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GTA's The Lost and Damned: Hands-on impressions

We've spent the better part of the Presidents' Day weekend playing through 'The Lost and Damned,' the first of the long-promised episodic downloadable content for Rockstar's 'Grand Theft Auto IV.'

The Lost gang displays a clear disregard for local helmet laws. Rockstar Games

We've spent the better part of the Presidents' Day weekend playing through The Lost and Damned, the first episodic downloadable content for Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto IV. With all three major living room game consoles now more or less permanently hooked up to broadband Internet connections, it makes perfect sense that game companies would want to bypass the heavy fixed costs of pressing discs, putting them on trucks, and stocking them in retail stores, in favor of selling downloadable content directly to the end user.

While the concept isn't new (there are hundreds of mission packs, add-ons, and even full games available from the PlayStation Network store, Xbox Live, and Nintendo's Virtual Console store), this $20 game-within-a-game is easily the most high-profile attempt at mainstreaming downloadable episodic video game content to date.

Instead of adding new locations or extending the original game's storyline, this new content package uses the existing maps and assets from GTAIV to tell a new story, with new characters. This time, a biker gang called The Lost gets involved with all sorts of GTA-like mischief, from feuding with rival gangs to dangerous in-fighting between the members.

Despite new faces and voiceovers, and a handful of new vehicles, weapons, and music, it still looks and plays pretty much like Grand Theft Auto IV, with a handful of tweaks. The motorcycles, which are your primary form of transport, have gotten a nice revamp, making them much easier to control. A major gripe from the original game--the lack of in-mission checkpoints--has at least been partially addressed. This time, if you fail a mission, you can restart right before the action kicks off, instead of having to drag yourself through all the exposition and driving it took to set up that part of the story.

The new game revisits many of GTAIV's key locations (and you're free to roam wherever you want between missions), and familiar characters such as Niko Bellic drop in for cameo appearances. Our main complaint is that behind the new faces and names, there's little that feels different from the original GTAIV campaign. If anything, the highly telegraphed storyline and Sopranos-like dialogue of the biker gang actually seems like a step back from Niko Bellic's relatively subtle (by comparison) story arc.

While one could easily spend 40 or more hours playing through Grand Theft Auto IV, the Lost and Damned expansion should take about 10 to 15 hours to play through, which is still longer than many full-priced retail games.

The Lost and Damned is available for the Xbox 360, starting February 17 for 1,600 Microsoft Points (or about $20). A copy of Grand Theft Auto IV is required to play.