Review: GTA IV: The Lost and Damned (XBL)

If Grand Theft Auto IV hadn’t set the precedent for Rockstar’s realistic and serious direction for the series, The Lost and Damned would’ve been a complete mess.

Imagine a think piece about brotherhood and the testing of loyalties within a hardcore motorcycle club written in, say, a Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas voice; It would’ve been too ridiculous to be relevant. Jet pack biker wars, anyone? It’s fortunate then that Rockstar altered the series’ formula to accommodate more cinematic stories without jumping right into the next sidestory title.

So here’s where we are, under a year after the release of the fourth numbered installment in the franchise, and the Xbox 360 Live Arcade has its exclusive first piece of downloadable content. The wait has paid off as The Lost and Damned is worth every single Microsoft Point of the 1600 it’s charging, even when considering its few missteps in delivery.

(Character) Assassinations on a Custom Chopper

Niko Bellic’s misadventures serve as a template for Rockstar’s new protagonist Johnny Klebitz, vice president in Liberty City’s chapter of The Lost Motorcycle Club, meaning the feel and tone of GTA IV have largely remained the same in TLAD. There are still lots of conversations, vendettas, personalities and buddies to visit, although this time around you’re not pestered to take everyone on a “man date.”

The strongest parts of IV, the characters themselves, are prevalent in TLAD but weaker than those seen previously. Johnny as a whole is a serviceable character with a job to do: He kills, he has friction with the recently rehab-released club president and he’s rough. Mr. Klebitz is nowhere near Niko’s unique blend of sarcasm, persistence and heart, but Johnny works well because players of TLAD aren’t experiencing Liberty City for the first time—they’re returning to it. It makes sense to have a Liberty City native guide players through a new look at the same place.

Johnny does have some kind of a conscience: his questioning of the ethics and practices of his fellow outlaws makes Johnny “The Jew” more than a gunslinger with a leather jacket. He’s no saint, but he isn’t a Charles Manson like some reviews have portrayed him to be.

A presidential debate

A presidential debate

Thankfully, other characters standout from the “required” feeling of Johnny. In particular is antagonist and The Lost MC President, Billy Grey. The character is well-acted, well-written and overall as enjoyable as a messed up, violent bastard can be. He’s quirky, and not just the main villain among other villains. It’s a shame then that his arrest relatively early in the experience makes absolutely no sense other than bad luck.

The same goes for Billy’s turn against Johnny the moment he’s handcuffed: Sure, the pair bicker when Billy comes back from rehab, but for their entire relationship to fall apart as it does is really weak on Rockstar’s part in a game all about loyalty. Logic takes a backseat to creating a reason for players to gun more people down.

Setting TLAD in the same timeline as Niko’s story causes an additional character-related problem. Two specific character deaths come randomly and effectively pull you out of the storyline when you have to stop and think, “Who was that again? Was he in IV? Oh I guess that’s why he died.” Gamers would be a little better served if they finished GTA IV’s story mode a second time before investing in the nuances of TLAD.

It should also be mentioned that if Niko went from “rags to slightly better rags,” then players can expect Johnny to go from “rags to the same rags.” By the time the story missions are over in the approximately 11 hours it takes to complete TLAD , Johnny will have around $50,000 dollars–nowhere near the near $1,000,000 Niko can obtain in, admittedly, a much longer time frame. Not that money is a huge problem in TLAD , as fellow biker Terry provides new guns at discounted prices nearly anytime, and club road captain Clay can roll up with a new bike anywhere. These two elements allow players to feel like a powerful MC member. It’s unfortunate to think these gameplay additions will be removed or altered depending on the main character in the next DLC pack.

The Fewer the Wheels, the Harder the Gang

A lot has been said about the new motorcycle and sport bike handling alterations to the game. Thanks to Rockstar there’s now a plethora of two-wheeled machines to terrorize the streets of Liberty City with. And as much of a conundrum as it is to play a “realistic” interpretation of GTA while riding on a bike that is nearly impossible to be thrown from, it’s a damn wonder because the bike is the true star of TLAD. Firing a double-barreled shotgun from a Lycan bike while the gang follows Johnny’s lead is immensely satisfying.

The Lost MC

The Lost MC

Rockstar did a lot to help players assimilate the role of a leader with power to wield. The presentation of The Lost crew is visually striking and technically engaging. Past GTAs have danced around the idea of companions assisting in shootouts, from cars full of Italian mobsters to bank robberies with Irish lads. In TLAD the concept reaches the next level, and for the first time since San Andreas RPG elements are back.

Your crew can have its battle readiness improved by doing side-missions together and going out to eat or play air hockey. The “red shirts” of the game are replaced when killed, but if kept alive they’ll level up and be an asset to Johnny’s gang wars, which are excellent and optional distractions in TLAD. Because Niko was such a loner, it wouldn’t have made sense to have him and a random assortment of thugs search out and annihilate opposing factions, but with Johnny and The Lost that’s what you get to do. The variety is questionable, because killing the same mobsters, Rasta dealers and rival bikers time after time wears thin. Still, riding up to a car full of enemies with the whole gang is a great pastime between story missions. Riding in formation is very cool, and thanks to some improved AI handling you’re less likely to see strange driving choices by the NPCs.

