Video Game Review: Grand Theft Auto Episodes from Liberty City
When Grand Theft Auto IV came out in early 2008, Microsoft gave gamers some incentive to purchase it on the Xbox 360 instead of the PS3 by offering two exclusive downloadable expansions to be released at a later date. The first of those, The Lost and Damned, came out back in February, while the second, The Ballad of Gay Tony, arrived last week. In conjunction with that second offering, Rockstar also released a retail version entitled Episodes from Liberty City, which combines both of the Xbox 360 exclusives in disc format and does not require a copy of Grand Theft Auto IV to play.
Both titles expand on the story told in Grand Theft Auto IV, with The Lost and Damned putting you in the midst of a biker gang and The Ballad of Gay Tony taking players uptown to try their hands at being a paid killer moonlighting as a club manager. All three titles intersect at various points and help flesh out details that were skipped over in the original to paint a more complete picture. The question remains, however, does Rockstar deliver a compelling enough experience for those that may have finished Grand Theft Auto IV over a year ago to return? Let’s take a look.
Both episodes control identically to Grand Theft Auto IV, which can be both good and bad. Things are pretty straightforward when you’re on foot: you can run (A), sprint (tap A), jump (X) and enter/jack vehicles (Y) with ease. The only really tricky part comes with the auto-aim function, which is activated by holding down the left trigger. Do this and you’ll lock on to a nearby person. Nine times out of 10 it’ll be someone you want to shoot, but occasionally you’ll find yourself targeting a civilian instead of a drug dealer or someone hiding behind a car rather than the guy above him firing at you. In theory you can switch targets by flicking the right stick in the direction of the desired target, but in practice it doesn’t always seem to work.
In these instances you can utilize free aim, which is done by pressing down the left trigger only half way and then moving the right stick around to fire wherever you want. As you might guess from the description, only partially depressing a trigger can be a bit temperamental, particularly when you’re in the heat of a firefight. Of course, you’re able to turn off auto-aim at any time, but most will still find it easier to deal with the sporadically wonky auto-aim than doing all the work themselves.
The cover system, which is vital to successful combat, will also frustrate once in a while, but for the most part it works well. You enter and leave cover with the right bumper, then pop up to bring the pain with your vast arsenal when pressing the right trigger. My only issue is that sometimes you’ll think you’re in the right position only to end up on hugging a pillar with your back to the enemy instead of hiding on the other side of it. Again, though, this is a minor issue.
When you’re not traveling on foot you’ll have access to all sorts of transportation alternatives, including cars, motorcycles, helicopters and even a tank. The basic control scheme is the same for all ground-based vehicles and it works well. Those who rode a motorcycle in Grand Theft Auto IV but did not purchase The Lost and Damned when it came out will be in for a pleasant surprise as Rockstar went back in and totally revamped the experience. You’ll no longer get tossed by every bump, and the whole thing just feels infinitely more responsive.
Where the controls become a struggle for me is when piloting helicopters. For starters, there’s a lot going on with the left/right triggers controlling lift, the bumpers rotating you left and right and the left stick tilting your helicopter to move forward/back and to the sides. When piloting an attack chopper, you can add in face buttons to fire your machine guns (A) and rockets (X). Even factoring in a learning curve, the act of flying a helicopter is never as fun as it should be. It simply isn’t responsive enough and at times feels like you’re piloting a brick. Plus, you’re not given lock-on capabilities or even a targeting reticule, which makes aiming a pain. The controls weren’t so bad that I couldn’t pass helicopter-based missions, but a quick scan of the message boards will turn up plenty of complaints about them. I’d like to see this area get some added attention before the next release to make raining death from above the fun time it should be.
Let’s just get this out of the way. When traversing Liberty City you’ll clip through objects, see things suddenly appear as you approach and details filling in on distant buildings. Yes, there are a number of graphical hiccups to be found in all three chapters of the game. However, even a year and a half after the initial release of Grand Theft Auto IV, I’ve still yet to see another title on the market that can match what Rockstar has done in creating Liberty City as a vibrant, breathing world that feels completely organic and lived in.
Graffiti litters buildings and subway cars, trash cans are on the corners to be picked up, pedestrians cover their heads with newspaper when it rains and so much more. It’s all these little touches that make you feel that you’re traveling through a place where life is happening whether you’re there or not. The animations are smooth and the explosions…oh, such explosions.
Although both downloadable episodes are being released together here, you’ll almost certainly notice that The Ballad of Gay Tony is the better looking of the two. Coming out eight months later and without the grain effect used to give The Lost and Damned a grittier feel that drained Liberty City of some of its vibrancy, The Ballad of Gay Tony makes a lot of subtle improvements to the overall graphics, though the character models look basically unchanged and are starting to show their age. Still, this is truly one of those titles where visually the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts.
When it comes to voice acting, there’s Mass Effect, the Grand Theft Auto series and then everybody else. Both halves of Episodes from Liberty City feature a wide range of characters, all of whom are voiced effectively and force you to become invested in the story. The dialogue is natural and unforgiving, pulling no punches in the usage of racial slurs, profanity and bravado that permeate your dealings with Liberty City’s underbelly.
It’s impossible to oversell what a phenomenal job Rockstar does with that aspect of the series. Every character has personality, and I always looked forward to the next mission in both games to delve deeper into the stories. While everyone does a superior job, I have to recognize the wildly entertaining work of Omid Djalili as Yusuf Amir, whose outlandish missions in The Ballad of Gay Tony represent a steep departure from the more realistic ones seen in the two earlier releases.
Beyond the excellent voice acting, Rockstar once again provides a deep and memorable soundtrack as well, including numerous radio stations to choose from as you race around Liberty City. The sound effects are spot on, and the ambient noise of the city more than holds its own in making it feel like it’s teeming with life.
