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).