The Grand Theft Auto series has been a hotbed of controversy since it rose to unprecedented popularity with the release of Grand Theft Auto III on the PlayStation 2. It started with the violence and the influence some say it had on impressionable young kids. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was controversial because Haitians had objections about a specific mission. None of those could compare with the infamous Hot Coffee controversy that spawned from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The move to the next generation of consoles brought more controversy of a different kind when it was revealed that the Xbox 360 version of the game would be the exclusive home of downloadable content for Grand Theft Auto IV. PlayStation 3 fans were up in arms over what they felt was another bullying process from Microsoft, while Xbox 360 fans were elated that they would have the superior version of the title.
Once the smoke cleared and the controversy died down, fans of both consoles wondered whether the downloadable content was going to be worth it. The release of The Lost and Damned proved that the downloadable content was worth paying for and playing, and fans hope that The Ballad of Gay Tony would be the same. For those who, for one reason or another, can't download these episodes, Rockstar did everyone a favor and released a stand-alone disc with both pieces of downloadable content. Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City is that disc, and it was definitely worth the wait.
The two episodes, while still part of the Grand Theft Auto IV universe, couldn't be any more different from one another. The Lost and Damned places its focus on The Lost, one of the more notorious biker gangs in Liberty City. Things have not been going well for the group, though, with several members dead or disabled and their leader in prison. Your character, Johnny, has been doing a good job of keeping things together and letting the club thrive long enough to help out its injured brothers. However, the group president has returned and wants to bring the group back to the old days of doing business, even if it means putting the club and its members in jeopardy. In the end, it's up to Johnny to figure out if his allegiance is to the leader or to the club.
The Ballad of Gay Tony tells a completely different type of crime story. You play as Luis Lopez, bodyguard and business partner to Gay Tony, who is the owner of the hottest gay club and hottest straight club in Liberty City. While Luis tries to live a semi-honest lifestyle after having spent some time in jail, he can't help but get caught up in trouble thanks to the antics of his boss. This time, though, Tony ends up biting off more than he can chew and has two of the biggest gangs in Liberty City after him for cash. As Luis, your job is to get you and Tony out of this bind by doing favors for the most eccentric people in the city in hopes of getting everything squared away.
Each episode does something few expansions have done before: Add a significant amount of gameplay to the Story mode. Each episode can last between 8-10 hours for only the story-based missions; it'll certainly be much longer (around 15 hours or so) if you throw in the side missions and other activities that are usually expected from the series. For a modern Grand Theft Auto game, this can feel pretty short. The PSP titles, for example, were considered by some to be like expansion packs, and they ended up clocking in around 20 hours of gameplay. The last time a Grand Theft Auto game felt this short, it was the London: 1969 expansion in the PC/PSOne days. Compare any one of these episodes to the other downloadable content on the system, though, and this becomes a real bargain before you factor in the multiplayer modes, which are also included. With both episodes included on one disc, this is one of those times when you really get more than your money's worth.
As for the stories, they both show off Rockstar Games' knack for weaving together a good crime tale with good gameplay. Interestingly enough, both episodes differ greatly in more than just plotlines. The Lost and Damned seems less about the actual plot and more about the characters involved in said plot. It's not that the power struggle between Billy and Johnny isn't fascinating, but it has been seen before with more interesting plot twists than what's presented here. Billy is an interesting adversary and ally to have simply because of his motivations. He really has his own best interests at heart in terms of being able to do what he wants, but he disguises it well enough that it still seems like he has everything for the club in mind. Johnny, on the other hand, seems to have the club's interests in mind but wants to take it away from a self-destructive path and into a more lucrative one. Despite saying all of this, his actions make it seem like he wants to position a club takeover.
As far as missions are concerned, you really won't find anything too different from the main game, but you will find some new advantages in taking missions this time around. The biggest one is that you can always count on your gang to help you out. If you need a vehicle, you can call them to have a bike delivered. If you need firearms, another gang member will deliver them to you personally. The biggest advantage, though, is the fact that you can bring some members as backup for any missions. They may not act intelligent at times, but their brute force helps whenever you run low on firepower. Thankfully, putting those members in missions will increase their toughness level which, in turn, makes them tougher to kill, a decent trade-off when they still decide to get out of cover and run into your line of sight.
