VOTY: Value of the Year?

Thanks to an exclusive multi million dollar contract with Microsoft, Xbox 360 owners were treated to two expansions to the 2008 smash hit, Grand Theft Auto 4. The first expansion, The Lost and Damned, was released on March. The second, The Ballad of Gay Tony, was released in Mid October. At the same time of Gay Tony’s release, Rockstar and Microsoft have released the standalone GTA: Episodes from Liberty City, which is a self contained disc with the two expansions, with the original game not required and sold at 40 dollars instead of 60. Suffice to say, this disc has some of the most quality grade material for such a cheap price, making it a great bargain.

While both expansions take place within the same Liberty City as the original GTA IV, the gameplay between the two expansions tend to lean on different directions, thanks in part to its narrative focus between the two games. In the Lost and Damned, you take the role of Johnny, 2nd in command of the Lost, one of the motorcycle gangs that inhabit Liberty City. The game revolves around the Biker gang as their leader is released from prison with a thirst for carnage and mayhem, which may not be in the same direction as Johnny and the rest of the crew. In The Ballad of Gay Tony, you play Luis Lopez, the business partner and right hand man of Tony Prince, also known as Gay Tony. Being the owner of the most popular gay and straight nightclubs in Liberty City is a very costly one, financially and mentally, which leads to a wild, over the top adventure with high stakes and over the top sequences.

Both games have weapons and mechanics exclusive to their expansions. The Lost and Damned feature improved bike physics and several new types of motorcycles, along with new weapons like the grenade launcher and double barreled shotgun. Also featured is the club mechanic. The more you use your bike members, the higher their effectiveness becomes, with some of them upgrading their arsenals as well. Bear in mind though that if they die, they’re gone for good. A nice touch to this is in your clubhouse, they have a wall dedicated to members that have died over the course of the story. Overall, the story in the Lost and Damned has its moments of lightheartedness, but is mainly a story of brotherhood, betrayal, and revenge, which can be rather somber, similar to the original GTA IV.

The Ballad of Gay Tony goes on a completely different direction. The high life is a dangerous one indeed as you'll find yourself hijacking helicopters on yachts, jumping out of helicopters, while nitrous fueled racing, cage fighting, and partying (and managing) nightclubs is considered downtime. Every mission as the story progresses continues to put Luis is more over the top situations. While it's narrative may not be as engaging as the Niko's hardships and the Internal/External Conflict of the Lost, it's still has its own charm with an engaging cast, including Tony Prince himself.

While there are no major overarching mechanics like the Biker Gang Mechanic from the Lost and Damned, Gay Tony sports several minigames and weapons that hearken back to the days of San Andreas. New items include the parachute, Automatic pistol, Sticky grenades, and the satisfying overkill from an automatic shotgun filled with explosive rounds. Lost and Damned offers a new comedian for their comedy club, along with the air hockey minigames among others. Gay Tony's minigames include several minigames in the club, including dancing, playing bouncer, and a drinking minigame. Another major addition is the golf range, but unfortunately don't offer any new comedy clubs, though there are more TV shows to watch on both expansions.

Nothing new can be said about the audio in this game that hasn't been said before. The voice acting is top notch and fits with all their characters.  Another high point was always their radio stations, which do not disappoint. Exclusive to the Stories from Liberty City disc is Vice City FM, playing catchy 80s tracks while DJ'ed by Fernando, a mainstay from the old Grand Theft Auto games. Sound effects are still there and done well, from explosions to gun shots to the roar of bike engines. Rockstar still offers some of the best sound design in games and these expansions are no exception.

Graphically, the game still holds up pretty well, with few hiccups in frame rates but nothing too noticeable. Other than some texture pop in, the game looks good consistently, which is fitting for such a large playground such as Liberty City. The Lost and Damned also sports a grainy filter, giving the game a grimier look to fit the theme. It may not be appealing to some players though, and the filter can be turned off thankfully. While its character models might not look as good compared to games nowadays, their building geometry, especially the interiors of the nightclubs, are very impressive and are definite graphical highlights, along with their slick animation.

Even though I'm reviewing two expansions to Grand Theft Auto IV, it sounds more like I'm reviewing two full featured games. Each has its own specific flavor and exclusive additions on top of the solid core GTA IV gameplay. Packaged together at 40 dollars, along with a minimum length of 20 hours between both expansions (without counting the various other activities the expansions offer) which is longer than a lot of full priced games, GTA: Stories from Liberty is practically a steal when taking into considering the amount of gameplay and quality that is matched only by a few.  If you enjoy open world games, or want to get some top quality gaming, there is no better game I can recommend, especially for its price.

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