Meaner streets

Pub date March 25, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionGamer

Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned

(Rockstar North; Xbox 360)

GAMER Ever since the "next-gen" consoles shipped with capacious hard-drives and easy access to the broadband interwebs, gamers have been paying the price. Picking up where the boxed expansion pack model left off, publishers realized they could nickel-and-dime their fans with "downloadable content packs," recalling the "Batmobile sold separately" chicanery of action figure advertising and failing to deliver even the most rudimentary bang for your buck.

It comes as something of a relief, then, when a developer eschews horse armor and warmed-over levels too crappy for the retail version and provides some downloadable content actually worth the bandwidth, let alone the greenbacks. Grand Theft Auto IV makers Rockstar North restore some hope with The Lost and Damned, a worthwhile 10-hour nugget of episodic expansion that once again turns gamers loose in the open-world cesspool of Liberty City.

You play Johnny Klebitz, a surly biker with bad tribal tattoos and a cadre of "brothers" in the Lost, one of the metropolis’ warring biker gangs. Engaged in a power struggle with the gang’s atavistic head honcho and mired in the world of crime that defines Rockstar’s dystopic settings, Klebitz is soon fighting for his life.

In keeping with the expansion’s hog-wild characters, Rockstar has retuned the motorcycle physics, making two wheels the optimum number for peeling around the vast gameplay environment. Your character has access to a handful of powerful new weapons, and your easy-riding cohort is a phone call away if you’re in need of manpower, horsepower, or firepower. New multiplayer modes cater to the bike-centric gameplay, including a new race mode in which competitors with baseball bats reenact Electronic Arts’ classic Road Rash series.

The writing and motion capture is consistent with the GTA series’ surpassing quality, and Rockstar again proves that careful characterization and plotting makes for a more engrossing gaming experience than a coterie of anonymous sidekicks yelling "boo-yah!" The events of The Lost and Damned intersect intriguingly with the original game, but this is both a blessing and a curse. Despite the developers’ best efforts, Johnny Klebitz isn’t half the protagonist GTA IV’s Niko Bellic is, and the moments when Bellic shows up are an unfortunate reminder of this fact. As with Bellic, the writers make an ill-conceived stab at humanizing their star criminal in Klebitz, presenting him as a voice of reason and moderation. But this all flies out the window once he’s mowing down cops in the dozens. Then again, when you’ve got a fully automatic shotgun to play with, who cares about psychological realism?