I didn't know what to expect when Rockstar Games announced their intent to support Grand Theft Auto IV with two robust expansion packs. Perhaps I'm just cynical, but I didn't know if I should expect a huge adventure, a couple new missions or, worst of all, shiny horse armor. Thankfully all of my fears vanished the moment I started playing through these two lengthy expansions. Each of these downloadable games featured dozens of levels, tons of new characters and enough new content to make me feel like I wasn't getting ripped off. These two bonus packs have quickly become my favorite downloadable content of the year, making an already amazing game even better.
Now comes Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City, the inevitable retail products that combines both The Lost and Damned
and The Ballad of Gay Tony
into one $40 Xbox 360 disc. For the most part the disc features all of the same additions, modes and extras found in this year's downloadable expansion packs; only this time around you can pay a little extra to own the physical copy.
If you already own these two downloadable expansion packs, then do yourself a favor and stop reading right now. I'm serious. Go read one of my other reviews
or get outside and play in the yard. Outside of a brand new radio station (the 1980's themed Vice City FM) there's absolutely nothing new for you to see here. This release is strictly for those gamers who don't have internet access or decided not to buy Microsoft Points.
If you've somehow missed either of the two episodes online, then you're in for a real treat. Episodes from Liberty City offers two games that coincide with the events of Grand Theft Auto IV. What's even more amazing is that they somehow manage to feel completely different, even though you're essentially doing the same sorts of missions in the same city. We're introduced to two new protagonists that have their own stories to bring to the city. Johnny Klebitz is part of a biker gang looking for more from life, while Luis Lopez is content simply being the bodyguard to one of Liberty City's most successful club owners. Together these two characters help add a new dimension to the city, all while filling in the story in surprising and satisfying ways.
Even more impressive is how both of these games manage to be feel like they are set in completely different worlds. There's no question that all of the action takes place in Liberty City, but you would never know it from playing these two titles. The Lost and Damned adds a gritty film grain layer over the graphics that give it a harsh look, while The Ballad of Gay Tony is full of bright colors, upbeat music and over-the-top personalities. Despite being so different, the end result is largely the same - thousands of people die, cars are stolen and at some point somebody is going to drop some profanity. That's just how it goes down in Liberty City.
What I wasn't expecting going into these expansion packs was how just much they would connect with Niko Bellic's story from Grand Theft Auto IV. It turns out that both Johnny and Luis play important roles in Nico's adventure, you just didn't know it at the time. In The Lost and Damned you'll end up playing at least one familiar mission from another point of view, while in The Ballad of Gay Tony you finally see the diamond story play out in full. These expansion packs managed to answer some of the burning questions I had after playing through Grand Theft Auto IV for the first time. Heck, it even managed to answer some questions I hadn't even thought of.
On top of bringing their own unique story and characters to the table, each of these expansion packs adds a new layer of depth to the gameplay. The Lost and Damned features a brand new line of motorcycles, each with improved handling. You'll also be able to meet up with fellow gang members and even right in formation to regain health. The Ballad of Gay Tony, on the other hand, takes to the sky and allows you to skydive for the first time. In one you'll comb the streets, while in the other you'll take to the sky. This goes a long way to setting these games apart.You'll also find that these two games feature their own unique bonus content and mini-games. The Lost and Damned has its own Road Rage-inspired races, while The Ballad of Gay Tony features a number of base jumping events. There's also cage fighting, club management and all sorts of other odds and ends for you to do in Liberty City. Best of all, there's finally something new to watch on your in-game television. I won't spoil the surprise, but some of the new animated content is worth the price of admission alone. You'll also find new music and radio stations available to you, including the Episodes from Liberty City-exclusive Vice City FM.
Unfortunately I do have a few technical issues that I wish could have been resolved. Instead of adding all of this content to the world, you end up only being able to access it in the individual games. So, don't expect Niko to base jump or ride one of those cool new choppers. It's a shame that you can't take your favorite protagonist around the city to do all of the extra content; the implementation could have been more seamless on this disc.
On top of featuring a bunch of brand new single-player content, there's also an impressive selection of new multiplayer modes. Each game adds a new game type, be it base jumping (while people on the ground shoot rockets at you) or taking on the world in the most violent motorcycle street race imaginable. On top of that you get new locations to play in and a bunch of brand new weapons. Unfortunately you are again forced to choose one game over the other when playing these modes. There's no one game that has every online element, so you'll find yourself switching between the two titles just to be able to play the modes you like. While this isn't the end of the world, it's certainly frustrating that they couldn't figure out a solution that doesn't involve splitting the user base over three games.
For the most part everything else is exactly how it was in Grand Theft Auto IV. The graphics and sound are all the same (even if there are new radio stations and a graphic filter over the episodes), and the gameplay is exactly how you remember it. For some people this won't matter, but if you are one of those people who didn't get into the original then you won't be swayed by this budget title. There's an argument to be made that a year and a half later the graphics aren't nearly as state of the art. And I guess you could say that some of the gameplay is still a little wonky. But none of that bothered you before, then I don't see a reason it would bother you now.
What you get in Episodes from Liberty City are two phenomenal expansion packs that not only tell their own unique stories, but also add depth to the original Grand Theft Auto IV adventure. Both games are full of memorable characters and missions you won't soon forget. No matter if you buy the episodes online or pick up this disc, you're getting a heck of a deal. There's as much (if not more) content on this disc than there was in the original, and this time around it's a fraction of the price. For a deeper analysis about each title I recommend you read my individual reviews of the DLC. If you're a fan of Grand Theft Auto IV, then you owe it to yourself to see how the story concludes in Episodes from Liberty City.