One last item to pass along is that you owe it to yourself to watch the in-game TV show Princess Robot Bubblegum (you can do so in Luis’ apartment). It’s unquestionably one of the funniest things I’ve seen in any medium in recent memory. Major kudos to whoever pulled that off.
The first half of the package, The Lost and Damned, casts you in the role of Johnny Klebitz, who is the Vice President of a biker gang called The Lost. Johnny has been in charge since Billy Grey entered rehab, but with Billy being released he wants to immediately resume his place as leader. This leads to the central conflict of the story with Billy and Johnny clashing over how The Lost should operate. Billy wants them to be knee deep in the drug game and essentially throw caution to the wind when dealing with their enemies, while Johnny prefers a smarter, less reckless approach. That’s not to say Johnny plays the role of a saint. On the contrary, Johnny does more than his fair share of loathsome acts and is by far the least likable main character in the three installments.
Thankfully, the absence of a truly affable protagonist doesn’t mean the story isn’t compelling. It’s all vintage Grand Theft Auto stuff with a solid variety of missions and some added gameplay elements like the ability to summon members of your gang to assist you on missions. This can be invaluable when the odds are stacked against you, and there are some RPG elements to be found as well as the more you summon backup the most proficient they become under fire…assuming they survive.
Belonging to a gang has some added benefits as well, such as being able to have guns or bikes delivered to you with a phone call. Whereas Niko Bellic was an immigrant looking to make connections, Johnny already has them. In that same vein, the entire map is opened from the start in both downloadable stories since they’re established residents. However, despite all three games taking place in Liberty City, they’re all focused in different sections. The Lost and Damned is primarily in Alderney, which is a poorer and more rundown area than anywhere else in the game.
In addition to a new story and some gameplay adjustments, The Lost and Damned also brings brand new social activities to take part in, such as arm wrestling and playing cards. None of them are particularly memorable, but they can serve as fun little distractions. Also debuting here are several new weapons, including an assault shotgun (AKA the street sweeper), auto pistol and grenade launcher. Add all of that to 25 gang wars to take part in, bike races with an achievement for whacking people off and an all new seagull hunt and you should find plenty to do in Johnny’s shoes.
However, while The Lost and Damned was fun, it pales in comparison to the final piece of the trilogy, The Ballad of Gay Tony. This time around you’ll be rubbing elbows with Liberty City’s upper crust as Luis Lopez, right-hand man to pre-eminent club owner Anthony “Gay Tony” Prince. Unlike the first two installments where you had to work hard to move up in the world and afford the finer things (like top of the line weaponry), here you’ve already arrived financially and will have no trouble affording guns or anything else you may need. It’s a refreshing take that provides a much different perspective.
The basic story is that Tony’s clubs — Maisonette 9 and Hercules (you can guess which the gay one is) — aren’t holding up too well in today’s economy, and in an effort to get some financial relief he’s borrowed heavily from some unsavoury characters. That leaves Luis in a bind as he tries to do favours for Tony’s creditors to keep them from collecting on money Tony doesn’t have. It’s a tightly focused story that moves along at a brisk pace and does a good job of creating a relationship you wind up caring about (Tony and Luis), something The Lost and Damned did not.
As mentioned above, you’re going to be running errands from high-end clientele this time, and that gave Rockstar an excuse to go completely over the top with its missions. Those that played and enjoyed Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas will certainly like the direction The Ballad of Gay Tony takes as you’ll be doing all sorts of crazy things, like stealing and then flying a military helicopter or base jumping off the roof of the tallest building in Liberty City. Yeah, there are a few clunkers in the mix, but the vast majority of missions are really fun to play. One cool feature that was added is the ability to replay any mission as often as you’d like once you beat the game, which is something you’ll want to do.
Of course, what fun would a collection of fantastic missions be without an equally amazing arsenal of guns to complete them with? The Ballad of Gay Tony sees to it that you are armed to the teeth very early on and rearmament is never more than a phone call away. The explosive shotgun is one of the most bad ass weapons I’ve ever wielded in a video game. It turns cars, trucks and helicopters into smoldering piles of rubble in just a few shots, which is unendingly satisfying. There are also upgraded machine guns, sniper rifles and sticky bombs. And then, there’s the height of excess, a golden SMG.
Mini-games are a big part of the Grand Theft Auto open world experience, and The Ballad of Gay Tony features my favourite one to date, BASE jumping. Ironically, I didn’t think I’d enjoy jumping out of planes and off buildings in an effort to land on an exact point. However, it’s wonderfully executed and a lot of fun to do. Some of the others don’t hold up as well, namely club management (disappointingly dull) and drug wars (repetitive), but hey, when the ability to engage in underground cage fighting is included alongside doing elaborately choreographed dances in a gay club, how much can you really complain?
Both titles offer additional multiplayer modes, though trying to find a game on The Lost and Damned appears to be an exercise in futility these days. It’s unfortunate, as when it launched back in February it came with a cool mode called Witness Protection where one team played as NOOSE officers and tried to escort a witness to a safe location while the other team played as The Lost and tried to kill them. If you can scrape enough people together it’s definitely worth trying out.
Sticking with multiplayer, The Ballad of Gay Tony creates smaller environments for Deathmatch games, which really ratchets up the intensity. It also doesn’t hurt that all those wonderful new weapons are now fully accessible online. Team-oriented BASE jumping can also be done in Free Mode, but there weren’t a whole lot of new things added to online play.
Episodes from Liberty City complements the original release and offers players two very different experiences while staying true to the formula that has made this franchise a success. With well over 20 hours of single-player gaming to be found here, picking this up is a no brainer for anyone that has enjoyed the Grand Theft Auto series.