I Wish Rockstar Hadn’t Given Up On Single-Player DLC

In 2009, Rockstar released two critically acclaimed expansions for Grand Theft Auto 4 and set a new standard for single-player DLC. In The Lost and Damned we played as Johnny Klebitz, a biker trying to keep his fractured gang together amidst a bloody turf war on the streets of Alderney. In its follow-up, The Ballad of Gay Tony, we took on the role of Luis Lopez, right-hand man of notorious nightclub empresario Tony Prince. After spending hours in Liberty City as Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant, these expansions were a chance to experience the city from a completely different perspective.

In The Lost and Damned, Johnny saw the city in a way that reflected his hard-edged lifestyle and pessimistic outlook on life. A visual filter added a layer of grain to the screen, as well as slightly desaturating the colours. It made this expansion feel tangibly bleak and grimy. In Gay Tony, which focused on the city's vibrant night life, the colours were richer and more vivid. In both cases the effect was subtle, but it's remarkable how these minor changes in mood transformed and recontextualised the city. Even after becoming intimately familiar with Liberty City as Niko, it suddenly felt brand new again.

The Ballad of Gay Tony was also a response to criticism that the base game took itself too seriously. Compared to previous games in the series, GTA 4 was understated, gritty, and realistic—which extended to its weighty, physics-based driving model. I loved this, and I hope the developer takes this approach again some day. But even I had to admit that TBOGT was way more fun, with outlandish missions involving James Bond-esque stunts and dramatic, explosive set-pieces. There was a sense that the GTA 4 team was using this expansion as a way to let off steam and let their imaginations run wild.

When combined, both expansions amounted to around 30 hours of additional gameplay. The new missions, characters, cutscenes, radio stations, weapons, and vehicles were all created to the same high standards as the main game. In many cases, especially when it came to Gay Tony's mission design, they were even better. Rockstar knocked it out of the park with this DLC, and it almost felt like the developer had given us a whole new GTA game—albeit one split in two. GTA 4 had online multiplayer modes, but in these expansions Rockstar's focus was placed squarely on creating a quality single-player experience.

Today, things couldn't be more different. As untold masses of players have flocked to GTA Online since the launch of GTA 5—spending, reportedly, tens of millions of dollars of real-world money on in-game currency—Rockstar has refocused the post-launch updates of its games to multiplayer. Even Read Dead Redemption 2, a heavily narrative-driven game set in a world purpose-built for telling stories, hasn't received any single-player DLC yet. It probably never will either. I understand this from a business perspective, of course. GTA Online is a money printing factory. But artistically, it's a crying shame.

It's a shame because The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony were so good at breathing new life into GTA 4. Both expansions were well made, reasonably priced, and told compelling stories that further fleshed out the game's world and characters. Imagine Rockstar announced a 15-hour single-player expansion for Red Dead Redemption 2 today. People would go wild. But the sad thing is, it's hard to imagine that. This is not the same Rockstar that was making games back in 2009. Its philosophy has radically shifted, and those of us who value single-player above all have suffered for it.

As much as I enjoyed reuniting with Franklin Clinton and hanging out with Dr. Dre in The Contract, GTA Online's latest expansion, I couldn't help but wish it was single-player DLC. Some of the missions were fun, but noticeably hamstrung to work within the limitations of an online game. Unfortunately, I doubt we'll ever see anything like The Ballad of Gay Tony from Rockstar again. In Grand Theft Auto 6, I get the feeling its multiplayer and other online features will be even more integrated into the story mode—if it even has a traditional story mode at all. GTA Online changed everything. I wish it hadn't.

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