Naysayers move along. If you didn’t enjoy Grand Theft Auto IV, then The Lost and Damned will do little to change your mind. Rockstar plays it safe with the first of GTA’s heavily-hyped downloadable episodes. Think of it as the cliff’s notes GTAIV – the sweeping 45-hour epic is compressed to a more manageable, 10-hour size. For better or worse, it doesn’t miss a beat, with a colorful cast of characters, tightly scripted missions, and a rollercoaster plot.
You play as Johnny Klebitz, VP of The Lost Motorcycle Club, a brotherhood of anarchistic middle-aged white trash. The story begins as the gang reuinites with their leader Billy. Fresh from a brief stay in jail and rehab, Billy immediately begins to shake things up. His destructive attitude causes tension with Johnny, who had spent his time as substitute leader cleaning up the club.
The conflict between the two is compelling from the start. Their shaky brotherhood and the dialogue that results is a reminder that Rockstar is ahead of the video game storytelling curve. These polygonal puppets can act, with performances so fascinating they transcend the haphazard script. But when Billy and Johnny’s conflict takes a backseat, and the production values falter, everything suddenly seems less interesting. The same problem plagued vanilla GTAIV, and while its last act was as long as the entirety of The Lost and Damned, it’s sad to see Rockstar make the same mistakes twice.
It’s not to say the last act isn’t full of action and excitement; on the contrary, the finale is just a bit too much. Rockstar has a field day deconstructing their characters. Take Nico, whose original GTAIV journey transformed him from a charming criminal to a mass-murdering monster. Johnny’s path is equally absurd – The Lost are clearly bad people, but the final mission has you breaking into a prison and mowing down scores of cops, all to reach one man. The end game is so nonsensical that the brilliant character development early on is moot.
That final mission, and others like it, shed light on another issue Rockstar failed to address: mission variety is seriously lacking. Riding motorcycles and bustin’ caps is a lot of fun, but that’s about all there is to do. GTAIV’s world is packed with gadgets like camera phones, internet, TV, and police databases, but none of it is used to spice up the missions. Rather than shooting your way through that final mission, wouldn’t it have been more interesting to use some of those gadgets, or even get arrested intentionally?
The Lost and Damned doesn’t stray far from its big daddy. Marginal improvements imply that Rockstar isn’t fixing something which is arguably unbroken. Maybe they’re right – a year after the original GTAIV, despite that game growing stale towards the end, this new episode manages to entertain. But with so much life already built into Liberty City, it’s hard to deny The Lost & Damned is a little less than the sum of its parts.