Episodes From Liberty City

Happy choppers.

It's nothing if not strange to be reviewing the same thing for the second time in a fortnight, but then Rockstar has sent us down strange roads before. The Ballad of Gay Tony is the same now as it was last week, but the fact that it is also available on a disc it shares with The Lost and Damned, and which doesn't require the original Grand Theft Auto IV to play, asks different questions of a review.

It's possible, for example, that you're considering whether to buy this having never bought or played GTAIV - in which case your impressions may be mixed. The Liberty City of the current generation is a vast, colourful and varied environment, brimming with the series' trademark satirical humour and eccentricity, but whereas 18 months ago it seemed a technical marvel, 18 months on it's merely at the handsome end of competent, and drops frames more noticeably than an epileptic optometrist. And the core of GTA is very much still going to icons on the mini-map to receive a briefing and then driving somewhere to do some shooting, or similar.

Mechanics are solid but unspectacular, and lack the finesse intervening games have standardised. The cover-based third-person gunplay, for example, is sticky, and awkward in close quarters, and you never feel as comfortable as you do in comparable action games when you're moving around on foot. Sometimes, as when jumping or navigating buildings, it's as though the programmers spent so long making the world around you operate properly that they struggled to accommodate your need to touch it. The driving physics have also proven divisive. With that said, modern GTA is less frustrating than it was on PS2 and Xbox in many respects; you can even restart missions without having to go off and buy your guns again. Progress!

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The Lost and Damned's motorcycles are perhaps its strongest characters. When I first lost Johnny Klebitz's Hexer in the river I was grumpy for several minutes.

One thing that hasn't changed throughout GTA's 3D history is Rockstar's approach to the framework of the game and its systems. Everything you can do is introduced as if by a serious man with thick eyebrows: the camera points at something, and a box of text appears to explain how it works. Learn. Not for Rockstar, then, the in-line tutorials that blur the lines between fiction and mechanics in other, more self-conscious action adventures. Given the sometimes-negative press the GTA games attract, perhaps someone somewhere decided very early on to make the line between reality and the game world as whopping as possible.

But let's face it, you probably have played GTAIV, so you know all this. Whatever your situation, the two discrete episodes included in this bundle complement one another very well. The Lost and Damned, first released in February, tells the story of a violent power struggle within the Alderney chapter of The Lost Motorcycle Club, and the perils of trying to live by an ageing creed - that, in the words of one character, "Life is pain, and through this life of brotherhood we can give pain the finger." The Ballad of Gay Tony, meanwhile, focuses on how wicked it is to jump out of helicopters wearing a parachute.

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