Ever since I finished GTA IV I’ve been waiting for this, as despite a market drowning in first person shooters the wide-open sandbox game has without doubt become my game of choice. Saints Row 2 took up a lot of my time and dare I say it, even managed to be more pure, unadulterated fun than GTA IV at times, its arcade physics and gameplay elements meaning that it played a lot more like an update of San Andreas than IV did.
The Lost and Damned is a new story set in Liberty City; you play Johnny Klebitz, the Vice President of “The Lost” motorcycle gang, who has been the acting President for a year because the club's President, Billy Grey, was in court-ordered rehab after being arrested for narcotics possession. As leader, Johnny has established The Lost throughout Liberty City by making truces and deals after suffering financial troubles, mainly caused by Billy. The most notable truce is with The Lost's rivals, The Angels of Death, which has allowed The Lost to operate their drug deals and gun running operations more freely. When Billy is released from rehab he immediately goes back to his brutal lifestyle, and breaks the truce with The Angels of Death, restarting the gang war between The Lost and The Angels of Death, which serves as the main basis for the game. TLaD consists of about a third of the number of missions that Grand Theft Auto IV had, meaning that it should last something like 10-15 hours, and as ever with a GTA game this of course depends on how focused you are on the storyline, and how much you just like to “fanny about doing nothing” like I do.
The Lost and Damned is set in the same timeframe as Niko’s story from GTA IV (you even meet Niko on a few occasions and the stories intertwine neatly), thus doing away with the need to age, freshen up or remodel any of the city as was done in Vice City Stories and Liberty City Stories. This doesn’t mean that TLaD feels like you’re retreading old ground, what is, naturally, mostly bike-based travel means you can nip down more alleyways and get through gaps in traffic to evade cops, and a few new weapons (including a machine pistol, sawn-off and automatic shotguns, a grenade launcher and pipe bombs) mean that it’s a different experience altogether, and not always a more pleasant one. I know some gamers literally hated the motorcycle handling in GTA IV and avoided bikes at all cost, so with a vast majority of the missions and races being required to be done on two wheels, it’s going to be hard for them to enjoy themselves as nothing has changed in terms of the handling, and some of the gangs’ choppers do seem to handle more like trucks than bikes. Still, complaining about the amount of motorcycling in a game based on a motorcycle gang would be stupid, so don’t do it, or people will rightly say you’re stupid.
Fortunately for me, while not quite as enamoured with the game’s physics and handling as some (I think the gravity is a tad light, the vehicles have a bit too much inertia and momentum, and all vehicles have way too much “traction control”), I love the challenge that zooming around on the bikes in Liberty City provides - whilst avoiding being splattered against a wall or across the front of a truck. Aiming a weapon while trying to follow a target can be a tricky affair, and during races there’s a new Road Rash-style element with the introduction of baseball bat-wielding (mapped to the ‘X’ or ‘B’ buttons for a left or right swing respectively). Again, timing this can be really tricky as your baseball backswing has to be held for a fraction to charge up the power, but knocking another rider off and seeing him cartwheel down the road is undeniably a disturbingly pleasurable experience. Some of the chases and bike-back shootouts are real butt-clenchers, and the game realistically makes you always feel more vulnerable as a motorcyclist than a car driver, obviously to gunfire but also because it’s possible to get crush injuries from your own bike when you fall off it! As the de-facto leader of The Lost it’s unsurprising that you can ride in formation with some of the gang, and you can also use your phone to call a couple of gang members for backup or to bring you a new bike, or a weapons van. You can also take your biker mates out on the town to earn more respect and loyalty, there are a couple of new activities (air hockey and arm wrestling), and Frankie Boyle replaces Ricky Gervais at the comedy club.
