Highway Star: The Lost & Damned Review

by Ross Arbour

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Grand Theft Auto IV is coming up on its first birthday and you’ve got a good reason to load up your Xbox 360 version again. Rockstar’s new downloadable expansion, The Lost & Damned, is a sizeable addition to the Grand Theft Auto IV universe.

The first thing I heard, after stripping my Microsoft Points card from ten-times its weight in packaging and launching my newly-acquired download, was Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” blasting from my bike’s radio. Liberty Rock blares tunes from Iron Maiden and Iggy Pop as well, and the rock-n’-roll, cruisin’-at-sunset vibe helped in my rediscovery of the remarkably detailed Liberty City. The immersive qualities of what was once Niko Bellic’s city came rushing back to me as I hightailed it over the Algonquin Bridge with the Lost Motorcycle Club, of whom protagonist Johnny Klebitz is a member.

Playing as Johnny reinforces the idea of Liberty City as a constant world for all of its inhabitants, each with a story independent of Niko’s. But Johnny and Niko both endorse the second amendment, so a new automatic pistol, sawed off shotgun and grenade launcher aid in the Grand Theft Auto tradition of turning vehicles, criminals and civilians into cannon fodder. There are, of course, new bikes, though their retooled physics are arguably too forgiving. While it’s easy to rip a rewarding powerslide and feather the throttle to come out of a corner while in control the entire time, smashing into a wall at a considerable velocity rarely sends Johnny flying. More often than not, the bike merely bounces off and puts you back on track. The use of bikes is encouraged but only forced on you occasionally – most missions leave transportation up to you, so you’re free to take a car (repeatedly referred to as a “cage”) if you prefer rollin’ on four wheels.

It’s not all new, though. You’ll run into previous characters, including drug-dealer Elizabetha, Roman Bellic, Little Jacob, Playbox X, and even Niko himself. Brucie is absent though, so you won’t be hearing any rants on being genetically different.

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The storyline strongly benefits from having a narrative condensed into approximately 12 hours. Rockstar was able to tell an intriguing story of betrayal, payback and the American nonconformist. (Ironically, you’ll need to conform to biker dress code: all the Perseus and Modo stores were sealed off, so I was unable to change Johnny’s threads). Granted, it’s not trying to be an accurate depiction of modern biker clubs, but it’s a well-acted and convincing story with a handful of memorable characters. For example: Billy, your club’s boss, is pretentious and really gets under your skin, while Andreas, Elizabetha’s bodyguard, made me laugh out loud.

There’s an abundance of side missions as well, like bloody gang wars, races, bikes to steal for an export business. For players who enjoy the exploration and hunting of Grand Theft Auto IV, there are new avian targets (the “secret packages” strewn about the city), in the form of seagulls. The Lost & Damned excels in the little things as much as it does in the extravagant. They say the devil’s in the details, and noticeable subtleties like new voice clips when you’re chattering in a taxi, or original news stories at the internet café detailing Johnny’s exploits, subtly enhance the authenticity of the experience.

When you’ve brushed aside the storyline, bring a friend to the kickass new multiplayer modes. Chopper versus Chopper is a bold blend of strategy and hilarity. One player in an indestructible attack chopper hunts down another on the 2-wheeled variety. Roles are switched when the pursuer kills the pursued by either firing at them or sending them flying at the mercy of spinning rotors. The strategy of the cunning biker is to use cover like train tracks or a tunnel where he can’t be struck from above; the latter once sparked an unbelievable underground chase through the tunnel linking Algonquin and Alderney, with the chopper just able to squeeze precisely into the narrow tunnel.

It’s that over-the-top action and endless possibilities that define Grand Theft Auto executed well in multiplayer. My adversary and I busted a gut laughing when the rotors flung me violently from my bike, as we wondered where the last hour had gone.

VERDICT

If you do have the Xbox 360 version of Grand Theft Auto IV, these 1.78 Gigabytes deserve to be experienced. The storyline and its characters, new toys and tunes, entertaining side missions and new multiplayer modes make it worthwhile to revisit Liberty City through a new set of eyes.

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