The Ballad of Gay Tony revels in its decadence. The focus on characterization isn't really there for the main characters as it was in the previous episode. That isn't to say that Luis has no background and problems of his own. The way that his mother and friends treat him actually make you feel really bad for all that he has to go through in order to get their approval. However, he is definitely overshadowed by Tony and just about every other character for whom he has to do favors. Their personalities just stand out much more because of their outrageous personalities and requests. Those requests bring about some outrageous missions, like beating the information out of an informant by the use of high-flying golf balls, using helicopters to steal a subway car that's still moving on the tracks, or planning an assault on the streets with a tank. It marks a big difference in styles since the missions in the last few games have been on the more serious side instead of going for some fun, unreal ones. It still doesn't come close to Saints Row 2's ludicrous missions, but it does show that Rockstar can really get creative if they want to, making this an episode that is just a little more fun to experience than The Lost and Damned.
The many hours of gameplay involved with each episode goes beyond the missions offered within the story. Per series tradition, there are plenty of side missions and activities to partake in when you just feel like goofing off instead of progressing the story. The Lost and Damned has lots of stuff to do in your clubhouse. Playing pool, arm wrestling and playing games of hi-low are all there, along with the TV viewing and Internet surfing activities, which were introduced in the previous title. The new mini-games offer opportunities for gaining cash and are quite fun; if you were a fan of the TV shows in the previous game, this episode features new shows to sit down through.
Outside of the clubhouse, you get to partake in gang wars where you go in and try to decimate 25 other motorcycle clubs by any means necessary. It's a lot like the turf wars seen in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, only with a bit more vehicular combat involved. Bike races are also available, and this is probably the closest anyone will get to a next-generation Road Rash unless EA finally revisits the series. Racing while trying to bash your opponent with bats and chains was fun back then, and Rockstar Games did a good job of making sure it's still fun now. The Ballad of Gay Tony also has new TV content, but almost everything else is done outside of your apartment. You can still peruse the Internet, but it now has to be done at Internet cafés only. When you start helping out your mom, you get introduced to the underground cage fighting matches where you can win cash and a championship. Drug wars are also a new entry in the series where you try to help out your old friends from the neighborhood start a drug empire of their own. While it's fun to grab new stashes for your homies, it's still not as detailed and addicting as the drug trade game seen in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars.
Otherwise, your extra activities will be in both of Gay Tony's clubs. You manage one of them, so you can act as enforcer when someone is acting up, but this just means that you throw someone out instead of initiating a full beatdown. Hitting up the VIP room gets you into champagne bottle drinking games, while getting on the dance floor initiates a dancing mini-game where you try to get a lady to dance with you before leading everyone on the floor in a giant line dance session. The dancing is a little better than in San Andreas, but don't expect to be mesmerized by it. Also, keep in mind that the dancing can be done in the gay club and a straight club, so if you really want Luis to swing that way, you're free to do so.
Multiplayer is still available for both episodes and definitely takes advantage of what each one had to offer. Both games feature Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Race and GTA Race, but The Lost and Damned gets the lion's share of new multiplayer content. Along with the new weaponry and new bike handling come a few new modes to play with. Lone Wolf is a variation on cat and mouse, where all of Liberty City is your playground. While this type of game is usually fun with any number of people, you will really need large groups of people to make this fun, or it'll get boring really quickly. Chopper Vs. Chopper is something one doesn't expect, but it does provide the most excitement out of the new and modified modes available. Here, one player is on a bike while the other is in a helicopter as they both race from checkpoint to checkpoint to the finish line. The bike may have maneuverability, but the helicopter has guns, making each race as exciting as something seen in some of the single-player missions.
As for The Ballad of Gay Tony, there isn't much to look forward to from the multiplayer. You do get the new weaponry and the ability to do some base jumping, but don't expect anything else aside from the four aforementioned modes. What hurts both games isn't lag but load times. It's not like other games don't have load times, but they're usually masked by things like stat recaps or scoreboards. Here you get a black loading screen with nothing else but loading text on it. Considering the amount of times you can die in a typical match, the black loading screen makes the experience feel like it needs more polish.
