You really have to hand it to Rockstar. When downloadable content was in its infancy, and many developers simply saw countless opportunities to make some easy money, Rockstar came and set a benchmark that still stands to this day. Both of its miniature sequels to the seminal Grand Theft Auto 4, originally released via DLC exclusively on Xbox 360, couldn’t have been any further away from being a glib cash-in. Their overall quality rivaled that of GTA IV, they offered what is still a totally uncommon degree of value for money, and they gave this rendition of Liberty City an explosive and satisfying kiss-off.

When the first episode ‘The Lost And Damned’ was released last year, many people commented that were they so inclined, Rockstar could easily have sold it as a full-price retail product, such was the quality and size of what the project offered up. The same was said of the equally superb ‘The Ballad Of Gay Tony’ when that arrived a few months afterwards, and the stand-alone bundling of the two games together represents nothing less than an essential purchase for fans and newcomers alike.

The writing, so effortlessly noteworthy in Grand Theft Auto IV, is (if anything) even more assured and enjoyable here. The Lost And Damned puts you into the grimy leathers of Johnny Klebitz, the vice president of a haphazard, murderous and anarchic biker gang called The Lost Motorcycle Club. The story opens as the gang’s president Billy Grey returns after a spell in prison, kicking the plot’s main engine into gear. For all its action, The Lost And Damned is really about the power struggle that ensues between the two men, with Billy’s penchant for causing (often needless) mayhem rankling with the restrained and careful organisation that Johnny managed to sculpt in his absence.

The Ballad Of Gay Tony on the other hand is a molasses-black comedy, with the titular character trying to pull himself out of the world’s biggest rut. Tony Prince is an aging nightclub impresario; drug addicted, heavily in debt, and with all of his many businesses all on the wane. You play Tony’s right hand man Luis, and you’re tasked with taking increasingly extreme measures to help your boss to get himself, and his businesses, back on track. The pair’s plausible and amusing odd couple dialogue is one of the game’s most distinctive pleasures.

There are new additions to both games, with new weapons, vehicles and (in The Ballad Of Gay Tony) a supremely entertaining BASE jumping and skydiving dynamic. There are new multiplayer modes (Witness Protection being a particular standout) and now there are, fantastically, mid-mission checkpoints, which will hopefully be standard practice for games of this ilk from hereon in. You may get frustrated during the tougher missions at the back-end of both stories, but it’ll never be the fault of the software.

For those players who only ever visit the GTA series for its constant flux of ingenious action set-pieces, then be aware that there is certainly no shortage of cast-iron classics here. But for those who come just as much for the story as the action (and this should really be everyone) then these two titles arguably show Rockstar functioning at their absolute creative peak. The stories interweave (both with GTA IV and each other) as wittily as you’d expect, and the comparatively taut duration of both tales means that there is a complete absence of filler.

These episodes were only ever intended to stand in the shadow of GTA IV – optional extras for those that couldn’t get enough of life in Liberty City. They may be shorter, and they may not be blessed with the shock-of-the-new, but together they make for an almost incomparable experience, and one that is totally worthy of standing toe-to-toe with the estimable masterpiece that spawned it.

Watch the Grand Theft Auto: Episodes From Liberty City trailer here…

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