Take Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto IV too seriously and you'll probably miss most of what it's up to. It's a game, of course, but it's also a biting, unremitting satire. Juvenile-seeming to some, sure, with its lewd and frequently misogynist humor, but no less a scathing sendup of American culture when you strip the top layers away. It's a mirror, but one held up to our silly instead of our serious side. A parody of parodies. A bad-boy-burlesque. That it even offends other satirists (who take special pleasure in calling it sophomoric) simply proves its point.
And now there's a sequel of sorts called "The Lost and Damned," or a parallel narrative expansion if you want to get technical about it. But with anywhere from 15 to 40 hours of play time for just 1600 Microsoft Points ($20) it packs more to-dos than you'll find in most standalone $60 games.
It's a bold move on Rockstar's part, an experiment of sorts but also something of risk, since it's arriving as both Xbox 360-exclusive and in downloadable-only form. You can still buy the game at retail in the form of a key card, but I'd wager most gamers will circumvent the middleman. What's to benefit you tripping all the way to the mall for a glorified piece of media-less plastic?
Oh right, the Xbox 360-exclusive bit. Sorry PlayStation 3 owners, Microsoft ponied up $50 million for exclusive rights to host the expansion. I guess that's more or less what the "potential compromised PS3 sales" tally came to once the numbers were properly projected and crunched. Some have speculated it might hop platforms once Microsoft's exclusivity deal expires, but that assumes there's in fact an expiry date.
As for the game itself, think in thirds, as in one-third the story missions of the original. Nico Bellic is out, replaced by Johnny Klebitz, a 34-year-old leader in a biker gang. If you played the original, Klebitz is the guy that helps Niko watch over a heroin deal, and who later chips in on a mission involving conflict diamonds. Did I say Niko was out? Not entirely. Since Johnny and Nico's stories overlap, Nico's in for a cameo here.
In "The Lost and Damned," Klebitz is subbing for his gang leader who's in rehab, and trying to make nice with the competition. When his shoot-first-compromise-never boss gets out, however, management styles clash, leading to all sorts of familial mayhem.
Game-wise, Rockstar's added several new multiplayer modes, like "Cops vs. Bikers" (bikers try to take out a bus protected by cops) and "Chopper vs. Chopper" (helicopter vs. bike...and no, I'm not joshing). You also get a few new weapons like grenade launchers and sawed-off shotguns, and when Johnny's sitting a bike, it'll handle much more responsively than vehicles as operated by Niko. The biggest change? Mission checkpoints, which eliminate all that extra driving to and from the scene of the crime if you're offed prematurely. (Sadly, though, it's not retroactive to the main game.)
Will the "The Lost and Damned" succeed as a 360 exclusive? Probably. It's Grand Theft Auto IV, isn't it? You're looking at over 16 million Xbox 360s in the U.S. alone, with over 4 million copies sold stateside, and per my last chat with Microsoft about subscriber numbers, over two-thirds have Xbox Live Gold accounts. Potential br and new sales aside, if only half that 4 million download the expansion, it's still as many transactions as copies purchased of the U.S. PlayStation 3 original.
Matt Peckham's late to the party with his copy of The Lost and Damned, so he hasn't had time to tinker with it yet. You can alternatively follow his experiences with Relic's Dawn of War II (real-time strategy in the Warhammer 40k universe) at twitter.com/game_on.