Cool Weapons, Awkward Stories
I won't be long; after all, I may have replayed GTAIV this past spring but its story nuances are already mostly lost to me, especially when it comes to some of the minor characters that make a return here. I can't speak to how cool it is to see the other side of these various missions, other than it being fun to take on the museum again from Johnny's end and interesting to take in how intimidating Niko Bellic's presence can be when you're on the other end of the dock standoff as Luis. Most of the crossover stuff is a nice touch but, half a year removed from replaying the game let alone five years from when all this stuff was fresh, it doesn't resonate much.
What impressed me most was the new weapons, and that was about it. The explosive shotgun is great, as is the P90 (I can never think of what that gun is called outside of Goldeneye) and the MG is alright in crowds. You can tell certain situations were thrown into this game only because the MG exists, though. That shotgun really stands out against everything, though - it's a real shame you only get an auto-shotgun in the Lost and the Damned campaign because it really gets outshined later.
Anyway, you really can't knock Episodes from Liberty City too much. After all, it's still Liberty City and that's the main attraction. I spent a lot of Luis' game simply walking around following random NPC conversations and taking in the world, same as I did with Niko (Johnny sucks, so I plowed through his campaign). The core gameplay still can't be ignored. Unlike most I love the firefights and way all of that handles, and since I sold my copy of GTA 4 earlier this year it's nice to still be able to jump into Liberty City and wreak havoc with the HUD completely turned off in my handmade Survivor Mode. While that's fun in a detached sense, I've got to say that the story missions leave a lot to be desired.
Lost and the Damned has characters I couldn't be compelled to care about one bit, so there's not much to talk about there. But Ballad of Gay Tony really let me down. I'd heard so much hype about it that I really didn't expect to feel even more detached from the atmosphere Rockstar created with Liberty City than I did with Niko. Luis is even more eager to leave his criminal past behind most of the game, and yet his interaction with every character paints him as a psychopath cold-blooded killer. In return, he talks shit about them and generally seems to get along with no one, not even Tony, throughout the entire game. He hates the childhood friends he runs drugs with, he's embarrassed by the wanna-be black Yusef and constantly chides Tony for his associates and decisions. He's a real buzz kill of a character, with none of the alienated sarcasm that made most of Niko's similar criticisms endearing.
Add two games full of unlikable characters to sets of missions that seem utterly ridiculous and you get some DLC that feels more like fan fiction than addendums to the GTA IV story. The latter half of Ballad of Gay Tony is utterly unbelievable and wasn't polished enough to leave much of a real impact. I just did them, nodded my head, and moved on. Because I enjoyed the weapons, and still love the core firefight mechanics, I can't knock the missions too harshly for showcasing that stuff. It just felt like a lot of fluff, with Ballad of Gay Tony in particular some of the more absurd moments from Vice City and San Andreas (hijacking a tank, jumping out of a plane) into Liberty City as if to prove Rockstar hadn't forgotten its roots.
One final nitpick, neither game (at least in their PSN incarnations) come with the restaurant locations pre-loaded on the map. This gave me the impression they were off-limits, and so when I needed health I only healed myself at the safehouse for Lost and the Damned. Out of frustration and curiosity I wandered into a Burger Shot during my Gay Tony play, realized they're totally still open to the public, and proceeded to mark as many Burger Shots and Cluckin' Bells on the map as I could for Luis. Poor oversight on that one, since these missions are so combat heavy that health is at an extreme premium for most of the game.
My words might imply I kind of hated these games, but no. I had a lot of fun with them and can appreciate them for what they are. Episodes from Liberty City just doesn't try very hard to live up to GTA IV's blueprint, opting instead for the more cartoonish antics of the PS2 generation. You could totally buy these two stories on their own and have yourself a fun time in Liberty City, perhaps especially so if you were immediately turned off by GTA IV's "realism". Just don't expect to get the full experience of what it's like to spend time in that city, getting to know all its corners and major players. These games aren't that, they're just sideshows meant to show off and loosen up.