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Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned

Rockstar takes this in an exciting new direction, creating a fresh story and cast for an existing backdrop, and bringing with it a host of improvements.

Downloadable content for videogames has traditionally consisted of new missions or levels that simply expand the experience. Rockstar takes this in an exciting new direction with “Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned,” creating a fresh story and cast for an existing backdrop, and bringing with it a host of improvements. The effort is a major success in the areas of animation and characterization. However, “The Lost and Damned” is also a structural mess, with elements awkwardly borrowed from “GTA IV” and a story that never gels, resulting in an experience that will leave fans a bit unsatisfied.

The creative minds at Rockstar have never been shy to admit their cinematic influences, and they have drawn heavily — often explicitly — from the best crime dramas. Their intentions with “The Lost and Damned” are different. As even the fonts scream, this game is a Western, with an aging motorcycle gang standing in for a frontier town obsessed with honor and vengeance.

Unlike previous “GTA” protags, most of whom have been hustlers making their way in the big city, Johnny Klebitz is the last of a dying breed — and the very idea of a motorcycle gang in 2009 is openly mocked. Rockstar exceeds its own high standards with the characters here, playing on tropes without relying on stereotypes.

Johnny is an aging but not yet bitter believer in the ethos of the Lost, best summed up at one point as: “Life is pain, and through this life, through this brotherhood, we can give pain the finger.” He’s beset  by problems including a former gang president fresh out of jail and a drug-addicted ex-girlfriend he just can’t quit. The characterization is helped by solid voice acting and expressive animation that far outdoes the stiff movements in “GTA IV.”

Yet while “The Lost and Damned” sets things up precisely and ends with a poignant epilogue, there’s not a well-thought-out arc in between. Much like protag Niko Bellic in “GTA IV,” Johnny ping-pongs between amusingly unsavory types — some borrowed from the previous game — doing dirty work in an effort to survive. Though most of these missions are well designed — a police chase while shooting from the back of a motorcycle is particularly exciting — they’re similar to what players have seen before, and they don’t fit as well here.

Niko was a war-damaged sociopath who’d kill almost anyone for a buck and repeatedly faces consequences for his moral choices. But Johnny, introduced as a conservative voice in his gang, just doesn’t seem like the type who’d blow away dozens of cops because it suits his interests.

Furthermore, many of the missions have no real relevance to the story or themes. There’s a distinct sense that players are just marking time until the inevitable showdown with the gang’s ex-president. When it finally comes, it’s not a faceoff but a hugely unsatisfying bloodbath that doesn’t fit the characters or effectively tie into the game’s themes.

Nonetheless, for fans of open-world action, there’s still nothing better than “GTA.” While it’s primarily a follow-up to “IV,” with the same setting and gameplay mechanics, “The Lost and Damned” shakes things up by putting players on a bike, which makes them nimble but more vulnerable. In addition, as part of a gang, Johnny can call on backup for many of his missions; they often help by setting smart traps, rather than just riding in, guns a-blazin’. And there are numerous new elements that perfectly fit the game, from songs such as Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” on the radio to new multiplayer modes designed around motorcycles and gangs.

Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned

Production: A Rockstar presentation of a game developed by Rockstar North for the Xbox 360. Rated M. $20

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