'GTA IV: The Lost And Damned' - This Is A Man's Game (A Review, Of Sorts)

"Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned" lets you do so much more than a man like hero Johnny Klebitz would ever do. I've finished the game. Here's my "review":

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"Grand Theft Auto" games have always been seen as guys' entertainment, but it's only the newest game that is really about men.

"Grand Theft Auto: The Lost and Damned," the new $20 downloadable expansion to the Xbox 360 version of "GTA IV" is not a family game, in that it's not about families.

'The Lost and Damned' is not a family game, in that it's not about families.

This isn't the story of C.J. returning to his brother and the neighborhood of his childhood in "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." This isn't Niko Bellic trying to make a better life for himself by meeting his cousin in America. This isn't "Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories"' mobster Toni Cipriani, hounded throughout his adventure by his mom.

Men push each other. They posture. The leaders and would-be leaders of a pack test each other. Men argue and snarl. Not every man will jump off his massage table, nude, and strut in front of a man who he just met as he asks him to commit murder. But that's in this game. For shock? I took it for tone.

This is a game about the men of a motorcycle gang, The Lost, but it could be the story of any group of men. It's all about men jockeying for position.

Consider this game's finest moment: a mission that sends our hero, Johnny Klebitz, across what would be New York's East River. He reaches the bridge on a bike of his own and finds a pack of other Lost members. The task of the moment is to ride to the front. Leader of the pack. When I did this, the game day was at midnight. I swung the camera to a rear view as headlights glared. Johnny Klebitz, in that moment, was a leader of men.

The citizens of Liberty City are fairly safe from Johnny Klebitz in a way they never were from Niko Bellic

You're directed into a different routine of violence in this game. You shoot guns in this game, but you seldom have need to jack cars. It's a smart bit of behavioral conditioning. So much is still possible in this "GTA," but you'll make Johnny only do some of it, because the mission structure and the goals -- maybe more so than the script -- defines Johnny as his own man with his own aggressions. No need to commit a grand theft auto: he can always get a bike by calling a friend. No need to run over civilians. On a bike, he can easily avoid running people over and might fall off his bike if he tries.

So the citizens of Liberty City are fairly safe from Johnny Klebitz in a way they never were from Niko Bellic. Johnny can still kidnap, shoot up a museum, and participate in a final mission that's more violent than anything rendered in a "GTA" in years. But he's a different kind of guy.

Johnny's Jewish. His ex-girlfriend is a junky. The guys in the Lost give him grief for these things, the way men do when they're bonding. Would Johnny get a prostitute? Would he check out a comedy show? Would he steal a taxi cab? Or ride a boat? He could -- I could make him -- but I didn’t think he would I didn't make him do those things. He does have those consistently sweet qualities of "GTA" heroes: they don't do drugs; they get together with people off all ethnicities.

Johnny's no star -- maybe a leader of men but no leading man.

Johnny's no star -- maybe a leader of men but no leading man. It's an interesting experience to be a "Lost and Damned" player in the world of "Grand Theft Auto IV." If you played Niko's adventure, you won't be able to shake the feeling that Johnny's a smaller fish, that he's over here while the great Niko Bellic is causing havoc over there. We're just seeing what Johnny and his friends were up to at the same time. He crosses paths with Niko Bellic and many other characters from "Grand Theft Auto IV." He's the reason certain things happened to Niko and Roman and others. They are the reason certain things happened to him. Johnny's a man who only sometimes wanders into the center of it all.

What of the game's mechanics? The bikes that handle better, the new gang wars and races to play in? The dirty laundry of the naked Congressman that needs throwing out? It's all good. It's a Rockstar North production, a work from a team that learned from the controls complaints of the older "GTA"s even if they persist in presenting this new, sterner "GTA" without the silly amusements of the past. There's no rainbow wig for Johnny Klebitz. He'd snarl and step on it anyway.

Gameplay surprises still lurk, including a few one-time-only camera tricks that allow missions to be viewed from within a prison bus or a police car trailing behind Johnny. The best stuff is made out of the standard toolset. Witness a fantastic tollbooth ambush and many a fiery mission in the industrial regions of New Jersey, where flames burn from factory fuel stacks.

The newest and best gameplay addition is, of course, about men.

The newest and best gameplay addition is, of course, about men. Johnny's got fellow Lost riders to back him up, their bikes trailing his, their guns adding to his own in a firefight. Sticking with them makes them better. That's the fate of the pack. Two Lost members, Clay and Terry, persevere no matter what and get stronger if Johnny keeps them alive through a mission. Before the end of the game, you'll be calling them to ride with Johnny even when they're not needed, not because they're simply help in a firefight, but because that's what these men would do.

From Rockstar themselves I was told that "The Lost and Damned" was something other than another Niko story about family and country. "Themes of loyalty and brotherhood that are just as interesting," studio v.p. Jeronimo Barrera had told me in a Lost and Damned Interview weeks ago. He was right.

It took me 12 hours to finish the core game with 68% of all new single-player content complete. This character and his story held together. Did the Lost hold together? Well, the title does say they're Damned.

Things happen to this band of men, in gameplay, in cutscenes -- and most daringly -- in some major ways that happen entirely off-camera. Their fate is spelled out. Whether the resolution of this group is indeed a damned loss depends only on your expectations for what men need of each other -- and where it is best for them to wind up.

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