Johnny Klebitz is the vice-president of the Lost, a Liberty City motorbike gang. He's in charge because the club president, Billy Grey, has been in jail on drug charges. Unfortunately, when Billy is released he is quick to assert his leadership, reigniting a gang war with the rival Angels of Death and breaking a truce which Johnny had worked hard to create. As Billy gets out of control, Johnny reluctantly follows his orders and undertakes a life of crime and chaos in the city...until the opportunity to take part in a diamond heist results in a sequence of events that will rock the whole city to its core.
The Lost and the Damned is a self-contained expansion pack to Grand Theft Auto IV. It builds on the setting and events of GTA4, though it's a game in its own right which does not require the original to run. However, the storyline of The Lost and the Damned entwines around that of GTA4, and foreknowledge of GTA4 definitely improves the playing experience.
At first glance, The Lost and the Damned is GTA as normal. You control a morally dubious central character and are given free reign of a huge city in which various tasks can be performed. Most of these tasks revolve around a developing storyline, with missions building on one another to form one long narrative. However, there is nothing to stop you from just cruising around the massive city listening to the radio if you wish. There are also bonus and side-objectives that can be accomplished. In The Lost and the Damned these optional missions enhance the storyline. The Lost are at war with the Angels of Death through most of the game, and at almost any point you can attend a flashpoint where your fellow gang members and a bunch of Angels will face off in combat. This can lead to running gun battles on foot, bike duels or car chases. The other major optional task is taking part in bike races. To ensure the Lost's reputation as daredevil motorbike riders is kept intact, Johnny has to race other bikers and uphold the Lost's street cred. Because these tasks are thematically in keeping with the main game plot, it gives The Lost and the Damned a more cohesive feel than other GTA games, where the optional missions and tasks are sometimes just random bits of mayhem with no connection to the rest of the game.
The game's central storyline is, as is normally the case with Rockstar, well-written and darkly humourous, although not immune to gangster/crime cliches. As normal, Rockstar cheerfully have no hang-ups about swearing, violence or drug-use and, for the first time in the series, resort to shots of full frontal nudity during one cut scene. However, possibly out of a sense of flipping the bird at their critics, this is of a male character and only comes at the end of a lengthy sequence in which the character's nudity has cheesily been hidden by scenery. Whilst not exactly the height of sophisticated comedy (a few other meta-fictional nods in the game at gang cliches or gaming conventions are more amusing), it's a wry nod at the frequent and vocal critics of the series.
The game encourages a degree of roleplaying: Johnny is a biker and is vocally unhappy behind the wheels of a car. This encourages the player to use his bike wherever possible. This is helped by the fact that The Lost and the Damned improves motorcycle handling and physics a lot over the over-sensitive bikes of GTA4 itself. Johnny can stay on his bike through collisions that would have sent Niko flying fifty feet through the air. There are also new mechanics for driving in formation with your gang, calling gangmembers for backup in the middle of firefights (this can be done even in the middle of story missions) and 'levelling up' your gangmates by helping them survive missions. Unfortunately, this latter mechanic is broken by the game's variable AI, which often has your gang-members charging head first into hails of gunfire from prepared enemy positions rather than seeking cover. Still, it's a nice idea and helps differentiate the game in tone and feel from GTA4.
The game takes place mostly on the other side of Liberty from where you started GTA4, and for the most part does a good job of exploring under-used parts of the city from that game. The game also has the entire city open to explore from the start (resulting in a minor continuity error, as early missions take place simultaneously with the opening of GTA4, when the bridges were still closed due to a terrorist threat). There's a general feeling of the game taking the training wheels off and letting you get on with what you want to get on with, moreso than GTA4 itself. You can still play darts or go bowling (or indulge in new activities, such as arm-wrestling your biker buddies), but mercifully no-one rings you up incessantly demanding that you hang out with them. One disappointment is that the racing and gang war sub-games don't play any major impact on the narrative. Given that these optional elements are an opportunity for you to prove your worthiness as a gang leader, it's a shame these elements are not reflected in the storyline (where one plot twist revolves around your trustworthiness and ability to lead coming into question).
Another problem is that The Lost and the Damned is a stand-alone title, but it's plot is somewhat obtuse if you have not played GTA4 ahead of time. There's a whole raft of storyline elements in the game that go nowhere and have no resolution (as they merely highlight events in GTA4 rather than in this game). As a traditional expansion pack (that would require the original game to play) servicing the original game this would make sense, but as a stand-alone story, The Lost and the Damned feels partially incomplete. Its own core narrative - Johnny's relationship with the Lost - does have a definitive arc and conclusion, however, and the game deserves plaudits for going with a remarkably bleak and bitter ending, almost as dark as GTA4's.
The Lost and the Damned (****) is a game that is a lot of fun. It's shorter and more concise than GTA4 itself and benefits from its greater focus and side-objectives that make much more sense within the context of the game. The missions are varied and the traditional black humour stops the game from becoming too po-faced. However, its storyline relies too heavily on GTA4's and it maintains the original game's issue of downplaying the wackiness of earlier GTA games in favour of sometimes dry (though well-acted) character drama. The game is available now in a collected package with GTA4 and The Ballard of Gay Tony on PC (UK, USA), X-Box 360 (UK, USA) and PlayStation 3 (UK, USA).