as they do in the story mode, only you can choose to race with any kind of vehicle you want.

The lone co-op mode is Club Business (similar to Mafia Work), and it tasks you and your teammates with carrying out various dirty deeds on behalf of the gang. Because the game puts such an emphasis on brotherhood and camaraderie in the single player campaign, when you ride and fight alongside fellow gang members in multiplayer it feels especially rewarding and natural.

By far the most viscerally satisfying and all out loony multiplayer mode is Chopper vs. Chopper, which is a straightforward one-on-one cat and mouse game with one player riding a motorcycle from checkpoint to checkpoint while the other player tries to blow them away using a military-strength helicopter. Oh man, these matches get so insane so fast and offer some of the most cinematic moments in the entire game, thanks to the follow-cam, which lets you see the action from the other guy’s perspective. There’s nothing quite like being able to watch a fire-spewing chopper bear down on a single motorcycle as it races across a densely populated bridge. For added fun, disregard the chopper’s guns, and instead use the propeller blades to carve your way to victory. The helicopter controls and straight ahead aiming aren’t that conducive to quick maneuvering chases, but the chopper is indestructible, so you’ll have plenty of chances to get back into the action.

During my play sessions, I experienced only minor stuttering every once in a while, but nothing that ever got in the way of the gameplay. Hopefully, enough people will decide to download the game, so that the multiplayer matches, especially the large party ones, are populated with enough people to make them as insane as they are meant to be.

GTA: Bargain City

Now that you’ve heard everything that awaits you in Lost and Damned, there should be no doubt that it’s worth every last penny  of its $20 price tag (and in fact, could have been sold for a lot more, given the amount of content that is here). The 8-10 hour story mode alone would be worth a crisp Jackson, but the fact that it comes packaged with new rides, new music, new forms of entertainment, new side missions and a handful of new multiplayer modes is simply outrageous for that price. L&D is easily the most well conceived and well-executed piece of downloadable content ever, and it sets a new bar for interactive storytelling that won’t soon be matched. (At least until the GTA 4’s third episode is released.)

Article written by: Jake Gaskill