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Mini-Review: Grand Theft Auto: Episodes From Liberty City

Grand Theft Auto: Episodes From Liberty CityThis article was originally published at on April 30, 2010.

Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto IV raised the bar for sandbox action games when it released back in 2008, and rather than plunge ahead into a properly number fifth installment of the franchise, the developers chose to explore the nooks and crannies of Liberty City only hinted at during the course of protagonist Niko Bellic's adventures. Releasing exclusively for Microsoft Xbox 360 through the course of 2009, the add-on downloadable content "The Lost and Damned" and "The Ballad of Gay Tony" has finally crossed over to the Sony PlayStation 3 as both traditional DLC via PlayStation Network and a stand-alone disc, Episodes From Liberty City, that combines both "Lost" and "Ballad" as a single retail item. Considering how the genre has evolved since GTA IV's release (consider the advances found in Just Cause 2 and inFamous, for instance), is the Episodes release an example of "better late than never" or "too little, too late?"

"Lost" digs into the world of The Lost motorcycle gang introduced in GTA IV. Club president Billy Grey has just been released from court-ordered rehab as the game begins, relegating vice-president Johnny Klebitz back to his support role as second banana. During Johnny's time as temporary leader of the game he has managed to call truces with rivals (such as the Angles of Death gang) and bring a little respectability to the group. Unfortunately, Billy's return destroys all of that work as he reignites the gang wars, begins dealing in high-volume drug thefts and sales, double-crosses supposed allies for Grand Theft Auto: Episodes From Liberty Citythe sake of petty vendettas, and generally brings hell down on the run-down Alderney region of Liberty City. Johnny finds himself wanting a better life for himself and his brothers, leading to an eventual schism within the group. Johnny's missions involve general GTA mayhem such as hunting down rivals, loading stolen motorcycles onto flatbed trucks, engaging in bloody shootouts with the Liberty City Police Department, and even hijacking a prison bus to free the white-collar criminals on-board. Being a biker, Johnny's preferred mode of transportation is his custom one-of-a-kind Hexer chopper. Anyone who disliked the bike missions of GTA IV that required simultaneous sensitive steering and aimed shooting will hit the metaphorical wall early in "Lost," as most missions require some combination of the two as a necessity. Attempting to abandon the bike and, say, hijack a car instead will result in a failed mission under most circumstances. "Lost" is also the episode that includes the notorious instance of male full-frontal nudity, although not in a sexual environment. Still, it's a jarring moment included only for shock value (and isn't doing anyone any favors). On the whole, "Lost" feels a little too familiar in that there are plenty of action sandbox games out there are revolve around dark, depressing locales painted in colors of black, gray, and dark gray. I even had to max out the Brightness settings just to be able to see what was going on. Revenge and betrayal amongst brothers is a classic theme, but "Lost" feels as if it's just going through the motions at times. There's little joy to be found in Alderney even compared to other Grand Theft Auto titles.

"Ballad" switches gears to focus on the nightlife of Liberty City's Algonquin district. Luis Lopez is a man who makes problems go away, and he's firmly in the employ of Anthony "Gay Tony" Prince, owner of two of the city's most popular nightclubs. When Tony's questionable business and personal decisions start to catch up with him, Luis is sent to make good for his boss through a series of missions that are more over-the-top in nature than the usual brand of GTA carnage. During the course of "Ballad" players will visit a driving range to whack balls at a man tied to a golf cart, evade a four-star Episodes From Liberty Citypolice wanted level by leaping from the top of one of the city's tallest buildings, compete in an underground cage fighting match (and be forced to take a dive), steal a helicopter from organized crime figures and then use that helicopter to destroy a yacht with missiles, and toss bombs at speedboats during a daring chase. The wild objectives of "Ballad" call to mind the "anything goes" level of destruction associated with titles such as Just Cause 2, but still maintains the rigid GTA structure. In fact, that structure is even more rigid with the addition of various conditions that players should aim to meet during each mission. It is no longer enough to simply kill the target, as now conditionals such as player health, time elapsed, and other variables are scored at the end of a mission. The end result is uploaded to the player's Rockstar Social Club account, although having to retry a mission voids the final score. Players can replay missions for a proper score after all missions have been completed. "Ballad" seems to take itself less seriously than its companion entries, resulting in a more enjoyable environment. This installment of Episodes is rarely bogged down with depressingly heavy themes that have been done so many times before, plus the bright colors and neon lights bring an unusual yet welcome exuberance to this part of Liberty City. In the end, "Ballad" feels like the better of the two experiences.

