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!
Although Rockstar may not be adding much to the footprint of Liberty City with The Lost and Damned - conjuring a fresh island out of the muddy rivers, or laying down a fine spray of new skyscrapers, flyovers, and dockyards - the company has been hard at work building stories; sculpting new characters, fabricating dense relationship networks of cause and effect, and plumbing in a buried system of deadly motives and smouldering resentment. The Lost and Damned's narrative sees the developer on top form, creating an unnerving pressure-cooker tale that draws on the familiar GTA themes of hierarchy, revenge, and going for a drive with a passenger who doesn't mind it when you flip the car at an intersection and plant it upside down in a bakery.
This time it's the bikers who hog the spotlight. Johnny Klebitz has been in charge of The Lost Motorcycle Club while the President, Billy Grey, has been in rehab. Billy's out now, and somewhat perturbed to see his rowdy fightin' and fumin' street gang turned into a (relatively) smooth-running corporation, a truce in place with long-time rivals The Angels of Death, and a new strategy based on lying low and allowing the flourishing narcotics business to bring in the money. It's old versus new, then, and within the space of one mission, dangerous tensions are simmering away between Johnny and Billy, with the stage set for a conflict that could tear the gang apart.
While the tale is simple enough, the telling is brilliant and often devilishly subtle. Johnny and Billy are entirely empathetic leads - the former gruff yet care-worn, the latter gently terrifying, but somehow touching - and their performances set new standards for videogame naturalism. The story's topical themes find time to take in elections, the recession, and the knotty question of good governance, and while there are shoot-outs, explosions, chases, and car-jackings, Rockstar's greatest talent is for restraint - refusing again and again to let the main characters' feud spill over into actual violence, until the sense of impending doom is almost unbearable. The game may revel in an open world, but, once more, Liberty City's citizens are thoroughly trapped: hemmed in by financial imperatives, pathetic addictions, and outdated thinking. Videogames don't often ask you to think of their characters in this way.