Games 2/24/09: Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned, Halo Wars, Noby Noby Boy

Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned
For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live
From: Rockstar Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs and alcohol)
Requires: Grand Theft Auto IV game disc

No one really knew what it meant when Microsoft promised, seemingly forever ago and at a cost of 50 million of its own dollars, two exclusive downloadable additions to the Xbox version of “Grand Theft Auto IV.”

With the arrival of the $20 “The Lost and Damned,” it’s starting to make sense. Much like Rockstar changed the face of console gaming seven years ago with “Grand Theft Auto III,” it has now dramatically altered what owners of a $60 game should expect when a publisher asks them to invest additional funds atop the initial investment.

“Damned” doesn’t move the action away from Liberty City, and in fact takes place at the same time as the events you experienced as Niko Belic in “GTAIV.” This time, though, you’re filling the shoes of The Lost Motorcycle Club Vice President Johnny Klebitz, who made a cameo but little more in “GTAIV.” Fittingly, most of the action takes place in Alderney, which “GTAIV” presented in full but rarely utilized during its storyline.

In dismissive terms, it’s more of the same. But when your storytelling and voice acting exist in a class all their own — and a fantastic opening cutscene serves as stark reminder just how good Rockstar is at that stuff — a return to that level of quality after a 10-month layoff is entirely welcome. Expansion content or not, “Damned’s” single-player component is good for roughly 10 hours of gameplay, which is competitive with most games that cost triple the price. The new story makes stars out of a new crop of Liberty City citizens, lets us reconnect with a few familiar faces, and includes some fun side missions (biker gang turf wars and “Road Rash”-style bike races, to name two) to complement the main storyline.

Those bike races — which let you enjoy the vastly improved motorcycle physics while also knocking your friends off their rides with a bat — mark the best of “Damned’s” new multiplayer offerings, which mostly (and satisfactorily) remix existing “GTAIV” modes to incorporate the biker gang motif. The other arguable highlight: a two-player Chopper vs. Chopper mode, which has one player in a helicopter hunting an escaping player on a bike. Outside of the turf war modes, it marks the best multiplayer-centric use of Liberty City’s spacious geography.

Given that “Damned” is full-featured to the point that it feels like its own game, it makes sense that Rockstar treats it like a separate entity from “GTAIV” despite using assets from the original game. But that deep division also leads to “Damned’s” only major disappointment: The new weapons (six) and vehicles (17 new bikes, three fantastic new four-wheelers) work only in “Damned” and not in “GTAIV” proper.

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Halo Wars
For: Xbox 360
From: Ensemble Studios/Microsoft
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild blood, mild language, violence)

Easily the best thing about “Halo Wars” is the degree to which Ensemble Studios has translated the Xbox’s most recognized shooter into a real-time strategy game.

“Wars” steps backward to narrate the events that preceded the first “Halo” game, but it doesn’t dare get fancy with the franchise. The same three factions you’ve fought as or against all return in full, and the troops, vehicles and special facilities from those games are replicated here without exception. (Other staples, including the music, menu interface, mission scoring system and even the collectible hidden skulls that enable special cheats, are tucked inside as well.)

On the other hand, if you don’t care about “Halo” and want, as Ensemble promised, a PC-quality strategy game that’s made for a controller, some measure of disappointment lies ahead.

Yes, “Wars” streamlines the controls, making it effortless to manage units without performing the kind of acrobatics needed in EA’s “Command and Conquer” games. But Ensemble’s solution doesn’t solve the problem so much as smooth it over. You can’t, for instance, create pre-defined assortments of different units for easy reference later. “Wars” automatically figures this stuff out as you send units to different sides of the map, but it’s a level of handholding that experienced RTS players will not appreciate.

Then again, “Wars'” equally simple single-player missions make nuanced micromanagement mostly unnecessary. Resources practically accumulate on their own, and if you build and maintain some relatively inexpensive turrets where the constricted base-building model allows them, you rarely need worry about defense, either. Outside of a few exceptions, the missions place an excessive emphasis on offense: Build an overwhelming force, steamroll forward, and you almost cannot lose.

The problems with the campaign — which, despite a short length and the complete omission of Covenant-perspective missions, drags on due to repetition — mean that, like most “Halo” games, “Wars” is best recommended for its multiplayer features (2-6 players, online/system link only).

Sure enough, this is where it shines. “Wars” lets you play as either the UNSC or the Covenant (though never the Flood) in its freeform skirmish mode, and the hands-off approach — your base and battle strategy versus theirs — makes for less predictable outcomes. It would’ve been nice to see Ensemble try something more ambitious with the Xbox Live infrastructure, but the simple controls and general fast pace of the action (by RTS standards) make this a fun option for those who like their real-time strategy in short, accessible doses.

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Downloadable game

Noby Noby Boy
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief)
Price: $5

It’s hard to definitively describe a game whose full intention is either mysterious or completely absent, but that’s what you get with “Noby Noby Boy,” which must be experienced firsthand to be even remotely understood. “NNB” stars you as Boy, and the goal (maybe) is to stretch yourself out, eat stuff and just experiment at your own leisure in a bizarre, physics-centric wonderland. You then can “submit” your stretching totals to the sun, which collects submissions from everyone on the Playstation Network and uses that total to stretch a character named Girl. Once Girl can touch additional planets, those levels will open to everyone on PSN who owns the game. Yep. Don’t feel bad if you don’t understand any of that: “NNB” is so weird that you might not understand it any more after playing it than reading about it. Consider, also, that the endgame remains a secret until the PSN community uncovers it, and “NNB” becomes a purchase only if you don’t mind gambling $5 on what is, without exaggeration, a complete leap of faith. Though “NNB” comes courtesy of the guy who created “Katamari Damacy” and adopts that game’s visual and stylistic methodology, even your feelings about that game cannot dictate whether you’ll get this one. If you’re feeling adventurous, just roll the dice.