Experiencing "Lost" and "Ballad" one after the next highlights an interesting creative decision that may be missed by those who play the installments (and even the base GTA IV itself) months apart. While GTA IV protagonist Niko Bellic's story chronicles the struggles of an immigrant working to make it in Liberty City and realize the American dream, "Lost"'s protagonist Johnny Klebitz lives in a grimy devil-may-care world made of motorcycle gang warfare, felonies, dirtbag associates, and empty concepts of brotherhood. In contrast, "Ballad"'s protagonist, Luis Lopez, inhabits a glitzy, glamorous world of nightclubs, socialites, paparazzi, and living up to his dear mother's ideals. There are three distinct windows on Liberty City in action here despite the fact that all three main characters have to resort to violence, murder, and crime to live their lives (it wouldn't be Grand Theft Auto if they were all peaceful negotiators and law-abiding citizens). Moreover, while there are three separate stories going on here, they all intersect in little ways. A mission in Niko's story forces him to kill a member of The Lost motorcycle gang, and this murder causes ramifications that pay off during "Lost" and cause additional problems for Johnny. Likewise, a seemingly murky story point in "Lost" is explained in "Ballad" with a cameo by Lost gang leader Billy Grey. "Gay Tony" Prince turns up in "Lost"'s plot, while a fresh view on one of the missions from GTA IV reveals that Johnny was behind the source of some of Niko's problems. All of the protagonists cross over with each other's tales, yet they themselves never actually realize the importance of these chance meetings and passing encounters. By the end of "Ballad," the entire Liberty City saga has been detailed from multiple angles, painting a complete picture impressive in scope.

What could have been quick cash-in episodes just for the sake of producing DLC are actually deeply intertwined stories designed for GTA IV fans left wanting more. The Episodes release includes a few refinements from the original GTA IV experience. Note that the downloadable versions of "Lost" and "Ballad" combine their soundtrack additions with the main game, while the Episodes release stands alone. To compensate, Episodes includes additional radio stations broadcasting in Liberty City including an '80s retro station — Vice City FM — that is packed full of forgotten wonders from Robbie Nevil, Roachford, Climie Fisher, Roxette, Boy Meets Girl, and Level 42. Both "Lost" and Grand Theft Auto: Episodes From Liberty City"Ballad" share the same soundtrack, so while cruising through the nightclub district while rocking to "Something About You" just feels right, it can be a bit uncharacteristic to ride in formation with The Lost while "Waiting For A Star To Fall" jams. As a player, however, I enjoy the choice to listen to inappropriate music if I choose, although being able to disable undesired stations altogether (as 2008's Saint's Row 2 allows) would be even better. These new stations replace three stations from the previous GTA IV selection. New weapons and vehicles become available as the plot of both episodes unfolds, plus new in-game television shows and Internet sites are available for viewing. New side objectives such as base jumping, club management, underground fight club, leveling up non-playable characters, the ability to call for backup in a crisis, and other little improvements are also available. While neither episode ever quite reaches the complete over-the-top madness of recent sandbox titles such as Just Cause 2, it does manage to integrate these new components into the Grand Theft Auto world in a fitting fashion considering that these are add-ons to a base adventure rather than stand-alone titles. The next time we see the franchise, however, one would expect it to continue to have grown and evolve to keep up with the times.

"Lost" and "Ballad" play less like an evolution of the GTA IV formula and more like a gradual refinement to a constantly moving target. While other action sandbox games have since topped what GTA IV had to offer, Episodes offers basic improvements to what was already a solid formula of mission-guided mayhem. It's worth a return trip to Liberty City to clean up the loose ends and enjoy the new additions, but keep in mind that despite being presented on a stand-alone disc, "Lost" and "Ballad" truly are parts of an established over-arcing whole and not the next phase of Grand Theft Auto. Consider them as encores before the curtain falls on this incarnation of the Liberty City saga.