Yes people, it’s here! The long awaited DLC for one of the fastest selling games of all time has landed on the Xbox 360, and we can finally see if Microsoft’s $50 million exclusivity deal for the planned expansions was worth it.
GTA IV: Lost and Damned sees you taking on the lead role of new GTA protagonist, Johnny Klebitz, vice president of The Lost, one of Liberty City’s major biker gangs. As the story begins, The Lost’s club president, Billy Grey is being released from a stint in rehab. During this time, Johnny, being the most level-headed of the group, has been trying to stem any gang rivalries with other sets, such as The Lost’s arch rivals, the Angels of Death. Instead of this warring, Johnny has been trying to set up business deals in order to keep The Lost afloat, and keep the money coming in. The return of Billy threatens these plans, though, and despite his rehab treatment, it’s not long before The Lost president is back on drugs, booze and bimbos, and relations with the Angels soon turn sour.
Unlike the relatively slow and mundane start of GTA IV, Lost and Damned doesn’t take long to get into the action, and almost immediately, you know you’re in for quite a ride, and Rockstar hasn’t pulled its punches in revealing much of the new content featured in the DLC. Chief amongst these is the focus on transport of the two-wheeled variety. After all, what red-blooded, oil-guzzling biker would be seen dead in a four-wheeled motor?
To facilitate this lean towards steel horses, Rockstar have generously improved the handling of bikes; it’s now far harder to get knocked of, and easier to control around tight corners and the like. This is important as for much of the game you’ll be cruising around on Johnny’s custom, one of a kind, Hexer chopper.
That’s not to say you can’t ride, drive or pilot any other vehicles. As ever, you can grab anything that take’s your fancy; but you’ll just enjoy the new bike handling so much, that you’ll be reluctant to let Johnny’s wheels go for any period of time.
This bike-centric gameplay has also been balanced in other areas, including some of the new weapons, especially the sawn-off shotgun, which makes attacking foes from your bike a breeze, and taking down rival bikers is very satisfying (Johnny even gives them the finger as they go flying toward the local emergency department).
There are also various sections where you’ll be riding in formation with your crew, and, while you’re going from A to B, you’ll occasionally see a Lost logo projected on the ground. Keep formation while driving on top of this logo, and you’ll trigger extra dialog between the gang, revealing more about the characters. It’s not essential to do this, but it adds to the experience, and makes long journeys a little more interesting.
Other new additions include even more weapons aside from the sawn-off shotgun. Such delights as the automatic machine pistol will have you capping enemies left, right and centre, while the new grenade launcher will make short work of just about anyone and anything (with predictably explosive and impressive results).
There’s more to this DLC than a new character, weapons and bikes, though, and Rockstar has clearly listened to some criticisms of GTA IV. Of major note is the long-overdue inclusion of mid-mission checkpoints. Now, if you kick the proverbial bucket during a particularly tough firelight, you no longer have to drive half way across the city to retry the mission. Instead, the game will plonk you right at the start of the battle, which is a real breath of fresh air as far as the GTA series is concerned, and helps limit any frustration.
Seemingly on a mission to show other developers just how DLC should be done, Rockstar has also strived to keep the GTA experience as rich as ever here, and as well as the main story being roughly a third the size of GTA IV‘s (which makes this DLC larger than most full-priced games), there’s a host of mini-games and other pastimes. These include simple distractions such as a hi-lo card came (think Brucie’s Play Your Cards Right, but with greasy petrol heads) and analogue stick-waggling arm wrestling. The pool side-game from San Andreas makes a return, too.
Perhaps the most enjoyable amusements, however, are the Road Rash-style bike races. Appearing around the city, these see you competing in a fast-paced bike race around large, often tricky circuits. While you race, you can use your trusty baseball bat to smash your foes off their bikes, thus making your attempt to finish first much easier. It works so well, and is so devilishly tricky, that it makes me hanker for a full reboot of Sega’s classic… Come on, you know it makes sense.
All of the other GTA IV extras have been beefed up too, including a whole raft of new music (including the addition of Sepultura and SoulFly front man Max Cavelera as the hardcore rock station DJ), new TV programs, Internet sites and more.
But, all of this fluff is irrelevant if the main game itself doesn’t play well, and as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, there are no real problems here. Missions are well paced, and full of action, and the switch from Niko’s story to the more down and dirty street brawling of a biker gang fits the game perfectly. As I mentioned earlier, any worries about the move to bikes as the main vehicle of choice are dispelled, thanks to the improved bike handling.
It’s interesting to note that the Devs have offset Johnny’s superior bike handling skills by making him far less proficient than Niko at driving other vehicles (which you will need to do in some missions). I also found Johnny’s handling of weapons to be a little less skilful than Niko (remember, Niko was in the army), and this makes combat a little more interesting, as you’ll need to get closer to your foes, which means a great use of cover.
Sadly, this combat is still as stilted as it was in GTA IV, and although a huge improvement over previous GTA releases, these mechanics can’t stand up under scrutiny. The cover system, although welcome, and arguably more important here, is certainly no Gears Of War and is still as glitchy and clunky as ever. Rockstar just refuses to use an accessible free aiming system. Quite why this is the case is beyond me, especially as rival Saint’s Row handles aiming and camera movement so well.
Aside from these gripes, the only other issue people could level at this DLC is that it’s not all that different from GTA IV, and is really a case of more of the same with some new bits bolted on. In my opinion, this isn’t a problem, as GTA IV was, and still is an excellent game, and getting to play more is all any GTA fan could ask for. You’ll even run into some familiar faces from the main GTA IV story, and your time as Johnny will intersect Niko’s events.
In my time gaming on the Xbox 360, I’ve experimented with plenty of downloadable content, and I have to say that, bar some rare exceptions, most have left me cold, with an obvious lack of effort being put into the extra content. This ‘we were forced to knock something together to comply with Microsoft’ approach is certainly not evident here, and this is a prime example of just how future DLC should be handled. Yes, it’s one of the most expensive DLCs around (1600 MS Points – £13.60) but it’s more than worth it, and on its own is more fun than many full-priced games.
That $50 million gamble is looking better all the time for MS, and with another exclusive GTA expansion still to come (reportedly, later this year), Xbox 360 owners should have something to be smug about for the time being. The Lost and Damned does still feature some of GTA IV‘s issues, and so I’ve not granted it a five star rating, but this is still an excellent purchase, and one I’d strongly recommend. Now, if you’ll forgive me, I’ve got to grab my trusty hog and hit the road.