GTA4 took a massive step away from the previously established titles (such as San Andreas) by introducing a much higher level of realism. This proved to be something of a technical marvel, but also seemed to be at the expense of some of the fun the series was so well known for. Taking a darker tone with a harder edge seemed to work, however: GTA4 sold in droves, and many hailed it as the pinnacle of modern gaming. Certainly the combination of good characters and deep storylines really told a tale in ways few other titles could, but some of the trademark humour was lost in translation to the need to develop both the city and the characters. However, using the city as the backdrop once again, Rockstar developed two expansion packs that tell interesting stories without the need for the extended training sessions: we know Liberty City by now, letting the characters shine, and the tales turn more tightly.
Episodes from Liberty City combines both stories into one pack: there is little crossing over, and each is played separately, but the title succeeds in making the city an even bigger place than before. First up is The Lost and The Damned, the tale of Johnny Klebitz, deputy in one of Liberty City´s fallen biker gangs named The Lost. Johnny's psychopathic club president Billy has just been released from prison, and is less than happy at his gangs decline in influence: instead of ruling with an iron fist, Johnny has been working with other gangs to bring stability to the city. Unimpressed with where the gang is heading, Johnny decides to make good before the sun goes down on the crew, but Billy has other ideas: cue The Lost forcing their way back into control by any means necessary.
TLaTD is a decent yet murky tale: Johnny is a tough protagonist to like, and gives Niko a run for his money with the burly-tough-guy attitude, but the gang as a whole shine as the story plays out. The addition of new weapons (sawn-off shotguns, anyone?) don´t change the combat too much, but it is the addition of vehicle ownership that is the strangest thing to get used to in a GTA game. Johnny´s bike is the centre of his world, and missions involve you having to collect it after finishing your business: in a game where we have been used to taking the first available getaway car, this feels strange. However, the handling and control of the bikes is seriously improved (you are a badass biker, after all), and riding around does feel a lot more fun than in previous titles. TLaTD doesn't break any new ground, but still maintains the feeling of a typical GTA story.
The second title is The Ballad of Gay Tony: "Gay Tony" Prince has dropped himself in huge debt with almost everyone, and needs to pay his bills without losing his position of party king of Liberty. As the pressure builds, Tony sinks into midlife crisis and relies on his number one man, Luis Lopez. You, as Luis, need to pay the bills, keep up appearances, and look after Tonys mother (?) to keep the empire from crumbling. Cue a combination of hits, partying, property destruction and more to prevent Tony´s world, and by extension yours, from falling down around you.
TBoGT is a refreshing change from TLaTD: taking a more traditional GTA approach, Luis is prepared to do whatever it takes to get the job done, leading to far more over-the-top set pieces and silly humour than we get with either Niko or Johnny. I certainly had the most fun with this episode: sky diving and digital wangs aside (oh yes!), Luis and Tony make for a great pair of main characters, and the setting allows for more stereotypical bad guys. This is the episode that evokes the fun of Vice City: balancing cartoonlike characters with the childish glee of just blowing things up, and never seeming to take the subject matter seriously, TBoGT is for me the best story yet. Add in the fun of playing nightclub owner and Tony´s fantastic lines (particularly when his friends think he is losing it), and this chapter will make you laugh more than the other two combined.
Both titles offer more of the same in the presentation department: the city still looks great, and as the stories run concurrently with Niko´s, you can still use all the shortcuts you remember, and the districts remain untouched. The sound is still fantastic too: aside from more fun radio stations and music (Self-Actualization FM is hilarious!), once again, GTA sets the bar for in game voice acting. Characters really do pop to life, and although TLaTD is filled with repetitive bikers, Gay Tony makes up for it with some of the best characters yet.
The two titles run at around 15 hours each, and each has its own line in side quests too, offering even more reason to spend hours lost in the sleazy underworld. Multiplayer is more of the same, with a few new game modes added in and a serious bump in firepower. Particularly fun are Chopper vs Chopper (essentially helicopter vs bike in a checkpoint vs death competition), and Witness Protection (one team protect a van whilst the other team try to take it out on their bikes). Suffice to say, if GTA4 kept you online for some time, Episodes will draw you back in for hours more.
Seeing as Rockstar wisely offered the package as a budget standalone title, Episodes from Liberty City could be one of the best value-for-money expansions since The Shivering Isles. Yes, little has changed with the city itself, but the stories are once again good, and it is still an excellent experience that stands head and shoulders above almost any other title out there. And Gay Tony in particular finally offers what most GTA fans had been waiting for: a return to the excessive, sometimes unbelievable world of gangsters, violence, and inane humour that the series made its name with. The pack isn´t going to pull in any new fans: if you really didn´t like GTA4, you still won´t be impressed with Episodes either. However, if you like your characters and stories well made, and enjoy a bit of wanton violence, then Episodes is a must-have for any gamer.
As an expansion, ELC is merely a tweaked version of GTA4, but still, we are essentially re-icing the cake. Gameplay, as ever, is great, with driving, shooting and more of a standard rarely seem in today's titles.
Episodes finally sorts out the last of GTA4´s glitches, blending shadows and rough edges nicely. The city is smooth, characters look great while still retaining a hint of cartoon edges, and once again, the quality of design shines through, once again bringing Liberty City to life.
From the great radio stations to the sound effects to the voice acting, Rockstar have pulled out all the stops. Believable characters and a living city are largely in part due to some top notch audio work.
Blending value for money with some of the best gaming today's machines have to offer, there really is very little reason to pass ELC by, unless you really detest the series. Offering more game than many full titles, TLaTD and particularly Gay Tony keep the franchise rolling forward, and never sink into cash-in territory. A must-have title for nearly all of today's gamers.