It may not be the first of the much-heralded new generation of downloadable and “episodic” content, but it’s just about the best I’ve seen so far. It might not be cheap (Microsoft have to get their 360 exclusivity cash back somehow), but no previous DLC has revitalised a completed game as much as this, and for that Rockstar and Take Two should be applauded. This revitalization includes new multiplayer modes. Straight deathmatches can now be set to include biker weapons only, plus:
• Race - Racing on bikes with racers carrying bats and smashing each other, based on the old classic Road Rash.
• Club Business - Like the original Mafia mode in GTA IV, but with a total of 8 players riding together as one gang and performing various tasks.
• Lone Wolf Biker – A free-for-all mode where one player is the Lone Wolf and all other players must chase and kill that player to become the Lone Wolf. At the end of the game, whoever was the Lone Wolf for the longest time wins.
• Chopper vs. Chopper – It’s helicopter vs bike. A biker tries to get through checkpoints while an Annihilator helicopter tries to stop the biker. You’d think a helicopter armed with quad machine guns has the easy side of this game, but trust me, it’s harder than you might think.
• Witness Protection - One team is The Lost biker gang and they must try to eliminate a bus carrying witnesses while the other team is NOOSE who try to protect the bus as it delivers the witnesses to police stations around Liberty City.
• Own the City - Try to gain control of the city section by section, based on San Andreas' gang wars.
I was kind of dubious about a biker gang story set in a built-up metropolis like Liberty, thinking it would have suited the wide-open wilderness areas of somewhere like San Andreas much better, but it really does work, and despite some more “yeah right, as if that’d happen” moments it’s good story. It’s not all sunshine and lollipops in Liberty City though; For a start the new music is for the most part awful, there are tracks from Busta Rhymes to The Faces to Sepultra, but I can’t remember ever turning a GTA radio off so frequently as there’s often absolutely nothing on any of the stations that I want in my ears. I don’t know what I was expecting from a story based around a biker gang, but it could have been more fun, and you can call me an old romantic but sorting out Johnny’s ex-girlfriend Ashley’s life would have been a nice touch – without spoiling anything the whole story is yet again, a rather depressing tale of deceit, jealousy, revenge, OTT violence, retribution, loyalty... and I don’t think it gets the mix right. Some necessary gameplay can feel like a pain, like I wasn’t expecting Johnny and the Lost to build up a portfolio of swanky dwellings with quadruple garages during the game, but being limited to only two “safe houses” (where you go to save the game at times other than the auto save after each mission) is made a chore by placing them both in the westernmost area of Liberty city. Yes, you can take a taxi and skip straight there but it wouldn’t have been difficult or unrealistic for the gang to have a few more bases spread around the huge city to hang your biker boots up in. I also think it seems more difficult to get “healthed-up” than it could and should be, as no medical establishments or burger stands are marked on the map. Maybe an idea for the future might be that you could put your own editable custom waypoint markers on the map, rewarding exploration and a more methodical approach. There’s also another hangover gameplay-related problem from GTA IV that really gets highlighted in TLaD. When getting on or off a bike there’s an irritating three-second period in which you have no control over Johnny, and no weapon is useable during this time so he’s open to assault, this can result in some extremely silly-looking and annoying deaths when an enemy drags you from your bike and blasts you with a shotgun, and your rock-hard biker goes down without raising a finger... This really should have been sorted out, and Johnny should have been able to get on and off his bike like a shot.
So would I recommend this new adventure in Liberty City? Well, frankly at the price (1600MS points, a card for which can be bought for £13.99) if you don’t like bikes then frankly, no, by the end of TLaD you’ll be sick of the sight and sound of them. But if you enjoyed the bikes or just need more GTA in your life then it’s a no-brainer, simple as that. Once again, I expect that many, many drinks will go cold, and meals and appointments will be missed because of it.
Note: "Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned" requires the original Grand Theft Auto IV game to run. Microsoft Points can be used to purchase anything on Xbox LIVE Marketplace, including (but not limited to) the Grand Theft Auto IV expansion pack "The Lost and Damned."