To say that developer Rockstar Games has carved its place in the gaming landscape is a gross understatement. With a string of critically acclaimed, and financially successful, games; tons of media coverage; and a franchise that’s a household name, Rockstar has reached a level few other developers have attained. Consequently, when they release anything it gets attention. And when the release happens to have a Grand Theft Auto title on it, it has a lot to live up to. With Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City, Rockstar takes the Liberty City from GTA4 and shows it off from two new and radically different perspectives: biker Johnny Klebitz in the episode The Lost and Damned and bouncer/club manager Luis Fernando Lopez in The Ballad of Gay Tony.
In the first episode, The Lost and Damned, you play as Johnny Klebitz, the Vice President of the Lost Motorcycle Club. When the President, Billy Grey, gets out of prison Johnny finds himself working for a madman bent on starting gang wars. The Lost and Damned improves on GTA IV in many ways, chief among them are the bike physics, improved facial and animation graphics, and the streamlining of the friendship system. Due to the focus on biker gangs, there’s sixteen new bikes here including Johnny’s personal Hexar which has better handling than most other bikes in the game. Johnny also takes less damage when he falls off of his bike. However, there is a draw back to the motorcycle for which Johnny has no countermeasure — he’s open to more damage on it. When in a car, the player is partially shielded from incoming damage but on a bike most of the bullets hit you squarely. This leads to prolonged open combat on a bike being suicidal, even with the sawed-off shotgun which is devastating against enemy vehicles.
The storyline to The Lost and Damned is rather good but also painfully short. The politics of the Lost Brotherhood are interesting, but largely unexplored. The dynamic between Johnny and Billy is amazing and sadly doesn’t last half the game. In Billy Grey, Rockstar has finally found a compelling archenemy. In previous GTA games, the final foes have been nasty people deserving a violent death but they’ve never held any sense of threat. Billy, however, is unpredictable in his madness. He switches from violent to cheerful from threatening to mock sincerity. From the moment he is introduced you can’t stop wanting to find out his true motives. But Billy’s brilliant characterization and acting (provided by Lou Samrall) is also a flaw in the game — it’s too short. We’re told many times throughout the game and in the manual that he’s insane and going more insane as the game progresses, even Johnny says as much. But Billy's only in six of the twenty-three missions. This is a game where the story and the characters demand more time than is allowed by the originally downloadable episode. This leads to a scattershot execution where the episode needs to tell its own story and still match the story of the original GTA IV.
In the second episode, The Ballad of Gay Tony, you play as Luis Lopez the bouncer and manager of the Maisonette 9 and Hercules clubs, and personal bodyguard and likely only friend to ‘Gay’ Tony Prince, the self-proclaimed king of Liberty City’s nightlife. Gay Tony owes money to everyone and you must help him keep his businesses afloat while dealing with mobsters who think they own you. The core relationship between Luis and Tony is wonderful and the gem of the storyline. There’s an actual sense of history, and a longstanding friendship and respect between them and this storyline does its best to test the limits of that friendship. The actual plot is secondary this time around as its focus is doing missions from different people to try to stay afloat. There is a big bad villain at the end of the game, but he’s merely a means to an end. Above all else Ballad has a surprisingly emotional final act which provides a much deeper appreciation of the whole episode. And Rockstar surprises again with its portrayal of homosexuality in a series that’s still largely misogynistic (in both episodes the only female presence are ex-girlfriends who only exist to be clichés crazy chicks and/or cause trouble for the male lead).
This episode is the proper finish to this era of GTA games. It includes many new features to GTA IV, including BASE jumping, dancing at the clubs, and underground fighting arenas. Additionally, it adds seven powerful new weapons and gives players the closest thing to a tank available. Also specific to this episode is a judging tally at the end of each mission which will increase the game's replay value some as it challenges players to complete every mission at 100%. This episode's glitz and faux-glamorous high life is a perfect contrast to Lost and Damned's grim and dirty tone. The change of tone also means that we get treated to the largest most over the top missions in the GTA IV era, which is welcome. This episode has some instant classic missions focused on big action infused with humor. It is definitely the stronger of the two episodes and since it’s likely the last GTA until the eventual GTA V that’s a good thing.
Originally available as a download, the episodes are now available on a disc and there are some differences between buying the disc and downloading the titles. Key among them is that if you download the episodes you will need Grand Theft Auto IV to play them. Additionally, the disc contains three new radio stations and 150 new songs (none of the GTA IV songs reappear on the disc). Lastly, if you buy the disc you cannot play multiplayer The Lost and Damned with those who downloaded it but you can play multiplayer with either version of Ballad of Gay Tony.
All in all Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City is a bargain at its forty dollar price tag. Together, the two episodes form a decently large storyline with two completely different but equally compelling protagonists. The gameplay is slightly different, the tone is definitely different, and one only one is a clear winner, but the other is certainly not a disappointment by any stretch. Even though the disc version of Episodes from Liberty City does not require Grand Theft Auto IV to work, it's a good idea to play the original first since both episodes interact with the original GTA IV storyline and a greater understanding of that storyline will lend a greater understanding and appreciation to these episodes.
Noting any shortcomings in these episodes, like their length, is nitpicking. When taken as a whole, Rockstar has delivered one of the best games of all time with Grand Theft Auto IV, The Lost and Damned, and The Ballad of Gay Tony. This is easily one of the must-haves for this console generation and a game, I think, we’ll all be talking about for a long time.
Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, and Use of Drugs and Alcohol.