Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City
I actually played these as downloaded content for Grand Theft Auto IV rather than on a separate disc, but there's not much of a difference besides an alternate selection of radio songs and it's a bit too substantial to shove onto a DLC post, so... I'm doing this.
What was most interesting about these two episodes was the way they tied into Niko's story from GTA IV and wrapped up loose ends from that story. Johnny Klebitz and Luis Lopez are both characters that appeared or were referenced multiple times in the game, and seeing how their journeys interwove with Niko's was pretty cool. The gameplay is starting to feel dated by this point, but purely from a storytelling perspective these episodes enhance each other through their interplay and show that Rockstar can do dramatic scenes as well as anyone in video games.
The Lost and Damned
Niko had a couple encounters with the Lost biker gang, but now we get to see how they actually operate as a group. This episode reintroduces a lot of the gang warfare bits from previous GTA games, and some of the best missions are ones where you and your buddies are chasing down rival bikers and taking them out of commission. Unlike the main game, where it seemed like I was just taking whatever car was nearby, your bike is actually important to you in The Lost and Damned, and while yeah, you can get replacements, for the most part you can just ride around on and take care of the same vehicle throughout the story. It's just a different feeling in the series actually giving a crap about what you're driving.
A lot of the missions didn't seem terribly inspired, a complaint I also had with vanilla GTA IV, but the story of brotherhood and betrayal is a good one, as I spent most of the time actually caring about what I was doing instead of just listening to whatever mobster currently had me by the short hairs. There were a few nice additions to the gameplay, like some new, extremely powerful weaponry, and an actual checkpoint system so a misstep during a job doesn't force you to do the whole thing over again. This might be the most cohesive and structurally sound story in the series, with little to no padding in its roughly eight hour completion time, and tonally similar to Niko's, generally heavy with only a couple moments of excess.
The Ballad of Gay Tony
As the name might suggest, this episode is a bit sillier than the other GTA IV games, and it does remind me of the PS2 ones a lot in some ways. A lot of the missions definitely feel ripped from a different era in the series' history, with such scenarios as a high speed pursuit with golf carts, BASE jumping out of buildings onto the backs of trucks, and interrupting a diamond exchange with a gold plated military prototype helicopter. It's really pretty ridiculous put next to the other GTA IV stuff, but in some ways that was a breath of fresh air. It doesn't add much that The Lost and Damned didn't already have besides a few more new weapons (although they're good ones) and a couple mini-games, but there's a certain energy to a lot of it that its counterpart lacks.
Where it does stumble a bit is the story. Luis is a decent, likable character in a vacuum, but it's not easy to be sympathetic to him when he seems to make nothing but bad decisions. He's sort of forced into a lot of his criminal activity by all the debts his business partner Gay Tony has taken on, but there are occasions where he bows to the whims of clearly insane bad guys for no reason other than the money, and his stated desire to just live his life comes off as false. There's a lot of exciting and funny moments sprinkled around the plot, but the general arc isn't really as satisfying as the other ones, and it's also a bit weird how Luis steals Niko's primary antagonist. Still a fun eight hours though, and it does tie the whole GTA IV saga into a neat bow.