Some of you may remember that the last two Grand Theft Auto games I reviewed were the Playstation 2 ports of Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories. Most people probably thought that when GTA IV came out, I would have ran to my local game shop and picked up a copy. Truth is, I didn’t. The desire was there but I never really got around to it. So then Rockstar announced they would put their two DLC episodes on disc. Strangely, I was compelled to go buy it. First, I fully support retail releases of stand-alone content that was previously only downloadable and second I had missed Liberty City. I mostly missed the violence and wanton destruction.
Grand Theft Auto has never had amazing graphics. It usually sticks around average. It’s the same in this game. Liberty City will never be confused with the prettiest city in the US, but many times I wondered if it did have to see that many shades of grey. Besides the color drabness, graphic detail was not one of the game’s strong suits. There are a few things one can do to make the video a little more tolerable which involve playing with Brightness/Contrast and turning off the Radio effect (especially if you have an HD tv).
But that still don’t make up for the completely awful map when you hit start. I know I was going blind, but the standard map is way too small. You can zoom in thankfully but even then it is not especially kind. Another problem with the graphics is that it isn’t always easy to tell who the bad guys are. There are indicators above their head and sure they are shooting at you but it is easy to confuse your teammates for them because of “friendly fire”.
One of the signature items for Grand Theft Auto is sound. Featuring Dolby Digital 5.1, this one has all of the punch you could ask for. Tires squeal, gunfire blazes, and rockets boom with delight. Sound effects come alive as you peel corner after corner in this game. Those are just a warmup when you consider that again GTA has one of the richest soundtracks every game, regardless of which radio station you want to listen too.
The Episodes of Grand Theft Auto even go as far to include a brand new radio station not even found on GTA IV. That’s right, Vice City FM has made a comeback. Fernando is your DJ and he’s going to make everything alright. Besides the blistering new tracks, there is also some new radio shows if you search the dial enough. Check out “The Martin Serious show” on the talk station WKTT for a wonderful parody of Shock Jock programs.
The Lost and Damned is the story of Johnny Klebitz, a member of the Lost. The Lost is a biker gang known all over Liberty City. Johnny operates as the vice president and for the past year has been acting as president; working truces which allow business to go more smoothly. However the gang’s president is Billy Grey. And today, he got out of prison.
Billy had been in prison for narcotics possession and supposedly went through rehab. Upon getting out, he immediately rejoins the Lost and assumes leadership. That would be okay, except Billy falls back into his old habits. He immediately declares war on the Angels of Death (who had been in a truce) and finds himself addicted to drugs once again. Can you as Johnny wrestle leadership from Billy or is the whole motorcycle club simply damned?
The somewhat depressing story is certainly different when it comes to the Ballad of Gay Tony. Here you play the role of Luis Fernando Lopez, personal bodyguard to Anthony “Gay Tony” Prince. Gay Tony operates two clubs, Maisonette 9 and Hercules. These two clubs just happen to be the most popular in town but they are also deep in debt. Then one day, the two get a little visit.
The visit is from some mobsters who want payment and quick. But Tony has other issues including a dangerous boyfriend and an even more dangerous addiction to drugs. However, it is up to Luis to keep track of the clubs as well as keep track of Gay Tony. But can he set things right and keep the clubs afloat when the mafia and others start wanting more than the interest payment?
If you can’t figure it out from my opener, I’ve never played Grand Theft Auto IV (but have a long history of other GTA games) and I imagine there aren’t many of us out there. So, needless to say that the usual quests of take your car (or bike) here and then learn how to do this and that are gone for the most part and what you get instead is a giant crash course on how this game is different from the previous PS2/Xbox games.
As far as gameplay goes, the GTA experience basically stayed the same. In L&D, you quickly learn that bikes maneuver a lot better. That isn’t to say that I still have issues of why when steering my bike, I don’t have the same effortless skills that my fellow gang members enjoy. Of course, there is a learning curve. But when you have races and you find it hard to stay with the pack unless you use your baseball bat, something is amiss.
For the Ballad of Gay Tony, thankfully cars move a lot more fluidly. Maybe it is because they have much more mass to work with and a small turn doesn’t seem as much impact as being on a bike does. They also take way more damage which is pleasing when you get chased by some rather angry cops. Or perhaps, I just like blowing up cars. Except I miss how easy it was to make a car explode in GTA III.
Speaking of cops and vehicles, one of the things I had real issue with was the new wanted system. It wasn’t so much the levels which are still from 1-6 stars depending on what you do. It wasn’t the wanted zone either. Basically the wanted zone puts you in the center of a flashing cone. Stay in that cone and police will come after you. If you can zigzag correctly out of the cone, your wanted level goes away.
