Episodes from Liberty City Review

Two years ago we were introduced to the grimy world encompassed in Liberty City. As far as games go, two years is a fairly substantial period of time, and many PlayStation 3 owners are likely upset it’s taken this long to get any additional content for Grand Theft Auto IV. While Xbox 360 owners have had great reasons to revisit the city, thanks to two timed exclusive Episodes from Rockstar Games, PS3 owners have moved onto other games and have probably forgotten about Niko and how much fun it was to steal a car, run over a sidewalk worth of pedestrians, and flee from pursuing fuzz. In fact, many PS3 gamers likely feel neglected by Rockstar. But, timed exclusives must someday come to an end, and that time has passed as Episodes from Liberty City, consisting of both The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony, have been released on PS3.

Episodes from Liberty City assumes you know all about GTAIV; well, not “all” about the game, but that you at least have a working knowledge of it. You do not need the GTA IV disc to play Episodes from Liberty City. At $39.99 USD the disc offers quite a bang for your buck with some 20 hours of new content. The disc includes both The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony in their entirety. Just as the core game required a lengthy install, so too will EFLT – make sure you have room on your hard drive. Once the game is installed, you’ll be prompted to choose which content you’d like to play. We’ll start with The Lost and the Damned.

While both chunks of DLC add new stories, missions, characters, weapons, and vehicles, neither seem to offer that same initial punch as GTA IV did when it was first released. The characters are not as interesting as Niko, nor are the stories as deep or compelling. Still, both entries are a joy to play and they got us excited about the franchise again.

In The Lost and the Damned, you play as Johnny Kiebitz (known as “The Jew”), a member of the biker gang The Lost. Johnny temporarily took over leadership of the gang after its leader, Billy Grey, went into rehab. While Billy was away, Johnny started to change the gang’s direction and create business truces with rival thugs. But as the story opens and Billy regains leadership of The Lost, the biker gang returns to its old ways of drugs, alcohol, violence, and eliminating rivals. It’s a strong opening that, classic to GTA-style, feels like a gritty Hollywood blockbuster.

One of the first things you’ll notice about Lost and Damned are the changes and enhancements to riding motorcycles. This is done through the actual story, so it doesn’t feel tacked on. Bikes feel sturdier, and handle quite well. Johnny doesn’t fall off bikes nearly as much as Niko did. Of course, if you are riding full tilt and run into a parked car, you are going to fly off your bike and suffer the consequences; nonetheless, minor accidents don’t knock you off your ride like they did in GTA IV. Since you are in a biker gang, you’ll be riding motorcycles a lot – the improved riding makes it a joy to hop on a hog and tear up the town. There are plenty of new vehicles in The Lost and Damned. Most of the vehicles are motorcycles (go figure), all of which have unique sounds and drivability.

The core gameplay mechanics in both Episodes are virtually the same to the original game. You’ll tap R1 to run into cover, L2 to target enemies, R2 to shoot, etc. There are additions like bike races, which play out like the classic Road Rash since you get baseball bats to fend off competitors. You can spend a lot of time partaking in new races, but even with the improved bike handling, we still found these competitions frustrating.

There are a handful of new weapons to play with, including a pipe bomb and a grenade launcher. You’ll use these weapons, and all the classic guns, to eliminate rival gang members during missions. Just as every other GTA game, both episodes rely heavily on the mission-based game progression. Mission objectives, friends, important locations like gun stores and Internet cafes, are all placed on your game map, allowing you to add waypoints to different destinations to play through the game as you’d like. The side missions and activities in The Lost and the Damned are just fair, after all, arm wrestling and taking shots of liquor are only fun for a little while. As such, it’s a lot harder to get distracted from the main storyline than it was in GTAIV.

The Lost and the Damned multiplayer modes are quite enjoyable, all featuring motorcycle loving fun. One of our favorites is Witness Protection, in which one team plays as a group of cops escorting a witness through the city, while the other team plays as a biker gang trying to destroy the witness’s transport. Another entertaining mode is Chopper vs. Chopper, a one-on-one game that puts one player in a helicopter chasing down the other player who’s driving a bike through different checkpoints in the city.

One of the things that GTA IV did really well was establishing and building relationships between all the characters. To start with, both new Episodes play into the world that Niko inhabited and grew to rule. Fans of the original will feel some nostalgia watching events of the core game play out, only this time you’ll witness them from the new characters you get to play as. Some of the most memorable moments from GTA IV are revisited, only adding to the idea that Liberty City is very much a living, breathing city.

