Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Best Time You'll Have On A...Er, Hog...

The modern 3D Grand Theft Auto games have always been packed full of things to see and do, but there is inevitably places in the city maps that the games just don't have the time nor inclination to visit for a mission. It's just something that fans of the series have come to understand. Why can't I do a mission in that small town near San Fierro? What about the military base in Vice City? How about the amusement park in Liberty City. Well, thankfully with the advent of current-gen game systems network capabilities Rockstar Games, developers of GTA, can rectify this issue with the release of the first Xbox 360 downloadable content pack: The Lost and Damned.
Can you do something in the amusement park? Sadly, no. At least not yet. But you will explore the mostly neglected island of Alderney. Even without the amusement park this pack is still a joy to behold and just as Rockstar sets the standard high for other developers with their games, they redefine what DLC means to Xbox 360 owners.
The Lost and Damned introduces us to Johnny Klebitz, vice president of the titular biker gang "The Lost"(and before you ask, there is no gang called The Damned, it's a metaphor, meathead). Johnny has been running things while gang president Billy was cooling his heels in the can. Billy gets paroled and Johnny has to give up the autonomy he had before. It doesn't help that Billy is a total hop-head and seems to want to start a massive gang war in Liberty City.
The first thing you must realize is that The Lost and Damned is practically a full length game. Hell, it took me less time to beat Mirror's Edge than it did to finished TLAD. It's easy to balk at the $19.99 price and feel like you will be slighted by purchasing it, but trust me, this DLC's main story will easily take you 9-10 hours to complete. I pretty much rushed through it and it took me ten hours. The price is much easier to swallow when you consider all the things that this expansion offers.
More than twenty main story missions, twelve bike races(in the vein of seminal fave Road Rash), twenty-five gang wars, side missions, more birds to find, new weapons, new vehicles and new mini-games are most of the additions that this DLC provides.
One caveat, the additions in TLAD cannot be traded up to Niko's story in GTAIV. So, no grenade launcher or arm wrestling in the main storyline. Sorry, folks. The good news, however, is that like previous GTA games, once completing the campaign in TLAD you can still continue playing as Johnny as long as you like.
The good news here is that most of TLAD is fantastic. The story, while not as moving as GTAIV protagonist Niko Bellic's, is top notch. Johnny's story is handled fairly well in the short time that it has to present itself. You will get to know the members of The Lost fairly well, with only a few main characters being slighted(Brian the wheelchair bound ex-bike being the biggest example). The ending does seem to come too abruptly, and unfortunately like GTAIV it wades into the cliched mafia story towards the end. Unlike GTAIV these missions are few and come mostly towards the end.
Rockstar has implemented a mid-mission re-try feature, which allows you to restart any mission you fail from the last cut scene you are shown. While this is a much needed feature, it tends to make the game slightly easy. Rockstar seemingly tries to balance this easiness by making any ammo you expend(not to mention money spent at the hospital after you die and before you restart) not respawn during the re-try. It feels like cheap way to punish players for re-trying the missions and after I realized the game did this I quit using the replay "feature."
Using motorcycles has been refined, and unlike Niko, Johnny is an ace cyclist. No longer will you fly off the bikes with a slight tap, it takes quite a wallop to knock Johnny over the handlebars. The handling has been tweaked as well, most of the choppers are a joy to drive now, and you probably won't want to pilot Johnny in anything else(unless like me you take to the skies in every mission that lets you do so). Some of the time when you are riding with the gang to or from missions a The Lost insignia will appear, holding position over it will recover armor and activate dialog. While this is a cool feature, it is lost in the shuffle of the story and disappears after about a third of the game making it somewhat pointless overall.
The new mini-games are pretty worthless and not worth touching more than once. Air hockey sounds great in theory but the controls are spotty. High Card, Low Card is interesting but doesn't have much depth. Arm wrestling asks you to slam the right analog stick back and forth violently, I cherish my controllers enough to not destroy them on something so trivial.
Friend Lost gang members are usually available by phone to give assistance in missions, provide weapons or bring bikes to you. Unlike Niko's slacker pals, these guys will provide their assistance right away without being taken on a man-date. Though it's nice to have access to these perks rather early, it makes some of the collecting of money rather pointless as you don't need to waste it on weapons. The Lost member who provides paid weapons in his van charges entirely too much for some of the high end firepower making him fairly useless until later in the game and by then you probably won't need to buy anything from him. It's nice to have the option however.
The main selling point of this package is the connections to GTAIV. Rockstar promised that TLAD would fill in mysteries from GTAIV, and while I couldn't think of anything mysterious to be filled in TLAD does mesh with the main story wonderfully.
Without going into any spoiler specifics, something happens late in the game that is upsetting but happens off screen. I got really upset that I wasn't allowed to see an important story scene. Later while cruising the city a news report came on the radio describing the situation I didn't witness. I then realized that I witnessed the scene in question from Niko's point of view in GTAIV. I literally got chills from that. The last time I felt that kind of astonishment from a game was Bioshock's big twist. It's not quite on par with that classic twist, but it's rare that a GTA provokes those kinds of feelings.
Despite the high price tag Grand Theft Auto: The Lost and Damned comes highly recommended for it's intriguing story and new bike controls. Beware, this expansion is strictly for those of you who have already completed GTAIV. For the rest of you, what the hell are you waiting for?!

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