The episodes, The Lost & Damned and The Ballad Of Gay Tony, both offer complete campaigns from some of Grand Theft Auto IV's "blink and you'll miss them" cameo appearances. The genius truly hits home when you realise each of the campaigns weave their way into some of Grand Theft Auto IV's set-piece moments.
The Lost & Damned focuses its narrative around "The Lost" motorcycle gang from the mainline Grand Theft Auto IV storyline. Here you play as second-fiddle commander Johnny Klebitz - a sensible an honest leader shot down by the club's recently detained leader Billy Grey. The game opens with the Lost gang meeting their leader as he departs from prison, and soon things to sour for the group as Billy's anger draws a lot of unwanted attention to the club.
Tying into events from both The Lost & Damned, and Niko's famous bank-heist, The Ballad Of Gay Tony puts you in the suave shoes Luis Fernando Lopez, the right-hand man of Liberty City's notorious gay and straight club owner Tony Prince. The Ballad Of Gay Tony is clearly a reaction on Rockstar's part to many of the criticisms lauded over GTAIV's dark and mature campaign. It's a fairly nonsensical narrative that keeps in line with Liberty City's ethos while providing plenty of scope for Rockstar to appeal to their turned-audience and provide something a little more bombastic.
Grand Theft Auto: Episodes From Liberty City is available at a budget price - something worth noting when the game provides you with roughly 20 hours of content. You can buy the compilation of the two campaigns on a separate blu-ray disc, or simply download the campaigns from the Playstation Store.
The Lost & Damned and The Ballad Of Gay Tony really couldn't be different. From the aesthetics, to the mission design to the general tone of the campaigns, they are polar opposites. Which is a stand-out achievement for Rockstar Games, that they managed to create two (three if you count the original Grand Theft Auto IV campaign) completely different narratives while staying within the confines of the Liberty City's ethos. The Lost & Damned is a dark, gritty and at times depressing story. It's chalk to the cheese that is The Ballad Of Gay Tony's bombastic nonsense. Indeed, even down to the aesthetic presentation the campaigns are different. The Lost & Damned uses a brusque noise filter to overlay the visuals and create a moody, gritty atmosphere. Meanwhile, The Ballad Of Gay Tony settles for sharp, over-saturated colours and deep blacks. It really is genius how they both manage to fit into the same City but be so different.
Despite the backlash, GTAIV was (and still is) an absolutely fantastic experience. Having said that, the game did it have clear strengths and weaknesses. Both the Episodes From Liberty City try to play to those strengths. The Lost & Damned makes driving around Liberty City fun for perhaps the first-time, with the introduction of several new chopper bikes that are excellent to drive. They handle perfectly, and make chugging around Liberty City while spinning some hard-hitting rock tunes a genuinely pleasant experience. Even if you don't like rock. The bikes just feel bad-ass, and there are moments when you'll drive in formation like a true biker gang would, which are the epitome of awesome. The Lost & Damned makes you feel cool on the road, which must have been what of the bullet-points on Rockstar's white-board during development. They absolutely nailed it though. Thankfully the mission design is great too. Despite a lull in the last third, The Lost & Damned cites a lot of reference from fan's favourite Three Leaf Clover shoot-out mission in the main GTAIV campaign. There are several shoot-outs of that magnitude in the Lost & Damned that are great fun to be involved in. While The Ballad Of Gay Tony isn't so much about its shoot-outs, it goes for bombastic spectacle instead. One mission has you stealing a grade-A military chopper from a cruise-liner and subsequently blowing it up with the host of on-board weaponry. Thankfully, Episodes From Liberty City also learns a few lessons: there are checkpoints in missions now. Arguably not enough, but it's a nice recognition.
Despite what people may tell you on the message boards: Liberty City is still a fantastic world brimming with life and activity. Episodes From Liberty City helps you find a new appreciation for that, by providing campaigns that feed into each other with such believability. It really makes you wonder how the folks at Rockstar HQ dream it up.
In the two years since GTAIV came out we've been privy to the likes of inFamous, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Batman: Arkham Asylum. Needless to say GTAIV's feeling a little rough around the edges. The combat, camera and general controls aren't quite as precise as they should be - and while Liberty City still bleeds personality, it's hard to consider it particularly good-looking after the recent Playstation 3 content we've been introduced to.
Grand Theft Auto: Episodes From Liberty City is a package of contrasts. The Lost & Damned hits the franchises' low notes consistently with a sordid tale of drugs, sex and life on the road. Meanwhile The Ballad Of Gay Tony gives the middle-finger to those crying in message boards about Grand Theft Auto IV's maturity, with a bombastic and often ridiculous narrative. Sure the GTAIV's engine is a little creaky these days, but Episodes From Liberty City offers more than just two more solid campaigns within the lively Liberty City - it whips up an appreciation for the story-telling genius that resides within Rockstar HQ and serves it up on a silver platter.