If you think DLC is sometimes a little overpriced, spare a thought for Microsoft: they've dropped an alleged fifty million dollars on exclusive episodes for GTAIV. I don't know about you, but that certainly puts that drunken Mr Driller purchase into context for me.
Then again, this is GTAIV we're talking about, so Microsoft's investment is probably something of a sure thing. With The Lost and Damned, the first of two downloadable mission packs, available on 17th February, DLC will be getting another landmark moment: yet one more star to stick on the timeline along with the price fumble over horse armour, the inexplicable generosity of Burnout Paradise, and that time they broke Lumines down into little pieces and sold us each glittering fragment separately.
But there might be some wider significance to The Lost and Damned too. Because, despite the brilliance of the execution, despite the massive sales and endless plaudits, more than a few people felt that GTAIV was a game that was being (enjoyably) tugged in two directions. On one side was the dazzling parade of empathetic characters and gut-churning decisions, and on the other side were the traditional impromptu crime sprees, the rampages, and the inevitable comical mishap that erupted whenever I, at least, got behind the wheel of a motor. GTA was always designed to let you misbehave, but with the fourth game a lot of people found themselves reluctant to do so.
Part of this may be down to the character of Niko himself, a leading man troubled, at times, by his own integrity. With The Lost and Damned, he's almost entirely absent, and with a new main character, there's the chance that the more excessive San Andreas side of the GTA that some felt was missing from IV may mesh more naturally with the series' increasing desire to tell stories.
That new character, rather brilliantly, is that most unrepresented of videogame demographics, a Jewish biker. Johnny Klebitz will be recognisable to anyone who played through a good chunk of Bellic's story, and with a Hell's Angels type behind the handlebars, Rockstar has potentially found a lead more suited to unloading ballistic disaster onto the population of Liberty City. He's hardly about to strap on a rocketpack, but you suspect he probably has friends who might own one, at least.
Yet Lost and Damned isn't about to ditch the intimate character drama that made GTAIV so memorable - it remains a story-driven experience, and the story is the tense, ever-ticking time bomb kind of affair. Johnny is vice president of The Lost, one of Liberty City's two main biker gangs, and he's been running the show while Billy, the boss, has been stuck in rehab. With Johnny in charge, The Lost have tempered their approach somewhat, easing up on a turf war with rival gang Angels of Darkness, in order to focus on more peaceful activities, like keeping a roaring drugs business going.
The game kicks off with the boss's return. Billy resembles a shaven-headed Santa Claus emerging from a prolonged stay in a concentration camp where he picked up a major thing for leather waistcoats: he's got an excellent line in crazy stares, and can't wait to get the gang back to its all-shooting, all-head-stomping roots. Conflict's inevitably brewing, then, and Lost and Damned's set-up feels a bit like a redneck version of The Apprentice, but with shotgun fire-fights instead of boardroom showdowns.
In gameplay terms, the biggest change is that, while Niko was often a lonely figure on missions, Johnny is regularly surrounded by his gang, who provide backup in battles, and company on the road. Thankfully, they take care of themselves pretty well, with no need for Tom Clancy-style squad controls. Instead, there's a subtle incentive to keep them alive by watching their backs during shoot-outs: any gang members who survives a mission will gradually level up, becoming harder to kill, and sharper of shot. If they're offed, however, they'll be replaced by less useful newcomers, and the process begins anew.
Keeping a weather eye on your team isn't the only way the developer wants to make you feel part of the gang. In an attempt to make driving from A to B with a convoy of fellow bikers more entertaining, Rockstar has added a gentle, and entirely optional, mini-game. A tag is projected onto the ground behind the lead biker, and driving within it for a set period of time will result in a health boost as well as extra dialogue from the rest of the gang, either filling in more details on the mission, or a-gripin' and a-cussin' about the boss. It's hardly the most elaborate reward, but it's a stylish touch, and proves surprisingly addictive on longish journeys.
Rockstar has been gently tweaking elsewhere, too: bike handling has been subtly revised, with Johnny's thick-tyred custom model hugging the road with a greater sense of weight, and a range of new weapons have been sprinkled into the mix. The headline-grabbers are a vicious sawn-off shotgun which can pop enemy riders from their bikes in a single blast of gritty smoke, and a grenade launcher which fires with a sound just like one of those automatic tennis ball lobbers, and sends distant cars and unwitting pedestrians flaming into the air in lazy arcs just unlike one of those automatic tennis ball lobbers. More enjoyable, however, is the new automatic 9mm, which fires rounds in speedy succession and can chew through an enemy's health bar in a matter of seconds. Like all the best videogame weapons, it's so darkly satisfying to use that you feel slightly guilty.
Both the weapons and the rebalanced bikes are front and centre in the handful of missions Rockstar has revealed so far. Angels in America and Action/Reaction provide a swift kick-off, as Johnny and Billy chase down some rivals before letting rip with the grenade launcher in what turns out to be a protracted indoors/outdoors fire-fight, while Buyer's Market is one of a small number of missions that crosses over directly with GTAIV's timeline. A drug deal gone wrong, with Niko turning up for the ride, any pleasure in catching up with an old friend is short-lived, as Rockstar prefers to redesign rather than recycle, kicking off Johnny's slice of the action at the same point that Niko's original mission ended, and turning a journey up through an apartment complex into a panicky SWAT attack, and ensuing escape.
Perhaps the most enjoyable mission so far, however, is Shifting Weight - an on-rails piggyback ride on the passenger seat of a dealer's bike, as Johnny evades police roadblocks and wave after wave of cop cars, with the aid of a near-unstoppable automatic shotgun. It's here that Lost and Damned really starts to makes sense, its explosive excess clicking perfectly with a main character who can convincingly play the part of a freewheeling desperado while still finding time to worry in a gruff sort of way about what the boss might be up to. Innocent Hummers are lofted through railings as helicopters spiral sleepily out of the sky, while an exploding gas station and detour through a car showroom are on hand to provide a little slow-mo spectacle, and at the centre of it all is an angry biker with a semi-ridiculous weapon: it's good to be back in Liberty City again.
While some may be put-off by the absence of a new island to explore, 1600 Microsoft Points will buy you what Rockstar is pitching as content equal to roughly one third of the original game's missions, along with a range of new multiplayer modes, none of which have been revealed so far. The real prize, however, may not lie in the numbers game and the careful totting up of new material, but in the simple way a fresh pair of eyes and a new set of wheels allows you to enjoyably revisit such an expansive, detailed playground. Niko will be missed, but who can turn down a weekend with a bunch of low-down bikers?
Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned is due out exclusively for Xbox 360 on 17th February, priced 1600 Microsoft Points (GBP 13.60 / EUR 19.20).