Episodes from Liberty City is a latecomer on the PC, having been released on consoles eons ago. And with the recent release of Just Cause 2 as the new sandbox gaming great, is Rockstar's expansion pack to GTA4 still worth playing?
I wear a biker's leather jacket and bell bottoms to find out. Wow, I'm ashamed at how horrible that fashion disaster sounds.
I love GTA4. It's just the plain ol' enjoyment of stealing a fast car, driving irresponsibly, running over pedestrians, and then getting out of said car and beating more pedestrians senseless with a baseball bat. All to the backdrop of an extremely detailed city teeming with life and strange at every corner and down every alley.
Rockstar has perfected the art of city/world-building. And even though the expansion is set within the same city, it wasn't a boring return at all. In fact, I welcomed it with open arms because as always, fun in GTA comes with the fact that you can do crazy things in a replica of a real city, without worry of the law.
So what's new with the expansion?
Episodes from Liberty City bundles two separate stories that become intertwined. The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony. The Lost and the Damned sees you play Johnny, a member of a biker gang who has to contend with the return of the leader, who after spending some time in jail, is back to cause senseless mayhem in Liberty City. This leads to the gang spiraling into self-destruction with the leader's idiocy. Johnny is forced to take matters in his own hands and fight the leader before the gang is destroyed entirely. It's a grim story about brotherhood, loyalty and of course, betrayal, with rough men swearing every other second and cracking overtly-masculine jokes.
The Ballad of Gay Tony is a more light-hearted affair. You play Luis, right-hand man to Gay (literally) Tony, a club tycoon who is also (surprise, surprise) spiraling into self-destruction through drugs and debt to various mobsters and devious loan-sharks. As plenty of bad people are out to kill Tony, it's Luis' job to protect him. After playing Niko and Johnny, who are both characters stuck at the bottom of the status hierarchy prevalent in Liberty City, it was refreshing to play somebody who got to see a flashier and swankier side of life. It was however, not all peachy as Rockstar made sure to show you that things get worse the higher up the ladder you go.
Playing yet another GTA title finally made me see the patterns to most Rockstar games. They give you an illusion that it's an open world but really, driving yourself from mission to mission is hardly "open-world". It just means you do all the hard work of progressing the plot along. This, along with the fact that most missions in Rockstar games are just faffing about in the world rather than having anything to do with the plot, means their games, and this Episode pack in particular suffers from poor pacing.
Also, the basic mission structure of all Rockstar games including the latest Red Dead Redemption is the protagonist always takes on missions and jobs from strange, larger than life characters. And the wanton brainlessness of the protagonists accepting to do those missions no matter how dangerous, morally wrong, or just plain retarded they are, diminishes the appeal and my emotional engagement to these protagonists. In both episodes, this is no different. Johnny and Luis both seem like sensible guys, and although they can say "No way I'm doing this job, it's too dangerous", a minute later you're climbing on top of a train or taking part in a deadly shootout.
It speaks volumes of the lack of agency that these characters, and by extension, players have to live with in the game. For instance, in Luis' story, his mother is subjected to harassment from a loan shark she borrowed money from. The loan shark and I take a walk and he offers me a proposal, to fight for him in a cage or my mother will have to pay the exorbitant owed money. Instead, I decide I want to kill him right there and then to end all my problems. I shoot him in the face. The game even showed Luis giving his mother a call saying "the loan shark won't bother" her no more. I thought that was that, but then I learnt I couldn't continue the story until I replayed the mission and did exactly what the loan shark told me to do. It's utterly contradictory to how I believe the character is portrayed. Rockstar can do better in making the characters and the story more convincing.
Rockstar makes great open-world games, but they should consider moving into open-choice games. I saw a glimmer of that in the original GTA4, when in one mission, you're given the choice of killing or letting a man go. It was very minor, and the only time in the game where such a choice was given, but it showed potential that Rockstar could explore non-linear paths of play. Like, if I killed an integral character in the story, that would be the end of his storyline. Of course, there is potential to "break" a game in that regards, and many other developers like Bethesda on Oblivion and Fallout 3 worry too. But in my opinion, that's the player/audience's problem. If they break the game, they are ruining it for themselves. And hopefully they'll learn not to do such a thing. But if they wanted to, they should be allowed to also. It makes the world they live in seem more real.
In one of the episodes, Ballad of Gay Tony, one thing that got on my nerves was the number of helicopter missions there were. When compared to the ease and simplicity at which aerial vehicles like the helicopter are driven in Just Cause 2, GTA 4's in comparison are infernal contraptions of death. They are too sensitive and require both hands on the keyboard to steer, and it was not fun at all when I died countless times trying to accurately shoot some boats in the water. It was so bad that it truly did make me want to stop playing the game there and then. It wasn't over though. After that, there were at least four or five more helicopter-based missions that had me tearing my hair out.
Finally, I was tired of playing protagonists that weren't easily identifiable with. All of them come from the fringes of society, amoral although deliberately slanted towards good, and lived in a world filled with other annoying, harsh, or vapid characters. None of them were genuinely decent people.
Graphically, the game is extremely dated. At the time when GTA4 was first released, the detailed city and characters were the pinnacle of gaming technology, but now it is poor in comparison to newer generation titles like Assassin's Creed 2 and Just Cause 2. This makes the Episodes expansion pack not a worthwhile spend if you're in it for the visuals. Even the animations and controls are clunky.
So what's the game's saving grace? If I've not only managed to criticize the expansion pack, but Rockstar games in general (save Red Dead Redemption, because I have yet to play that).
I still like the Euphoria engine that the game is built from. The physics is fun visually; the way characters interact with the world, and when you knock people over in a car or shoot them, it just seems so ... sticky. It's also what makes running around the city and committing random acts of violence real fun.
Combat was interesting in the Episodes by way of the environments fought in. Highlights included the fairgrounds in Ballad of Gay Tony and prison ward in Lost and the Damned. There were also times in both episodes where Rockstar supplied the player with unlimited ammo or gave all the best weapons to just go nuts with. Like a tank to blow shit up. I reckon Rockstar realized that as much as their newer games have taken on a more serious tone, people still love to go ape-shit and wreak carnage. That's why Just Cause 2 did so well.
Voice acting is generally decent. Although at times, it is annoying especially with the taunts both protagonists spew in combat.
All in all, I think I've reached the threshold of enjoyment with a standard Rockstar title. When I first played GTA4 sometime ago, I was blown away by how good it was. But times have changed. Just having an edgy story with edgy, ghetto characters doesn't make a good game. So Rockstar either has to shake up their gameplay structure (currently it's just drive, mission, drive, mission, drive) or make their stories exceptionally compelling (which apparently Red Dead Redemption does). But one thing's for sure, my love for open world carnage with no inhibitions remains the same.