Review by horror_spooky

"Liberty City's swan song"

Grand Theft Auto IV was a blockbuster success that blew the mind of nearly every gamer around. It broke boundaries and provided an exhaustively extensive gameplay experience that was as close to perfect as you could possibly get. Rockstar definitely doesn't want the massive free-roaming worlds they create go to waste though, and this was made apparent by games like Liberty City Stories last generation that recycled the city players enjoyed during their tenure with Grand Theft Auto III. This time though Rockstar decided to go the downloadable route, creating two episodic content packs for Grand Theft Auto IV exclusively for Xbox 360 owners entitled The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony. Now they've released the two episodes on one disc at a discounted price, and it's definitely worth the money, especially for fans of GTA IV.

Firstly, let's talk about The Lost and Damned. In this game you play as Johnny Klebitz, who was seen in Grand Theft Auto IV doing a few missions for the primary protagonist in that game Niko Bellic. There are a few gameplay changes, improvements, and additions that help make The Lost and Damned quite entertaining and equal to that of GTA IV despite its short length.

For starters, the driving controls for motorcycles have been improved. Driving motorcycles in the previous game was a big pain in the ass since Niko seemed to fall off those things at the slightest bump and they were very unconventional. In TLaD, motorcycles are the vehicles you will be driving the most. In fact, you will only drive a car in very rare occasions, unless you're just rampaging throughout the city hijacking cars, which I suppose is always an option.

There are now checkpoints in the missions so you don't have to repeat giant stretches of gameplay any longer. One of the main issues in Grand Theft Auto IV was the lack of mid-mission checkpoints, which made the game's longer missions overly frustrating. This is fixed in TLaD, making the missions a lot less annoying.

However, the missions do seem a tad repetitive in Lost and Damned. Many of them end with you having to run away from the police, and this can become tiresome, especially when your main transport is a motorcycle and you have little to no protection against the bullets flying at you courtesy of Liberty City's finest.

There are some neat gameplay quirks to TLaD that do help to numb the repetitiveness of the missions. There are some new mini-games to play with your buds, including my personal favorite air hockey, and there are other little mini-games you can enjoy around the city. There are now new side-missions like gang wars that are very entertaining, and the “random characters” that you would sometimes find in GTA IV now remain in one position on the map forever so you don't feel pressured into completing their missions at the risk that you'll forget where they're located in the future.

There are races throughout the city that are obviously motorcycle races, and they are made a lot more fun than the races in the previous game. Why is this? Well, you are equipped with a baseball bat that you can use to smash into the faces of the people you're racing against. This injects the trademark violence and destruction of the series in the once bland racing segments.

Some new mechanics are very biker centric. One new mechanic that I am speaking of has you follow closely to the leader of any given bicycle pack. A symbol will develop behind them and you have to stay inside the symbol for a certain amount of time. The point of this is to regain health, and these situations will usually occur before missions. Another new mechanic is the ability to call for back-up at any time for your missions, and the more you complete missions with certain biker friends the more combat hardened they become and they will be more useful. Some of the bikers that will come to your aid can actually die though, so keep that in mind while you're building up the stats of your brothers.

The Ballad of Gay Tony surpasses The Lost and Damned though in the gameplay department. It retains the various quirks that TLaD added, but it throws some new stuff into the blender as well. Both games introduce a bevy of new vehicles and weapons, ranging from tanks to shotguns that fire explosive rounds by the way, just in case you were wondering about that.

The Ballad of Gay Tony, once you beat the game, will allow you to replay any of the missions you've previously completed to try to earn a better rating. Your score is dependent on various factors like the time it took you to complete the mission and some mission-specific factors. This allows you to replay your favorite missions as much as you want, and it's a really brilliant mechanic that Chinatown Wars introduced to the series and I'm glad to see it stick.

The mission variety in TBoGT is a lot better than in TLaD as well. The missions are very imaginative and all of them provide over-the-top excitement. There are a ton of crazy moments found in the game that will really blow your mind, and some segments of the game even manage to put the giant GTA IV to shame.

Some new gameplay mechanics introduced in TBoGT include some more mini-games, including a rhythm-based dancing game, and the ability to run the nightclubs owned by your boss the titular Gay Tony. You can also partake in other activities like drug wars, cage fighting, and insane relay-like multiple vehicle races that will keep you on the edge of your seat, but if that wasn't enough for you, there is now base jumping.

Yes, you read that correctly. TBoGT is brilliant really in plucking some of the exciting moments from the failed experiment that was the original Assassin's Creed and applying it to the Grand Theft Auto gameplay style. With base jumping means parachutes as well, so Rockstar has opened the door to plenty more awesome gameplay opportunities that weren't around before. This, coupled with the addition of some very sweet vehicles, is a throwback to the zany gameplay found in previous installments that was ditched for the realism in GTA IV. The Ballad of Gay Tony is the perfect balance between the gritty reality of GTA IV and the crazy explosive adventures that we grew to love in GTA III and San Andreas.

