Liberty or death, Lost MC forever!
Just when you thought you'd be done with Liberty City and with Niko Bellic's chronicles, along comes Lost and Damned, the first downloadable content pack for Grand Theft Auto IV, as it rides a dirty custom-made hog down the road of the Xbox Live Marketplace, sporting a leather jacket, a trim haircut, and pilot-style glasses. No handlebar mustaches, though. Okay, I lied.
[image1]Lost and Damned tells the story of the Lost MC, a modern day biker gang who has seen better days, struggling to survive in Liberty City after its leader, Billy Grey, gets pushed off to a druggie clinic. Instead of controlling said leader, however, you'll fill the shoes of Johnny Klebitz, the gang's vice president - a tough and mostly unlikeable dude who wants to take the Lost in a different direction than Billy. This struggle is what pushes this DLC's story, along with the gang's dealings with the other existing factions in the city. Along the way, you will get reacquainted with old friends from GTA IV and make some new ones.
Biker gangs are nothing new in the world of Grand Theft Auto. Vice City, the second installment in the re-invented 3D series had its own mean and lean group hog-lovers modeled after the 70s and 80s Hell's Angels - but Lost and Damned expands that further and goes into the nuts and bolts that keep a gang rolling. Knowing the Lost's members and their own functions is one part of playing Lost and Damned, since a lot of the principal characters in the story are members of the biker sect and are major players in the missions. In the beginning missions, you'll ride in formation behind Billy's chopper, and get hammered into the structure of the gang's hierarchy. As the game progresses, you gain the ability to call for backup and order a convenient weapons van as well as an on-demand motorcycle delivery.
The mission structure remains unchanged from GTA IV's, with missions sometimes expanding into various parts. The main benefit added is the mid-level checkpoints; no longer is death a cause for an annoying revert back to the beginning. This makes the game more dynamic and streamlined, quicker even.
[image2]Missions are varied in the same vein as GTA IV and don't escape the classic mold - you will steal vehicles, murder specific targets, and race. There is a recycled mode carried over from San Andreas, the Gang War, which got slimmed down to specific zones on the map. It's completely optional, contrary to CJ's adventure, which tended to lead a lot of players into insanity keeping all of the zones in check.
Too bad the gameplay remains mostly unchanged. With a sparse list of differences, controlling Johnny is just as clunky as Niko, from the shooting to the simplest of movements. The "pop and shoot" cover system continues to be cumbersome to deal with, leading to lots of hide and seek between you and the enemy that you are locked on to... if you can lock on to anyone that is, since a lot of times even enemies in plain sight seem to have stealth bomber capabilities (lucky them...). It still feels complicated switching from triggers to bumpers in order to shoot weapons while driving, and all the buttons, sticks and combinations thereof only make it worse at times.
One of the few notable improvements is the increased stability while you're on the bike; that is, not being knocked off. As mentioned before, one of Lost and Damned's attention to detail is formation riding, which is a neat feature but it does limit your quick travel. Since you will want backup with you in the many gun fights, there will be very few chances to jump into a cab, forcing many oh-so-slow rides across town.
Riding and gunning with fellow gang members will buff up their toughness and skills, adding a bit of character progression. However, if leveled characters die, they are replaced by new gang members that start at the bottom. Key story characters keep their stats, though, giving a lot of incentive to "grind" that muscle. Thankfully, this development only depends on backup requests in missions, not on things like the dating structure in GTA IV. You can still call your buddies out for a good time or just to go riding riding - even to play all new air hockey - but none of that influences their behavior or skills.
[image3]Among the arsenal upgrades are a sawed-off shotgun that can be used while driving, pipe bombs a la Left 4 Dead (fuse included), and a mini automatic rifle that would make the Governator proud. As for new vehicles, there are the aforementioned gang van, an aging coupe, and various new types of chopper bikes. Johnny himself owns a special custom painted chopper that will always be parked outside save houses, even if it gets destroyed (which is actually kind of creepy.).
Lost and Damned shares a lot of GTA IV's strengths, too. Voice acting and dialog is once again top-notch and very entertaining. Characters are well-animated, their mannerisms convincing. Billy Grey has an annoyingly awesome way of talking, over-pronouncing words, a trait that bound to hit a lot of nerves - as it should.
Johnny, the main character, tends to be reluctant, but like all GTA protagonists, goes along with the plan eventually. His performance falls flat in many parts, and misses the high mark that Niko etched back in the original. In the end, the charm comes not from the character you are playing, but the others that surround him. Moreover, the story tends to take a turn towards the lost, pardon the pun, once you get to the middle end of the main "quest" mode. And like GTA IV, by the end of the game, you won't have much of a sense of completion or connection to your character.
It's worth mentioning the various crossovers and references to GTA IV's story, since both are supposed to take place simultaneously. Two missions in particular are carbon copies of ones played from Niko's perspective, with basically the same ends and goals, only fought with a different character. The crossing-over never transcends a cameo in a cut-scene and a short dialogue, so don't come to Lost and Damned expecting to play sidekick to Niko. Yes, it's neat getting a different view on how the events in GTA IV were played out, but the over-hyped crossover occurrences are nothing more than exactly that - long scenes with Niko, only to have him to disappear back into the ether from whence he came.
Liberty City is still incredible to look at, accompanied by a great selection of radio stations. It certainly pushes the Xbox 360's capabilities in a lot of cases, especially while tearing the roads full speed on a bike. There's still some popup here and there, sometimes even in cut-scenes. A few new stations have been added, relying on a lot of heavy metal, punk, and bits of classic rock to cement the feel of being a badass biker.
[image4]In terms of multiplayer, Lost and Damned takes some of the gang war aspects of its story into new game modes: a full-on bike race, with racers armed with bats, just like Road Rash; a chopper vs. chopper scenario, in which one player controls a hog and the other a rampaging attack helicopter; a capture and control territory-styled game; and even a Counterstrike V.I.P style mode.
However, one of GTA IV's strongest factors - its open world, huge city landscape - still proves to be the multiplayer mode's greatest foe. Matches start off well, but quickly degenerate due to very few players actually fighting or having to race in a huge map. Another problem is how tiring most of these modes are, if just for the fact that finding a game is difficult, just a month from Lost and Damned's release. I'm tempted to think about how the game would've fared with an online cooperative mode instead, taking into account such a rich environment, and how the theme of gang "brothers" is jack-hammered into our skulls during every line of dialogue between the Lost members.
While Lost and Damned still suffers from a whole laundry list of problems already present in the original Grand Theft Auto IV, it is still a very enjoyable game. Building off an already impressive design set by its predecessor, this DLC pack only shows what awesome scenarios can be told in future content packs. Its story can feel disjointed at points, but it is contained between exciting missions and just about the exact amount of time you'd feel comfortable roaming around in a downloadable title. Certainly, if the online modes were better implemented, it would've been the ultimate hog lover's dream. Ride on, brother!