Thereâ€™s something slightly sad about a middle-aged biker. Heâ€™s a man whose identity is inherently tied up with the past, evocative of a fat Elvis Presley or a Mickey Rourke post-surgery. Heâ€™s surely an odd protagonist for a video game, a medium where pixilated bodies are generally painted in broad ideals of the fittest, strongest and sexiest. The bikers in the first downloadable episode for GTA IV, the Lost and the Damned, are boozy, foul mouthed, aggressive and tubby: in short, less than ideal. But thatâ€™s what makes them so unique, and more importantly, so Grand Theft Auto.
These bunch of dodgy uncles are unquestionably the driving force of Lost and The Damned. Rockstar North has conceded that Liberty City is quite big enough, choosing to forgo any pointless extensions to the already mammoth landmass, instead concentrating on the story of Johnny Klebitz and brother Billy Grey, leaders of the aging gang â€˜the Lostâ€™. Johnny and Billy are brilliant leads, the former â€“ who you control â€“ a downtrodden, beaten kinda guy who misses the good old days, while the latter is a dangerous lunatic, continually pushing himself and the gang further down the path into genuine sadism.
It is their relationship that forms the heart of the Lost and The Damned, Rockstar waxing on the theme of brotherhood and acing the tricky emotional subtleties between Johnny and Billy. Much of this is to do with uniformly excellent voice acting and a naturalistic script that inexorably ties us to Johnny as a character, just as we were tied to GTA IVâ€™s disillusioned immigrant, Niko Bellic. Told with this kind of flair, individual missions of the drive-n-gun type take a back seat to narrative, our minute-to-minute experiences inconsequential in comparison to the overall story.
This is perhaps a good thing, as the missions in Lost and the Damned are very similar to GTA IV: drive from point A, shoot, kill, pillage, drive back. Fairly uninspired stuff then, and if you enjoy the formula you wonâ€™t find much to complain about here. If, however, you found the small-time crook slog eventually tiresome in GTA IV, repetitiveness will unfortunately become an issue. To counter, we get that well overdue mid-mission checkpoint, so if you die you donâ€™t have to repeat the thing from the beginning (honestly, God bless you, Rockstar) injecting the game with some welcome momentum.
For those worried that this sounds all too Niko Bellic, fear not. Rockstar has done a fantastic job with the implementation of the much beloved bikes, tweaking the admittedly awkward controls from GTA IV into streamlined, adrenaline-fueled glory. The bikes are both weighty and elegant, and once you start weaving through traffic at top speed, a blur effect at your sidelines, all thoughts of stealing a car or truck seem clumsily inefficient.
You generally ride with your gang too, encouraged to stay in the middle of the group with a health boost and some genuinely hilarious inane chatter from members of the Lost. It sure beats the lonely haul of some of Nikoâ€™s longer drives, and certainly makes you feel part of something thatâ€™s bigger than yourself, even if most of your â€˜brothersâ€™ arenâ€™t exactly playing with a full deck. Thereâ€™s an incentive to keep them alive during firefights too, courtesy of their individual â€˜battle-hardenedâ€™ meters that gradually fill after each successful mission, or alternatively are eradicated if the member dies. It is hard to tell exactly what benefits one gains from being â€˜battle hardenedâ€™, just as it is hard to tell what impact your brothers have in a battle, but you really are so grateful for the company itâ€™s hard to care.
Socializing is equally encouraged, and your base is a raucous gang clubhouse where you can hang out with your bros, play cards, arm wrestle (surprisingly taxing on the thumbs) and generally do all the life-whittling stuff that bikers do. Your brothers provide necessities on tap, and acquiring guns is a simple phone call away. Indeed, these guns deserve a quick mention: newbies include the satisfying sawn-off shotgun and the chillingly effective grenade launcher - to wander round the city blowing stuff up with this bad boy is pure pleasure.
If youâ€™re looking for other such deviations from the main plot, thereâ€™s a bunch of life-expanding side missions, including 20 races scattered about throughout the city, 25 optional â€˜Gang Warsâ€™, and various new television and radio stations to occupy your time. Some modification to existing multiplayer modes add to the excess of generosity, and although they donâ€™t deviate too far from GTA IV, playing on bikes can get a lot more aggressive with the addition of the handy baseball bat. Thereâ€™s also one fantastic new mode called â€˜Chopper versus Chopperâ€™ which pitches a bike against a helicopter, naturally.
With such a wealth of characterization, exceptional narrative, side-quests and good old-fashioned homicide on the sprawling Liberty City streets, Rockstar have delivered us a title that is the first worthy piece of downloadable content of this generation so far. It will be interesting to see then, in the next instilment, if the standard mission-to-mission gameplay remains as traditional as it is, or whether Rockstar are willing to mix up the formula that is becoming ever so slightly stale. Letâ€™s hope they do, because everything else in this expansion for a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of a game is top notch.