If we are to believe the city is alive, then Gay Tony is a big player in the nightclub scene, both gay and straight. In The Ballad of Gay Tony, you play as Luis Lopez, an ex-con who works directly under Tony Prince, known as Gay Tony. Instead of following in the rags-to-riches theme presented in GTA IV, The Ballad of Gay Tony puts you in the shoes of someone who has already put the time into his crime-inspired career. This makes the story feel faster pace than both The Lost and the Damned and GTAIV. The story in this Episode focuses on the pair, with Gay Tony accumulating quite a debt and Luis performing the bulk of the dirty work.

You are in charge of running the night club’s basic operations. This doesn’t require all that much attention. You’ll go into the club, take a shot, dance with a girl (using a simplistic yet entertaining system), and manage the actual club. The later is pretty boring as you just walk around the club, looking for people causing trouble.

Luis is a lot easier to like than Johnny from The Lost and the Damned. The only problem with him, and Johnny for that matter, is he doesn’t have much of a back story. Both Luis and Johnny’s relationships with other characters and the city itself are thin compared to Niko. Maybe it’s because Niko’s story felt fresh, new, and nearly every mission or street in the city was vibrant. However you think of it, the new leads are not quite as interesting or likeable as Niko. They are unique, however. For instance, Johnny is pretty heavy set and wears thick leather. He moves pretty slow, even when sprinting, and he can take a punch like no other character. Luis, on the other hand, is smaller and has a penchant for the finer things in life – like champagne wars.

Since Luis is a high roller, you have access to some pretty sweet vehicles, weapons, and even missions. Given your prosperity, and the fact it’s the third turn Rockstar had at creating interesting gameplay elements, you’ll be spending your time doing a bit more elaborate missions, rather than just gunning down rival gang members or escorting your cousin to his garage. Missions include blowing up a train and an airplane with sticky bombs, and stealing a helicopter and blowing up a yacht. There is also plenty of base-jumping for anyone who wants to feel the rush of falling gracefully.

New to the series is the mid-mission checkpoints, which make longer missions involving driving from one end of the city to the other much more tolerable. This essentially makes it so if you get far enough in a mission and fail or die, you don’t have to go back to the beginning of the same mission; instead, you start over at the closest checkpoint. The missions are also integrated into the Social Club’s leaderboards. This is a welcome addition to those who like to post their high score for the world to see.

Again, the core gameplay mechanics are identical to GTA IV and The Lost and the Damned. You can think of The Ballad of Gay Tony as the sparkly flamboyant cousin of the original game. The colors are vibrant, compared with The Lost and Damned gritty hues. But if we are going to talk about graphics and visuals, it’s hard to ignore some glaring problems.

We say “problems” only because the visual glitches present in the original game two years ago are still present here. These include shading issues and visual hiccups, such as the characters appearing hollow. The original game engine shows its age pretty noticeably. The problem we run into is that these graphic issues wouldn’t be as noticeable if the content was released a year ago. Since then, we’ve seen games with incredible graphics, seamless action, and lush textures. Needless to say, if you found GTA IV’s visual offering underwhelming, then Episodes from Liberty City is unlikely to impress either.

Some of the other negative points we noticed were the side missions and activities. As previously mentioned, arm wrestling in The Lost and the Damned is pretty lame. In the same way, managing the club in The Ballad of Gay Tony is only fun the first time you do it. There is just not as much to do outside the core storyline as there was in GTA IV. Of course, that’s because the regular game was a lot longer. But, each new content in Episodes from Liberty City adds about eight to 10 hours worth of gameplay. That means the disc comes complete with 20-hours of new storyline, and several online features that should keep fans happy for quite a while.

The Episodes feature tons of new music and radio stations, with hosts commenting on events taking place in other games. The new music is a welcome addition, and the new stations in each Episode work well with their overall themes.

Sadly, we feel Episodes from Liberty City would have accomplished a lot more had it been released earlier. Two years after the original outing, and the game engine is looking decidedly rough around the edges. Despite this, the disc is worth a buy, and is a must-have for long time followers of this venerable franchise, while those of you who haven’t played GTA IV now have an ideal opportunity to dust it off. The differences between the PS3 version and the Xbox 360 are virtually nonexistent, but if PS3 owners are feeling betrayed by Rockstar for delivering the new content so late, we urge you to forgive and play. Regardless of any niggles, Episodes from Liberty City has proven that it is one slice of DLC that was well worth the wait.



The Final Word

While PS3 owners have had to wait quite a while for fresh Grand Theft Auto IV content, Episodes from Liberty City has proved it was well worth the wait.