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Grand Theft Auto IV add-on episode best game of ’09 so far

The best video game released so far in 2009 can’t be found in stores.

It isn’t an original concept, or even a full game.

But Rockstar’s “Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and the Damned” is the best game released in the first two months of this year.

“The Lost and the Damned” is a downloadable add-on to the original game that debuted last spring. The episodic content is available only through the Xbox 360’s Xbox Live.

It is the first of two reported downloadable episodes to come to Xbox Live after Microsoft signed an exclusive deal with Rockstar to acquire the rights to downloadable content. You also must have “Grand Theft Auto IV” to play “The Lost and the Damned.”

While the developers of these episodes could have just added a few more missions to the original story of immigrant Niko Bellic, they went above and beyond to create what would have been an outstanding standalone game for the last generation of systems.

The game, which costs $20, takes between seven and 10 hours to complete the main storyline. But there are also new side missions, new weapons, new cars – although none of the new elements can be transferred to “Grand Theft Auto IV.”

In “Lost and the Damned,” the gamer controls Johnny Klebitz, the temporary leader of a motorcycle gang known as “the Lost.” Klebitz must cede control of the gang when its leader, Billy Grey, returns from jail.

Much of what takes place early in the episode is annoying bickering between Klebitz and Grey. The gamer is subjected to these arguments on long, inescapable motorcycle rides early in the game.

The story isn’t as strong as the one in “Grand Theft Auto IV,” but it’s hard to replicate the best game of 2008 in an abbreviated episode.

What makes this release special is the simple depth included for a downloadable pack. The developers redesigned the motorcycle riding engine, making it easier and more enjoyable to ride bikes than in the original.

Whereas Bellic was experiencing America for the first time and had to find friends, Klebitz is armed with his band of bikers. It’s worth your while to look out for your friends, because they gain better fighting attributes the longer they stay alive and the more battles they win.

“The Lost and the Damned” will influence the future of downloadable content. It’s the only thing we’ve seen on consoles that resembles the expansion packs available in computer gaming. And for now, it’s the best game released this year.