Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City
Combining two substantial pieces of downloadable content into one retail package, Episodes from Liberty City adds a tremendous amount of depth and life to Liberty City, last visited in 2008’s Grand Theft Auto IV. The two episodes, The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony present two radically different characters both struggling to stay alive. Though time has passed in our reality, the two episodes weave their stories through the same timeline that Grand Theft Auto IV protagonist Niko Bellic inhabited, giving players the opportunity to explore the storyline from new perspectives.
In The Lost and Damned, players assume the role of middle-aged biker Johnny Klebitz, current vice president of The Lost Motorcycle Club, a gang of thieves and drug dealers operating out of industrial Alderny. Johnny is struggling with a change of heart after an accident leaves a member of the club crippled and is seeking to slow the reckless, confrontational behavior of club president Billy Grey. From the moment Billy hops on the back of Johnny’s bike after leaving rehab to open the game, we can tell where the plot is headed: Johnny and Billy will disagree, factions in The Lost will form, sides will be taken, war will erupt and one will put a bullet in the other’s head. It isn’t the most original storyline in the universe, but it certainly offers moments of tension and excitement.
The other side of the package offers The Ballad of Gay Tony. This game presents a different story-telling experience than in Rockstar’s other games and it demonstrates their continuing effort to expand the series’ presentation. While you play as a central protagonist when you take the role of Luis Lopez, you aren’t the star of the show. “Gay” Tony Prince, the titular namesake, is the real star. As Luis, you witness Liberty City’s hottest club owner’s descent into drug use and crime after a recession and changing lifestyles make his clubs less financially viable. Gay Tony is as bad at running a criminal enterprise as he is his legal ones, so Luis spends a majority of his time cleaning up his boss’s mess. I found this story arc much more memorable than what was offered up in The Lost and Damned and certainly on par with Niko’s tale from the core game.
Both stories play out in typical GTA fashion: some bad guy tells you how to solve a problem, you steal something and/or kill someone and then you run from Liberty City’s finest. Repeat 15-20 or so times while changing the actors and the setting and roll credits. There are no radical departures in terms of gameplay between this package and Grand Theft Auto IV, so if you weren’t a fan of the peek-and-shoot mechanics and easy headshots in that game you probably won’t like this one too much. If you do enjoy the GTA formula of trial-and-error mass murder, both games in the package offer an enjoyable slate of missions to take on. I really enjoyed kidnapping Niko Bellic’s cousin Roman in The Lost and Damned and dangling a thinly veiled reference to Perez Hilton out of the side of a helicopter 20,000 feet above Liberty City in Ballad of Gay Tony.
I had a lot of fun with most of the missions, though for the most part the current iterations of Grand Theft Auto are a little too easy. You can auto-lock on enemies and land only head shots provided you can master a very simple rhythm, reducing potentially intense and challenging gun fights to shooting fish in a barrel. The engine itself is starting to show some wear, too. While Rockstar’s now iconic art style and presentation still shines through, draw distance and frame-rate issues still detract from the experience. The developers also haven’t significantly tweaked the driving so your vehicle will still slide all over the road when you hit the brakes. There was also one particularly annoying helicopter mission in The Ballad of Gay Tony that took multiple tries, though later helicopter missions were actually pretty decent.
Despite these issues, there’s still a lot of fun to be had with Episodes from Liberty City. Each game introduces new mechanics into the series. For The Lost and Damned, gang wars are perhaps the biggest implementation, giving player a chance to participate in large-scale gang battles against rivals with members of The Lost. Blasting enemies off their motorcycles with a shotgun is extremely satisfying, particularly when you can nail more than one with a single blast. You can also call on your brothers to help you during missions, giving you valuable allies to draw away some of the gunfire. In a smart move that greatly reduces the amount of time you spend replaying segments, The Lost and Damned also adds checkpoints mid-mission.
The Ballad of Gay Tony introduces the well-received ranking system from Chinatown Wars into the core series, which also has the added bonus of giving players the chance to replay previously completed missions. For mini-games, Luis can hit the dance floor at Tony’s nightclub in the hopes of scoring some tail. Perhaps the most enjoyable addition in the package comes from BASE jumping. Donning a parachute and leaping from the top of Liberty City’s tallest buildings offers a visceral thrill. Multi-vehicle races that put you behind the wheel of boats and cars round out the major additions that The Ballad of Gay Tony introduces.
In terms of presentation, both episodes live up to what we expect from Grand Theft Auto. The game’s plot is advanced through the talented work of dozens of different actors and actresses who bring the game’s story to life in strong performances. The soundtracks in both games still feature an eclectic mix of humor and music, with The Lost and Damned emphasizing classic rock and metal and The Ballad of Gay Tony featuring greater amounts of club and electronic music.
While neither chapter is perfect, Episodes from Liberty City delivers a worthwhile experience for those who have completed Grand Theft Auto IV and want to add more to the story. If you’ve never played Grand Theft Auto IV or if you’ve pawned off your copy, you don’t need the original game to play this one, though completing the first one is important to fully appreciate the plot. Though the engine has aged, there are few companies out there dedicated to open worlds as strongly as Rockstar is and several elements of Episodes from Liberty City will certainly be incorporated in future games both by Rockstar and other developers. The two episodes offer a robust gameplay experience, providing nearly 30 hours of gameplay to the truly dedicated. Fans of Grand Theft Auto IV shouldn’t hesitate to pick this up.