GTAIV: The Lost and Damned Xbox 360
Anyone who has ever returned to a favourite holiday destination will know of the comforting sense of familiarity that a best-loved location can stir upon revisiting it. And although it’s been less than a year since we first got to drive through Liberty City’s lavishly-detailed streets, the time away from Rockstar North’s living, breathing, virtual New York City during the hectic onslaught of the Christmas releases has resulted in many ways with the same sense of nostalgia that would normally be associated with returning to a real-life place. That’s not to say that things are exactly the same this second time around. Although the streets, buildings, and people that inhabit them are unchanged from the initial adventure through the City’s murky underworld, the perspective has shifted in order to create a new and exciting take on the world of Grand Theft Auto IV.
As Niko Bellic, we experienced the city for the first time. It was an overwhelming metropolis, realistically detailed to a degree the likes of which we’d never seen before in a video game. Much like our Eastern European protagonist, we were left to feel our way around, learning the city’s laws, its geography and its underlying mechanics as we went. Eight months down the line, however, and we know the place inside out – the perfect point at which to introduce a lead of a similar predicament. The narrative has shifted to Johnny Klebitz, vice president of the titular ‘Lost’ – a Hell’s Angels-like gang of bikers – and like us, he’s been in Liberty City for a long time. Klebitz understands Liberty City in the same way that we do, and although the initial impression of playing GTA4 with anyone other than Niko was one of slight anxiety, being dropped into the shoes of this rough-and-ready biker feels surprisingly natural.
Despite this change in focus, the mission format still remains very true to that established in the main game, albeit with much appreciated mid-mission checkpoints. The opening mission, which involves meeting Lost leader Billy Grey as he’s released from prison, is a basic ‘follow the blip’ exercise, the difference being that you’re now in the Lost Motorcycle Club, and there are a bunch of burly men in leather riding with you. They stick around as well, in fact the majority of The Lost and Damned is spent traveling as a unit, a neat little detail but something that also contributes to the game’s first real issue. This game is about bikers, which means that the majority of your time will be spent on a bike. While the bike physics have been tweaked so that the American choppers now handle with a satisfying weight, sliding around corners with a greater stability than in the previous outing in Liberty City, staying in pack formation whist speeding through the streets is somewhat problematic.
Sustaining a formation isn’t entirely necessary, but it has it benefits. By staying on top of a symbol projected onto the road, little bits of dialogue take place between the members of the Lost MC. These rarely progress into anything more than snippets of banter between members, but they add to the atmosphere and enforce the notion that this is a brotherhood of real people, joking and arguing as though they really do spend most of their time with one another. This is a shame because unless on an open stretch of freeway, or riding at an incredibly low speed, it’s fairly difficult to stay in any kind of organised pattern, especially when the AI riders decide to go head first into a lorry, or a lamp post, or the sea. When it works, it brings about a real sense of satisfaction (and looks totally badass), but for the most part it’s a good idea that just doesn’t quite get it right.
This isn’t a big enough issue to detract from the overall experience, however. Johnny Klebitz – much like Niko in many respects – is the sort of lovable anti-hero that demands our immediate sympathy. The story of his struggle to deal with power-mad Billy, whilst dealing with his catastrophic love life, and his efforts to keep the rest of his gang-mates out of trouble, is executed with a level of polish that constantly encourages your progression through the story. There are a few familiar faces amongst the cast of crooked politicians and drug dealers, and the way in which this new story delicately entwines itself with that of the original game will often result in a feeling of excitement and disbelief. It’s difficult to write about the way it complements the plot of GTA4 without giving too much away, but needless to say, the way in which everything comes together is absolutely brilliant. And aside from the involving story, The Lost and Damned features what could be considered as some of the most excitingly epic set-pieces in a game to date. It’s been a long time since an in-game high speed chase has left me breathless, but during one particular mission my hands were literally shaking with adrenaline.
As though all of this wasn’t enough, the package (weighing in at an admittedly hefty 1600 Microsoft Points) also includes a wealth of new multiplayer modes, the most significant being Own the City. This out-and-out turf war involves several teams battling it out to take control of areas of the city. When an area is obtained, the team receives AI gang members which must be killed should another team hope to gain control. This results in a constant tug of war between factions, requiring some seriously tactical play. Alongside this, other notable multi-player games are ‘Lone Wolf Biker’ – in which one player is constantly hunted by the rest of the group, the successful assassin then becoming the lone wolf himself – and ‘Witness Protection’ – a game mode in which a team of N.O.O.S.E operatives have to deliver witnesses to various police stations whist the Lost attempt to take them out, often resulting in some fantastic chase sequences across the city that look like they’ve been pulled straight from The Dark Knight. As though the wealth of extra non-compulsory missions within the single player campaign weren’t enough to prolong the initial play-time (which clocks in at around 9 hours), the online game-modes will easily provide an endless amount of replay value.
It’s a compliment to The Lost and Damned that so much has been talked about in this review, and yet I’ve barely scratched the surface of what is easily on a par with 80% of the stand-alone games released last year. Much like GTA4, it’s the little things that make the game what it is, from the film grain effect and grittier HUD, to the extra little bits of radio and TV that continue the idea that Liberty City is a living breathing place. From arm-wrestling at the Lost’s dingy clubhouse to listening to Frankie Boyle talk about sexual relations with kittens down at the comedy club, there would appear to be no end of things to do during your return to the city, not least trying out the new weapons – a refreshing addition to the already adequate arsenal – and beating competitors with a baseball bat during bike races a-la Road Rash.
This is a sandbox game however, and it will ultimately reward those who seek to further their game experience. I’ve had discussions with friends and colleagues about entire sections of the The Lost and Damned, in which many accounts have been entirely different, even down to the people met, and the people killed – making it impossible to define exactly how the game will result in every individual case. Guaranteed however, is a game that will now act as the benchmark for downloadable content, an engrossing and emotional supplement that augments the original in every way possible, essential for any GTA fan, and a damned good investment for anyone else.