It's been nearly a year-and-a-half since GTA IV hit PC without a whiff of new content. Two downloadable episodes were made exclusively for Xbox 360, each big enough to qualify as an expansion. Those episode are finally available for PC in one package, extending the GTA experience with some excellent additive content.
Episodes from Liberty City is a stand-alone disc containing new multiplayer modes and two new single-player campaigns: The Lost & Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony. Between the two, you get more than 50 new music tracks, new radio stations and DJs, TV shows, vehicles, weapons and online modes. It's a hell of a deal regardless of how long it's been since GTA IV came out.
The new content offers the same recording features so you can take clips of your adventures and upload them to Rockstar Social. The multiplayer works the same as it does in GTA IV, except each episode's online world is self-contained. If your friend is playing GTA IV and you are playing The Lost and Damned, you won't be able to meet up. Each world has its own set of multiplayer modes, weapons and vehicles. It would be nice if all three were merged into one.
When GTA IV released on PC, it had some performance issues. Some of this has been fixed with patches, but even with a heavy duty rig (Core i7 320 GHz, 6 GB RAM, GeForce GTX 260 with Vista 64), I still had some issues. Liberty City only looks spectacular with the graphics settings high and that still leads to some framerate dips. Even on lower settings I had some framerate drops during cutscenes. If you have a powerful machine, this is a beauty. If not, you will have to sacrifice quite a lot of fidelity to enjoy a smooth experience.The Lost and Damned
The Lost and Damned takes place in Liberty City at the same time as Niko's tale from GTA IV. You play as Johnny "The Jew" Klebitz, Vice President of the biker gang named The Lost. Johnny's been the de facto leader while the President of The Lost, Billy, has been in rehab. The story begins with Billy's release and resumption of duties as head of the gang. This naturally leads to a conflict as Billy looks to dive nose-first into the drug trade while Johnny wants The Lost to be smarter about how it handles its business.
The campaign, which can be beaten in 8-10 hours, is not Rockstar's strongest offering, but is still a great experience. Johnny's not a likeable guy. He's a jerk, but not in the loveable way of someone like, well, me. While the story and characters aren't great, there are moments when Johnny's story intersects with Niko's. You might be surprised to discover that Johnny was a part of the GTA IV storyline all along. Getting to see pieces of the story from a different point of view is a cool idea.
Several crucial gameplay changes were made for L&D. The most notable is a major tweaking of the motorcycles. Every bike handles better in L&D than in GTA IV and a healthy number have been added so that there's plenty of variety available. More importantly, it's incredibly difficult to be thrown from your bike now. You pretty much need to run head-on into a wall to get tossed. You can bounce off medians, smack against other cars and pretty much run roughshod over Liberty City with little concern for being unseated.
What many found an annoyance is now a great asset. Not only are the bikes easy to handle and fun to ride, but they're so quick and nimble that the very thought of jacking a car in L&D makes me ill. In fact, I just threw up in Greg Miller's lunchbox. This, of course, has to be exactly what Rockstar wanted (for bikes to be more appealing than cars, not for me to chuck all over Miller's Lunchables). You are, after all, playing a biker. Being in a car is like being in a coffin.
Johnny has one major advantage over Niko -- he's been in the city pretty much his entire life. He doesn't need to make friends. Sure, you can call up your biker buddies to shoot some pool or play air hockey, but you don't need to in order to attain their services. They're already your homeboys. Instead of measuring the strength of your friendships, The Lost and Damned measures the battle-readiness of your crew. Many of the missions in L&D have Johnny riding with his pals -- or having the ability to call in backup. Every member who survives gains experience, which increases their maximum health and their fighting prowess. If someone dies, they'll be replaced by a newbie lacking the experience. This makes it beneficial to assist your friends in a firefight, as keeping them alive makes them stronger and thus makes the next shootout easier.
Outside of the campaign, there's plenty to do. Getting 100% in L&D will take a good amount of time. There are 25 gang wars to be won across Liberty City, a dozen new bike races, new bike theft missions, several odd jobs to tackle for various miscreants, 50 seagulls to find and kill, a new comedy show to enjoy, some new mini-games to try once and then ignore, and full frontal nudity. Make that full frontal male nudity. That's right, Rockstar brings PC some swingin' dong. Because the PC definitely needed more of that.