The controls haven't changed too much in comparison to what was seen in Grand Theft Auto IV. Aiming and firing weapons on foot is just as smooth as before, now that it controls like a standard third-person shooter. Running and hand-to-hand combat still feel fine, and even those who haven't played with the series for a while will quickly get used to how things handle whenever your person isn't in a car. Even though base jumping, as seen in The Ballad of Gay Tony, is a new thing, it was easy to deal with.
Complications in controls start to arise once your character jumps into a vehicle. For both episodes, handling cars still feels touchy. Unless you're driving slowly all of the time or have nothing but long straight roads ahead of you, turning becomes almost impossible at high speeds without fishtailing. Considering how many missions involve chasing down someone or being chased by someone, the learning curve for balancing good speeds with good turning seems rather high. For The Lost And Damned, things get better when you're riding motorcycles. Turning is improved since you won't tend to fishtail at high speeds and, unlike before, you'll still stay on your bike if you lightly hit an object or car. On The Ballad of Gay Tony, helicopters feel a little better to control than before, but a lack of lock-on when firing on other copters tends to make things a bit more difficult, especially when you're used to lock-on for bikes and cars.
The graphics are still great but not spectacular. Every borough of Liberty City is represented, and it's still a wonder to see the player travel from one borough to another without a hint of slowdown or loading. The lack of loading is also seen during transitions between interior and exterior environments, though this is sometimes cleverly masked through the use of the in-game cut scenes. It's made all the more amazing considering the detail involved in the buildings, vehicles and large number of people roaming the streets. The care given to crafting the various player models can really be seen in the in-game cut scenes, where badges on clothing are legible and facial imperfections can easily be spotted on anyone with even a minor speaking role.
The lip-syncing on dialogue also helps greatly in providing realism to what you're seeing, and each of the mannerisms speaks volumes about each character, even if he is saying nothing at the moment. The frame rate holds steady at around 30 frames and doesn't flinch no matter how many particle effects are littering the screen. Even the little differences, such as the hazy light bloom used in The Lost and Damned and the brighter use of colors seen in The Ballad of Gay Tony make the graphics stand out and help give each episode some character. The impressive visuals come at a cost, though, and that price is pop-up. The issue doesn't happen with large objects like buildings, but more so with details and smaller objects. Driving through a park, for example, will show grass fading in just before you drive over it. Get in close to some buildings and boxes, and you might see the textures change from crisp and clear to blurry and back again. In a few cases, background people magically materialized during a few cut scenes. It doesn't completely ruin the overall visual experience, but it does remind you that more work can be done on the graphics engine to make it tighter than it already is.
As a whole, the series has never skimped on audio, and these episodes prove that no cuts were taken on this department due to size restrictions. The voice acting is as strong as ever, and while there aren't any immediately recognizable voices this time around, each actor sounds completely perfect for his or her given role. As mentioned earlier, the dialogue is excellent, giving these actors a chance to really shine without having to struggle with bad lines. The effects haven't changed at all, but considering how good they were in the original game, there really was no reason to change anything. Amazingly enough, the developers took the time to put in new songs for all of their radio stations in The Lost and Damned and while you don't get any of the songs and dialogue already featured in Grand Theft Auto IV, the amount of content here is enough that you won't get a song repeated on the radio for a while. Sadly, if you are looking for new stuff in the radio stations for The Ballad of Gay Tony, there doesn't seem to be any at all, though the radio stations will mostly gravitate toward either the Reggaeton or disco channels before anything else.
Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City shows that Rockstar Games is still at the top of its game when it comes to crafting a good crime story or two. Engaging and memorable characters, merged with a good script, create some great open-world gaming. Sadly, this isn't the perfect expansion, as it points out some of the same flaws of the original title, like decent amounts of pop-up, mediocre vehicle controls and blatant load screens in the middle of multiplayer matches. For the price you pay in comparison to the amount of gaming you get from the title, you end up getting a better bargain than most games on the market, downloadable or retail. Fans of open-world gaming would be foolish not to pick this up if they haven't already downloaded it. Even if you only had a passing interest in the series, this is a recommended purchase because of the completely different vibes that it has in comparison to its predecessors and imitators.
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