The protagonists in Grand Theft Auto games have gotten progressively more likable with each passing title. CJ from San Andreas and Niko from GTA IV are a far cry from the sociopathic criminals of earlier installments. With that in mind your character this time, Johnny Klebitz, feels like a little bit of a step back. He certainly has a conscience, but his biker gang, the Lost, is fairly unlikable itself, and it’s difficult to understand how Johnny wound up with them in the first place. Indeed, given how high Grand Theft Auto IV set the bar for narrative depth, it’s difficult for The Lost And Damned not to feel as though it comes up short. To be fair, it’s somewhat unreasonable to compare these aspects of a piece of downloadable content with the main game, and The Lost and Damned’s successes far outshine its missteps.
In the context of what it is, The Lost And Damned is actually quite an achievement. Rather than a map pack or simply a new set of vehicles, this is essentially a game unto itself, and as such it stretches the boundaries of what downloadable, add on content can be. In some sense, it cannot even be called an expansion pack. Even if you never played Grand Theft Auto IV, as long as you have the game disc, this story stands alone. It is a measure of how accomplished The Lost And Damned is that you could realistically play it and the main game in either order, and still come away satisfied. All that would change would be the direction in which the nods and winks acknowledging the other side of the story were perceived. What this really points to is the undeniable fact that the star of the Grand Theft Auto IV universe is Liberty City itself.
Though motorcycles have been present in Grand Theft Auto for some time now, they are far more prevalent in The Lost and Damned than they have ever been before. This obviously makes sense given the core group of characters, and, by and large, it’s a welcome change. Given proper reflexes, motorcycles have long been the fastest way to explore Grand Theft Auto on land. While the vulnerability of racing bikes makes them difficult to handle, the Harley Davidson inspired choppers have traditionally been remarkably fun, given their relatively higher durability. But for parts of the game, you are strongly encouraged to ride with your crew, which limits the sense of freedom the bikes potentially provide. Riding in formation with the rest of the gang in earlier missions grants health boosts, along with additional dialog in the form of chatter between you and the other Lost. It’s an interesting mechanic, but the rest of the gang is content to cruise slowly to their destination, which can make these rides feel maddeningly slow.
The minigames in the all of the Grand Theft Auto games have traditionally been small diversions at best, which are worth seeing once or twice, but not exactly fun enough to invest a ton of time in. Arm Wrestling and Air Hockey make their appearance in The Lost and Damned and continue that trend, for better or worse. Importantly, however, unlike Grand Theft Auto IV, you start the game with friends, and there is little need to maintain the relationships at all, an oft criticized point of the original game. As such, these minigames are even more avoidable. It is easy to have guns or bikes delivered to you, and getting backup is as simple as making a phone call, right from the beginning. This represents a smart choice on the part of Rockstar, given that it was easy to feel that relationship maintenance for reward in GTA IV was akin to a level grinding distraction. Further, it makes narrative sense, as Johnny has been the interim leader of the gang for some time.
It’s easy to view Rockstar’s sense of humor as puerile, but for the most part, it is extraordinarily sharp and satirical, and has been for years. But the company has invited an enormous amount of controversy as well. Given the “Hot Coffee” debacle, you might expect to them to tone down sexual content. Yet The Lost and Damned features full male frontal nudity in one if its cutscenes. It doesn’t have any value, and although it’s not really offensive, the motivations behind such a choice are unclear. Perhaps Rockstar simply wanted to see what the reaction would be, or maybe they really saw humor in the situation (it’s not hard to believe that the character in question would behave in such a way). But it is either unintentional ammunition for or intentional baiting of any number of anti-game crusaders, particularly those that have already had Rockstar in their crosshairs before.
In many ways, The Lost and Damned is one of the most ambitious pieces of downloadable content yet on the console market. When it was first announced that Microsoft paid $50 million dollars in order to secure the exclusive publishing rights to two downloadable episodes for Grand Theft Auto IV, it was difficult not to feel like they were making a misstep. However, at that time, downloadable content was largely defined by additional weapons, maps, and other bite-sized enhancements. Given that The Lost and Damned is projected by some to sell 2 million copies by the end of 2009, it would appear that Microsoft’s investment was sound, particularly given that another episode is yet to come this Fall. Many games that cost twice as much as this title don’t contain half the content, and it’s easily worth it for series fans.