As for multiplayer, it's back and just as strong as it was in GTA IV. Several modes from GTA IV carry over -- deathmatch, team deathmatch and free mode -- with others being altered to fit the ride or die lifestyle. The alterations were all made for the better and with access to better bikes and better weapons, L&D multiplayer is superior to that of GTA IV. The two best modes are easily Witness Protection and Chopper vs. Chopper.
Witness Protection has one team playing as NOOSE officers escorting a witness to one of the police stations in Liberty City, while the other team plays as The Lost, trying to take the witness down. A gang of bikers rolling up on an armored van is incredibly cool and the fact that speed and handling are now on the side of the assassins alters the strategies all around. Chopper vs. Chopper is a two-player mode that puts one person in a helicopter and the other on a motorcycle. As the chopper flies through the city attempting to blow the rider to hell, the player on the bike races through checkpoints, attempting to stay alive as long as possible.The Ballad of Gay Tony
In The Ballad of Gay Tony, you take on the role of Luis Lopez who works for the title character. Where GTA IV star Niko Belic and Lost and Damned anti-hero Johnny Klebitz are men of little means attempting to rise up in the world, Luis has already made his transition from rags to riches. Tony Prince, owner of the biggest straight and gay nightclubs in Liberty City, took Luis under his wing and made him something. The Ballad of Gay Tony isn't about living in squalor. You live well and you work for the richest men in the city.
Many of the missions take place in Algonquin, Liberty City's version of Manhattan. Though there are a few early missions that tie into Luis' old life, they are throwaways and very quickly the story focuses on the problems of Gay Tony. The missions are jobs for some of the most unstable people in the city, including Tony, the ridiculous Yusuf Amir, and the bat-s*** crazy Russian mobster, Bulgarin. While there are still the standard crop of "these guys just betrayed you, shoot your way out" GTA missions, there are a number of others that are more over-the-top than anything in GTA IV or The Lost and Damned.
Bulgarin, for example, is obsessed with owning Liberty City's hockey team, the Rampage. So much so that he sends Luis on a few missions to strong-arm the owner. And I mean strong arm in the GTA sense -- out a window. At one point, you leap out of a helicopter and parachute onto a rooftop, wax some guards, throw an innocent man out a window, then take a leap of faith from 20 stories up. Don't worry, you have a second chute you can pull as you make your escape, landing in the back of a moving getaway truck.
The real star of Gay Tony, though, is Yusuf. This guy is lovable but completely nuts. He just wants his Arab Sheik father to be proud of him. What do you get for the man who has everything? How about stealing an attack chopper or a subway train? Or maybe you construct the tallest building in Liberty City? Money is no object to Yusuf and Luis has no objections to killing for cash. The two make an excellent team.
Of course, bigger jobs mean bigger toys to play with and The Ballad of Gay Tony is packed with weapons that give a big bang. Helicopters play a larger role, which is both good and bad. It's certainly faster and easier to travel in a chopper and the new ones are stocked with weapons, but mid-air battles are still a challenge. Why does Rockstar include a lock-on for guns when you're on foot but not when you're in a helicopter? There are a few missions that require you to do battle in the air and all are a challenge simply because it's difficult to target enemies. Fortunately, the majority of missions don't focus on mid-air confrontations.
Luis has plenty of weapons to fulfill his missions, including the awesome P90 assault SMG and sticky bombs which can be manually detonated. Oh, and there's a tank. No, not an imposing M1 Abrams tank, but a compact APC NOOSE tank. It's built for policing metropolitan areas. There's a tiny turret powerful enough to demolish cars and choppers in one shot, but it's not the kind of slick tank that's going to help you pick up chicks.
Along with a bigger, badder, bolder attitude, The Ballad of Gay Tony includes some welcome additions. You receive a score at the end of every mission. Once you beat the game, you can replay any mission using your phone and attempt a higher score. There are also 15 base jumping challenges for those who missed doing silly stuff in a GTA game. On top of this are 25 Drug Wars side quests where you assist your buddies from the old days as they attempt to build a drug cartel.
Last, but not least, are the clubs themselves. You manage Maisonette 9 for Tony and can enjoy its offerings any night of the week. You can get down on the dance floor in a simple, but enjoyable mini game, compete in totally hetero champagne battles, or try your luck at club management. I wouldn't recommend that last one. Being a club manager is boring. You just walk the floor and look for trouble. And trouble amounts to useless drunks.
Should you wish to play with some buddies, the only modes are trimmed to the essentials -- Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Race, GTA Race and Free Mode. But you do get to enjoy the new weapons, parachuting, and nitrous boosting (in the races) for these modes.
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