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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Player's Club: Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned reviewed

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Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned

Rated M for Mature

Released Feb. 17

Xbox 360

Published by Rockstar Games

If you were to look over my favorite games of 2008, you might be surprised by the absence of Grand Theft Auto IV. True, the internet uni-mind has invariably done five or six about-faces on the game by now, but GTA IV generally racked up in the year-end accolades department. It’s not one of my favorites, though, despite some of its more amazing capabilities. The dialogue and voice-acting are some of the best you’ll find, and Liberty City’s the most immersing virtual urban environment since whatever that town was in Final Fight (New Mechadetroit?). Like previous GTAs, IV excels at presentation, making a good impression even if you don’t enjoy the gameplay.

Unfortunately the gameplay is often directly at odds with the presentation, and thoroughly undermines the story. The game tries to incite our sympathy with Bellic's constant anguish over the violence he commits, but then asks us to guide him through the regular and indiscriminate murder of dozens of people. GTA IV eventually tries to deal with the issue, but without much conviction. It’s a bummer watching a game gradually tarnish its greatest achievement.

What’s this got to do with GTA IV: The Lost and Damned, though? The recently released downloadable content, exclusive to the Xbox 360, is less a GTA IV expansion pack than a curious side-trip into a new storyline. The Lost and Damned’s narrative frequently intersects with GTA IV’s, but only briefly. The actions of IV’s lead, Niko Bellic, are felt, but rarely seen.

The Lost and Damned focuses on Johnny Klebitz, vice president of the biker gang the Lost. Like Bellic, Klebitz seems wary of the sort of criminal mayhem typical of the GTA series. He knows violence is bad for business, so he’s brokered truces with various rivals. When the Lost’s president Billy Grey is released from court-ordered rehab, he immediately changes direction, driving the Lost into open warfare with other gangs. This doesn’t sit well with Johnny.

Here’s where those glaring flaws from GTA IV return. Johnny Klebitz complains about Grey’s ultra-violent tactics while continually engaging in absurd bloodbaths in broad daylight. The story asks us to believe Klebitz is more stable and rational than his fellow bikers, but the gameplay consists primarily of controlling Klebitz through crazed murdering sprees. Sure, those murdering sprees can be pretty damn fun — if you can handle GTA’s reliably clunky controls — but they don’t fit the character as defined in the cut-scenes. The game asks us to believe what Klebitz says and not what he does, and I can’t really do that. From a narrative perspective, GTA IV: The Lost and Damned is a beautifully produced, thought-provoking failure, much like its parent game. I enjoyed every second of the cut-scenes, and didn’t even mind watching some of them multiple times, but they can’t be squared away with what the game asks you to do. There has to be a way to unite an even remotely likable character with the rampant, transgressive gameplay expected from the series, but Rockstar has yet to figure it out.

GTA IV: The Lost and Damned might be a narrative failure, but like GTA IV, it’s still compulsively playable. It’s one of the few games where you’ll actively anticipate the next cut-scene. The action sequences remain somewhat hamstrung by the awkward camera and sluggish controls, but at least now you don’t have to restart a failed mission from the very beginning. The real thrills are driving around town, listening to the radio, and experiencing an amazing fake city, though, and any reason to go back and do that again is fine by me.

(Photo courtesy Rockstar Games)

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