At either end of 2009, two “episode packs” were released for the 360 version of GTA IV: The Lost And Damned, and The Ballad Of Gay Tony. As of a week or two back, the two have been released together for the PC, not requiring the original game to run. It’s an awful lot of game. I’ve finished the both, and so it’s about time I told you Wot I Think. First up, The Lost And Damned. (Be advised – there’s a picture of a man’s front bottom in this article.)
Perhaps GTA IV’s greatest achievement is the sense of place it created. Liberty City is quite astonishing, the most realistically realised fictional location seen in gaming. Not just its size, but its detail, its variety. Then within that, Rockstar told a story of so much more maturity than anything they’d tried before.
The tale of Niko Bellic, a reluctant centrepiece for a narrative of crime, drugs, prostitution, and all that has come to be associated with the series, was not told with bravado or immature glee. Rather it was a sad story, a demoralising exploration of one man’s descent into a criminal life of murder and exploitation that he had never desired, born of the horror of his past and the lack of opportunity in his present. Perhaps the mistake in the new content (and there are very few mistakes) is trying to do this twice more.
Someone at Rockstar has maybe been watching Sons Of Anarchy. And after playing the biker gang story set within Liberty City, there were a number of (perhaps coincidental) parallels. The FX show features a washed up biker gang, fighting to maintain any control of their town as the modern world hurriedly catches up around them. At its centre is the gang’s Vice President, Jackson Teller, who wants to see change in the club. His step-father, played by a grumpy Ron Perlman, is getting the club deeper into trouble, fixated on vengeance and the ways things used to work. Jax wants to see change, wants SAMCRO to move on. I say all this because if you remove the step-father element, that’s the opening plot of this first GTA episode.
Set in the same city as the previous game, now you primarily navigate the streets on two wheels. (Cars can be stolen and driven as before, but during missions you’re required to be on your own bike). Much as before, a number of people around the city will give you scripted missions, the accompanying cutscenes telling the overall story. Familiar, and still brilliant.
The Lost is headed by Billy Grey, freshly released from court-appointed rehab, and immediately back to his old ways of heroin and revenge. While he was away, VP Johnny Klebitz, your character, formed truces with rivals all around the city, including former enemy motorcycle club, the Angels of Death. Financially ruined after years of Grey’s authority, he was doing all he could to rescue the Lost from complete destruction. Somewhat disrupted by the return of the president, and his immediate restarting of as many rivalries as possible.
The most dramatic difference between TLAD and either GTA IV or The Ballad Of Gay Tony is the squad-based missions. When you head off to do club business, you’re amongst a number of other bikers, riding in formation (peculiarly, doing this builds your shield on the way to and from places). So very often the shoot-outs, and this is primarily about shoot-outs, put you in company. Later, you’re able to choose to call in support from loyal club members on missions that could otherwise be played solo. While their AI is not exactly outstanding, it’s useful back-up. Far too often they’ll use exactly the bit of cover you need, and occasionally they’ll somewhat double-cross you by shooting you in the back. But most of the time they’re useful to have around, especially as the scale builds up toward the end.
The largest issue with TLAD is simply one of comparison. The story is fine and very well acted, if a little predictable, and the missions are all decent, if a little samey. Alone, it is a splendid, lengthy game. But it’s also alongside GTA IV and Gay Tony, and it’s by this standard that it falls slightly short. It lacks the variety, and certainly the silliness, that lets the other two games feel much deeper and more involved.
Your character, Johnny, isn’t exactly the most interesting or complex person. Beyond being fed up with the status quo, there’s little sense of a rounded individual, and certainly a lack of background. He feels a little like a pastiche of Niko, in fact. What made Niko so interesting was his reluctance in a game series that had previously trumpeted its indifference to murder and crime. Johnny wants to see The Lost progress, get out of petty rivalries and instead start to make money once more. But this just seems to be born of common sense, rather than any interesting narrative history. Since I’m comparing with Sons Of Anarchy (you know, both feature major characters called Clay), there Jax is inspired by finding the memoirs of his late father, the former president of the club. His regrets, and desire to see change, inspires the VP in a way that his mother finds terrifying, and others in the gang find threatening. It would have been great to see something like (but other than) this giving Johnny more reason to be.
However, far more interesting is Johnny’s relationship with his ex-girlfriend, a haggard drug addict for whom he feels a conflicted mix of sympathy and disgust. It’s through friendships, in fact, that his character shines.
And for those that couldn’t give a toss what their character is like, and just want to get on with shooting stuff, the issue might be the repetitive nature of the missions. Gay Tony has you running around theme parks, playing golf, stealing trains. The Lost And Damned has you fight rival gangs, shoot rival gangs, and steal bikes from rival gangs. None is bad, by any stretch. In fact, each is great. Just not varied.
Fleshing things out are gang wars, twenty-five of them, which do indeed come down to fighting rival gangs. So, you know, quite familiar. Completing these will make new weapons available to you.
Talking of equipment, another lovely addition unique to this episode is the ability to call people for new gear. Rather than having to pay for weapons and ammo (which you can still do), you can ring a buddy and have things dropped off for you. New bikes, new guns, etc, are a cellphone call away.
Perhaps the most significant change, in common with Gay Tony, is the checkpointing within missions. If you were infuriated with GTA IV’s forcing you to replay vast sections of missions only to die in the same tricky spot a second, third, fourth time, be infuriated no more. An abundance of generous mid-mission checkpoints have been included, letting you pick up the action much nearer to any deathly points. If you don’t want this, you can instead start the whole mission over by travelling back to its starting point.
The bikes also handle better than before, although they’re still twitchy. Far less prone to riding up walls (although this still can happen), they’re easier to steer, and less likely to suddenly rear up on their back wheels. However, as with all three PC GTAs, there’s absolutely loads of graphical glitches that make things often look extremely choppy. At random moments the ground can be replaced by a blank grey sheet, which makes driving extremely difficult. It doesn’t entirely enjoy task-switching, and for reasons I cannot fathom there’s still no option to run the game in a window – surely a default for PC games now?
Oh, and one other thing. After the “hot coffee” controversy of the extra content for GTA: San Andreas, there’s a rather surprising decision to include full-frontal male nudity in this one. It’s an extremely funny moment, and clearly there’s no sensible reason to take issue with it. In fact, mentioning it was my excuse to post a picture of a willy on the site.
If you were forced to pick between the two, I’d recommend The Ballad Of Gay Tony without hesitation. But since you’re getting both in one box, blimey, you should make sure to play through this one too.
The Ballad Of Gay Tony will be Wot I Thinked tomorrow.