The problem I had was when the smallest infraction brought about a wanted star. Jacking a car which never brought wanted levels before (unless it was a cop car) have the potential to get the cops on you. This is the same with randomly beating up somebody or running them over. You used to have to run over half a dozen people to trigger any wanted level. Now it can be one if done within view of a cop car. I understand this is realism but some of the fun of the game is certainly taken away. Besides, since when did realism and Grand Theft Auto go together?
On foot, walking and running is fairly simple and thankfully it is a lot harder to run out of breath than previous installments. Among other things, unless you are using it, be sure to put away the gun. Running with the gun is akin to running like a duck and you’ll be an easy target for your enemies. Speaking of guns, shooting is probably the best I’ve seen as it allows for auto aim as well as free aim. This can make finding your next target as easy as performing a head shot on your associated victim.
One of the nicest features is your cell phone. You can call various people in your book for missions, to perform various other activities or simply talk. This is also how you can access multiplayer as well as replay your last mission should you fail. In addition, from time to time you will calls that you must answer which usually involve somebody who is angry on the other line that you haven’t done this, this or this. One final feature to note is a camera function which will be used to take a picture in a few crucial missions.
The main problem with this package is probably the story of the Lost and the Damned. It’s too darn depressing. Johnny is not exactly Mr. Awesome or Mr. I Want to Be Awesome but I’m going through some rough times. He’s a biker, through and thru. He does some good things but Billy comes in and messes the whole situation up to hell. This was kind the same problem with Vice City stories, there are no likeable characters. Everybody is a skeeze and every mission only seems to get more depressing.
The Lost & Damned story is about 180 degree turn from Gay Tony. In Gay Tony, you get to dance and shake your groove thing or perhaps you want to whack some golf balls if you get bored. In the first five minutes of playing the Ballad, it is possible to have your way with some female in the club bathroom making sounds that your mother probably would not approve of. What do we get in Lost & Damned? Full Frontal Male Nudity. I wish I was kidding.
The difficulty can be brutal. At times you are the equivalent of a one-man army against forty to fifty guys. But it depends on who the forty to fifty guys are. If it is a bunch of bikers or mafia members, it’s usually a non-issue. There is however those times when it is against the police whether self inflicted or mission based when it seems like you’ll need a tank to get through that mob (or perhaps a RPG).
The most frustrating thing about the difficulty is that some of the creativity seems to be missing. Remember III or Vice City where there was about fifteen different ways to attack most of the missions? You could set up barricades, you could drive any vehicle you choose and you could typically take on that mission from almost any vantage point.
Many of the missions in L&D force you to ride a bike and not only a bike, a specific bike. Like after you killed forty gang members, you just can’t get on some random bike and drive out of there. It has to be your bike. What kinda lame bs is that? If I want to drive a school bus to a bike rally, I should have the freedom.
There are quite a variety of missions. Since there are two different stories here (which you access individually), this opens up Liberty City to a lot of different tasks. Besides the usual missions, for Lost & Damned there are also races, gang wars, bike theft, and various smaller activities like playing pool or hi-lo. For the Gay Tony package, you have club management, drug wars, races, driving range, cage fighting, dancing & base jumping. Yes…base jumping.
Base jumping for those not in the know is jumping from a tall structure (in this case, a building) and seeing how far you can awesomely fall before pulling your chute. Kinda like skydiving. In addition, GTA gives you rings to position yourself through to make it more difficult but more fun at the same time. Despite all of these modes, there is something missing though.
Where the heck are my taxi missions, pizza delivery missions, ambulance, fire truck, etc? They are all gone. They got rid of them in IV and Episodes don’t have them either. Furthermore, the Vigilante missions are in IV but whenever you get in a police car in the Episodes and try to bring up the computer, it says Off-Line. Freaking lame. As a result, money is very hard to come by in Episodes. You will have to rely on missions (particularly drug wars, gang wars and races) and savvy to be sure to stay on top of things financially.
Achievements are also an interesting area. Episodes add 500 points and 16 achievements to the mix. But that’s not all. It also opens up all of the achievements for Grand Theft Auto IV as well. This makes for a total of 1500 points. However, it is not possible to get any achievement that has to do with GTA IV’s story. But it does open the way for some of the other achievements that can be received through normal play through. Most are estimating that you can get between 800 and 1000 points without the core GTA IV disc. Of course you’ll miss certain things, but it is worth noting.
Episodes from Liberty City is a love and hate relationship. I love the Ballad of Gay Tony, base jumping, club management, shooting RPG’s, and basically causing giant pools of mayhem. I really hate most of Lost & Damned, bikes, races (except for the Road Rash influence of the bike ones), and my missing taxi, vigilante, or ambulance missions. Is the game good? Yes, you will still have buckets of fun. But I sometimes feel that what they have done with GTA IV and these Episodes is take a small step backward. People who play this game want unlimited fun and for the first time, I feel that GTA has a put a limit on some of that. Recommended but with a small dose of caution.