The most disappointing part of presenting a gang riding tight is seeing the potential for the developers to create a solid co-op campaign experience. That’s for future titles it seems.

A New Coat of Paint on an Old and Sturdy Ride

One of the most major additions to the franchise in TLAD is a simple but needed change to the traditional mission structure: checkpoints. This godsend (finally) alleviates the frustration of restarting the same task from the beginning over and over. However, the missions are largely the same as before, though Johnny’s crew provides backup more often than not.

Races are also given a makeover in TLAD . The bike races play out like hardcore Mario Kart and old school Road Rash — bats slamming into your character’s face as you dash for the finish line. These races are nowhere near the tedium of Brucie’s in IV, and are actually enjoyable.

Johnny, don't ignore that flying corpse behind you

Johnny, don't ignore that flying corpse behind you

Graphically TLAD is exactly the same as GTA IV, only this time there’s a standard film grain effect similar to Mass Effect. Fortunately, it can be turned off. It’s great that developers are trying new atmosphere-building techniques, but a Photoshop-quality effect won’t portray anything extra that a solid story and setting can’t already do. Filters aside TLAD is still as visually impressive as IV, though any technical improvements aren’t noticeable.

The sound is, as expected with a GTA title, all about the radio stations. TLAD adds a late-night infomercial compilation’s worth of tracks, all of which would cost way more than the $20 spent on the game. Those curious about specific songs can check out the official list. Personally, Liberty Rock Radio was the most fun due to Iggy Pop’s hosting and classics like Styx’s “Renegade.” Additional TV episodes of Republican Space Rangers and the historical documentary on Liberty City’s birth are hilarious and keep the same vibe of Liberty City’s lifelike emulation. Simply put, those who took the time to explore Rockstar’s multimedia immersion in GTA IV have an impressive amount of extra bits to enjoy in TLAD.

Here’s a Tip: Online = Helicopter

Multiplayer in TLAD has been generally glossed over by the videogame critique audience. It’s unfortunate that a few added modes, while fun and conceptually brilliant, are enough to give heaps of praise. However, TLAD fails to advance multiplayer beyond IV’s limitations, and it feels like a missed opportunity.

The new modes vary in amusement, with Club Business providing the most entertainment because of its co-op nature. Where Team Mafiya Work in GTA IV has a similar co-op feel, Club Business forces players to act like they’re a team as sticking together in formation restores health and armor. The variety is much appreciated, with players avoiding police, killing rivals the Angels of Death, protecting club assets, assassinating, etc. These 20 minute bursts are the closest thing to true co-op the series has seen so far.

Smoke and rear-view mirrors

Smoke and rear-view mirrors

Chopper vs. Chopper, a much-talked about mode of one player in a helicopter chasing another on a bike is more boring in practice. It’s much more fun to be the biker due to the sense of panic, but after a few rounds the concept gets stale. The helicopter is invincible and you can’t hop off the bike, though it can be respawned. Of course these concessions are made for such a specific multiplayer mode, but there’s no risk or reward, which is a general problem with GTA’s multiplayer infrastructure.

No one would want a copy-and-paste progression system from Call of Duty 4 or CoD: World at War in GTA, but with 10 ranks simply providing better clothing options for your online avatar, where’s the real satisfaction? If Rockstar added a gear loadout screen for the Witness Protection mode (akin to IV’s Cops ‘n Crooks), where minimal weapon unlocks could be obtained through the dollar system already in place, it would add something more interesting to the experience. As it stands, getting to rank 10 will only unlock an achievement.

Again, GTA isn’t an FPS, but because the series has toyed around with RPG-like progression and stat building, why not try some of that in multiplayer? It isn’t the fault of TLAD as a whole product for keeping the same system as IV, but Rockstar could have added a little more life to multiplayer in this admittedly already packed expansion. Nitpicking, sure, but maybe in the next DLC things will be more robust and worthwhile.

Closing Comments

The Lost and Damned is a great example of value for DLC, even with its flaws. Though the story might chug and falter here and there, and the multiplayer is momentarily amusing, TLAD offers as solid an overall experience as GTA IV did last year.

If you care about the way Rockstar brings crooks to life and plunges them into violent drama, you’ll love TLAD. Or, maybe you just like new weapons and vehicles to go along with better music; TLAD is still right up your tailpipealley.

Recommended for:

  • GTA fanatics needing an additional cinematic fix
  • Those curious about much improved motorcycles and fun, new weapons
  • Its overall spectacular value as far as DLC is concerned
  • A good example of biker-based drama outside of Lorenzo Lamas

Not Recommended for:

  • Gamers not fond of the excessive violence GTA titles are known for (nothing’s changed at all)
  • Multiplayer enthusiasts looking for a rewards-based system
  • People who get peeved at helicopter ownage online
  • Anyone who could care less about motorcycles as a primary means of transportation

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