They may be slick at offering up topical crime and zeroing in on the most laughable elements of popular culture, but the area in which Rockstar's developers really excel has always been architecture. Long after the radio stations have lost their zing, and the story mode's been cleaned out, GTA's environments continue to deliver freeform mayhem in a way few other games can. Liberty City is not just a brilliant pastiche of New York, it's New York boiled down to its key landmarks and textures, and then blended with the best aspects of a theme park: looping highways to spin around, sudden unexpected jumps hidden in the strangest of places, and an effortless ability to frame shiny spectacle at just the right moment.
That's probably why the team had no qualms about staging GTA IV's multiplayer in the same mean streets its campaign walked down. It's a trend that continues with The Lost and Damned: once again, when you head towards the online lobbies, Rockstar hands over the keys to Liberty City in its entirety, and the new content is not a handful of new boroughs and a scattering of unexplored streets, but a range of new modes, all designed as variations on a theme. Alongside the traditional deathmatch and race options, each of the expansion's new challenges puts a novel twist on tried and trusted dynamics. A recent chance to try a few of them out suggests the strategy's likely to pay off.
Even the most basic offering will be enough to win many gamers over. While GTA IV already has perfectly serviceable combat-focused race events, the magical combination of motorbikes and baseball bats unexpectedly turns Rockstar's moody epic into that cheerful Road Rash remake you've always wanted. The mechanics are unmistakable, and it's handled with the lightest of touches, X and A allowing you to lash out on either side, while holding down the button charges your attacks. It's a bare-bones system, but that just gives you more time to take in the courses, which swing you on a series of rigorously angled tours of the city's more cinematic spots – of the two we played, Middle Ground dumps you into a rain-soaked downtown, while Beaches flings you out along the waterfront, threading the chase through unexpected alleyways and past the fairground, before eventually sliding between the wooden spars of the pier.
Things get noticeably more complex with Own the City, a tug-of-war land grab that looses teams of bikers onto the islands to take control of various territories, and then hang onto them until the clock runs out. It's an evolution of Turf War: target districts are highlighted in slabs of bright colour on the mini-map, and while you initially take over an area by shooting it out with AI-driven Defenders, the real fun starts once you move into enemy-controlled streets and take on rival players. Play it like a deathmatch, and Own the City will initially confuse you - the real pleasure comes with the strategy, as your gang slowly starts to work as a team, gambling on how many people should stay behind to defend captured territory, and how many should head out into other boroughs in the name of aggressive expansion.
As with all the multiplayer modes, although you start on your bike, you're by no means limited to it. Long matches tend to devolve into a series of increasingly desperate vehicular experiments, as you rope in hatchbacks, sports cars, and even the odd station wagon to try and ram home your advantage most effectively. When you throw in the prospect of a wandering Gun Van, which, if hijacked, can be driven around to each team-mate to supply new weapons, there's the possibility that Own the City may have a few too many ideas for its own good; but its street-by-street brawling and endless opportunities for revenge seem promising so far.
Witness Protection is another team event. It casts one side as N.O.O.S.E. agents, dropping off prisoners at various police stations around the city, while the other team plays as the Lost, with the charmingly straightforward task of killing everyone instead. It's a simple game, with the slow chug of the police van (driven by a randomly selected player) setting the pace. But the chaos as waves of attacking Lost skirmish with N.O.O.S.E agents in squad cars often erupts outwards for several blocks in every direction, promising that even if you lose your way and can't catch up with the main event, there's still plenty of radiating violence to get stuck into.
Elsewhere, Lone Wolf Biker provides an explosive study in victimisation: one player becomes the target, and everyone else has to take him out. Whoever does – whether by bullet, pipe-bomb, or a good honest school bus through the brain – then becomes the target themselves, and the chase continues.
This is just the kind of inspired cruelty Rockstar is made for. Lone Wolf Biker takes the roles of griefer and griefee and knots them together so tightly that, in the inevitable cluster of violent role-reversals that marks each game, each moment of victory swiftly turns into blind panic, as the entire hunt pack descends. The game also serves as an insight into just how carefully Rockstar puts together its chaos and keeps it stoked over the course of a long round, whether it's in the ten seconds of invulnerability after you become the target, which allows you to scrape together the barest of strategies, or the way in which the checkpointed path you then have to follow constantly doubles back on itself, ensuring that even the most incompetent straggler will accidentally back themselves into the action every few minutes.
Finally, Chopper vs Chopper is a straightforward game of one-on-one, with a single malicious twist: one of the choppers is a helicopter. Once again, the biker moves between checkpoints, while the chopper pilot has to try and take him out, and the resulting bloodbath is a deft balance of vulnerable manoeuvrability on the streets and heavily-armed klutzishness in the sky.
So the Lost and Damned provides a smart range of modes, but will it be enough? Despite the clever variety that the original game's multiplayer offered, and the fairly large audience who takes to its streets weekly, it's hard to argue that GTA IV has had the same success with online multiplayer as Halo or Gears or Call of Duty has had. Perhaps that's down to the series' over-powering focus on the single-player game - or, more likely, the inherent nature of sandbox titles, which often give you ample opportunity to carry out all sorts of extra-curricular screwing around without even leaving the campaign mode. Whatever the reason may be, if you do choose to explore the other, more populated, side of Liberty City this time around, you'll likely find the same wit and care that characterises the story mode. And you won't have to spend a few hours learning the new maps, either.