Some problems still persist. The multiplayer has grown a bit stale and it still hasn't expanded to the offline realm. If you didn't play the multiplayer too much with GTA IV then you'll probably be able to suck a few hours out of the multiplayer here, but in all honesty, it could have been better. Controls are an issue as well sometimes, as giant gunfights can get a bit sloppy when you're trying to take cover behind one object only to slide across the room to another object and get blown to bits. An easy fix to this would be to clean up the controls or simply give players more health and defense. I'm in favor for the latter, as it would really add a lot to the bombastic gunfights found everywhere throughout all of the games.

While TLaD and TBoGT follow two different characters, their storylines intersect, and Rockstar's vision of telling the Grand Theft Auto IV storyline as a trilogy really comes to light. You'll enjoy these two games much more if you've played Grand Theft Auto IV first, and if you have, then you'll be especially pleased with the masterful story told here and the perfect ending that serves as a brilliant way to say goodbye to Liberty City.

TLaD follows Johnny Klebitz, who made an appearance in Grand Theft Auto IV. The interweaving storylines between the two games is made apparent in TLaD's opening moments, and it's really cool how masterfully this story is told. Johnny is having problems with his gang, The Lost, as their old leader Bill is out of prison and causing some serious problems for the gang. Johnny as a character isn't that great, but the events that unfold are nothing short of brilliant, and over the years I've come to expect nothing less from Rockstar.

The Ballad of Gay Tony is infinitely superior in TLaD in the story telling department. The characters are a lot more fleshed out and there are a lot of appearances from some of your favorite GTA IV characters like Roman and Brucie. Yusuf is easily one of the best characters in the entirety of GTA's history, and he will have you rolling on the ground laughing. The central character, Luis Lopez, is the epitome of an anti-hero; you won't like him, but at the same time, you'll be thinking in the back of your mind, “what a bad ass!” Luis works as a bodyguard for the titular Gay Tony, but of course they get wrapped up in some pretty serious stuff, and the ending of Gay Tony sets the GTA IV storyline to rest by providing the perfect ending and an epilogue during the credits that will make fans giddy with excitement. The fresh locations, characters, and the impactful story helps The Ballad of Gay Tony craft an experience that will stick in your mind long after you set the controller down.

Both games are obviously very similar in visual quality to their predecessor. There are some minor improvements, though. There is considerably less pop-up in both cases and there are some new destruction elements and larger set pieces that will make your eyes pop out of your head. The text in The Lost and Damned is smaller than in GTA IV for some reason, and reading text messages on your phone can cause some headaches. The Ballad of Gay Tony corrects these text issues and also makes the icons on your map slightly bigger and easier to distinguish. Both games do suffer from some glitches, which range from minor to pretty annoying. I failed a mission once and I tried to replay it via by cell phone, but it wouldn't let me take my cell phone out. Disgruntled, I tried killing myself and a variety of other methods to try to get the game to let me take out my cell, but it simply wouldn't. I eventually had to save and then reload my game for my cell phone to work again, which is a hassle and a half if there ever was one and a pretty bad bug at that.

The games provide some new radio material and some recycled radio stuff from GTA IV. This is all fine and good as there are new songs on the radio stations, too. There are even fairly popular licensed tracks, including Bon Jovi's “Dead or Alive” and some other popular pop and rock songs. The voice work is just as masterful as the story, as is to be expected from the series, and there is some awesome dialogue here that will have you rolling on the ground with laughter.

You'll be able to get about 15 hours of gameplay out of the main storylines between the two games. That's quite a lot for games these days, and this title is sold at discounted prices! If that wasn't enough, there are 15 new achievements added to Grand Theft Auto IV (though keep in mind you do NOT need Grand Theft Auto IV to enjoy Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City) that are pretty imaginative for the most part and actually fun to go for. There are side missions and plenty of extra goodies to experience around the city as well, not to mention causing mayhem and going on sadistic rampages is nearly as fun as it was last generation with the addition of the new weapons, vehicles, and of course the ever entertaining parachute. You will be spending a long, long time with this game before you put it back on the shelf, probably close to as long as you played the awesome GTA IV.

Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City is a fine example of gaming nearly perfected. No, the game doesn't provide a new sandbox to wreak havoc in, but it provides so much more to do and to enjoy in this sandbox that it really feels like a brand new city. The story is damn near perfect, the gameplay is damn near perfect, the audio is damn near perfect, the graphics…I think you see where I'm going here. This game does nearly everything right. The only issues that need to be addressed are the occasional glitches, the slight control issues, the lack of offline multiplayer, and we need a new city to play in for the next title. Episodes from Liberty City sends the big LC out in style, and I can't wait to see where we'll be breaking the law in the next game.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 01/20/10

Game Release: Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City (US, 10/29/09)


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