GTA IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony
Back in February of this year, our very own Martin Gaston awarded The Lost and Damned with an extremely handsome review score of 90 percent, hailing GTA IV's debut episodic download as "DLC reinvented" in the process. Eight months later and Rockstar Games has unleashed a disc-based retail pack containing both The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony, the second of its Xbox-exclusive expansions.
With Grand Theft Auto IV firmly established as one of the most critically acclaimed releases of the decade, any further offerings building on the successful template laid out by Liberty City and affable antihero Niko Bellic can surely do no wrong. And, as Martin's review clearly showed, The Lost and Damned and central character Johnny Klebitz more than ably provided series fans with a DLC experience that more closely resembled a completely new game as opposed to a mere expansion.
Continuing that initial wave of high-quality, The Ballad of Gay Tony sees players stepping into the shoes of Luis Lopez, a streetwise Dominican bodyguard working for Anthony 'Gay Tony' Prince, a suave nightclub owner drowning in debt and bad business decisions that inexorably draw the pair deeper into a perilous underworld of crime as Luis struggles to save Tony and his ailing empire from destruction.
While Gay Tony is as separate from GTA IV as its downloadable predecessor in terms of narrative, it is still, at its heart, a pure Grand Theft Auto experience that remains true to the series' roots from start to finish. Whether you're an established fan of Liberty City or completely new to Rockstar's pseudo New York setting, Gay Tony provides around 12 compelling hours of fresh story that's pushed along at a steady clip by the usual array of core missions, side quests, well animated cut-scenes, edgy and often hilarious characters, and the standard deluge of gloriously offensive language.
Granted, not many of the tasks thrown before the player stray from Rockstar's tried and true formula, but the mere opportunity to revisit Liberty City and lick its uniquely sleazy underbelly is likely to prevent most gamers from registering the lack of invention. And, to be fair, jacking sexy vehicles, engaging in frenetic gun fights, brawling over drug stashes, and flailing through bloody fist fights is the very lifeblood that pulses through Grand Theft Auto's veins. Oh, and there are all-new Achievements to be had too.
That much of the game is spent carrying out dangerous, violent, and often murderous errands for the criminally inclined Tony owes money to, which may feel somewhat shoehorned, any creeping sense of boredom or banality is offset by accompanying storylines. Some of these involve Luis protecting his mother after an ill-advised association with dangerous loan sharks, and also continually aiding a couple of embittered drug-selling friends he left behind in search of a better life.
In short, with the prerequisite GTA mobile phone in close attendance and relationships to nurture, players will rarely find themselves short of something to do - whether it be helping Gay Tony recapture his fame and fortune or through the easy distraction of pub games, boozy nights out, or the odd sexual rendezvous (the first knee-trembler can be enjoyed within the game's first five minutes). Factor in the city's never-ending supply of vehicles, its wealth of gun stores, clothing outlets, and Internet cafes, and its easy to see why Rockstar hasn't exactly seen the need to excessively season an already tasty dish.
Unfortunately, the welcome familiarity of Liberty City and the assured delivery of Gay Tony's narrative isn't without fault; and, strangely, it's a fault that lies in the expansion's technical structure. Moreover, while The Lost and Damned played perfectly well on our faithful Xbox 360, The Ballad of Gay Tony was intermittently hamstrung by some of the worst texture popping and visual lag this reviewer has ever seen. Playing off the disc or from the hard drive, the problem got so bad that high-speed driving caused entire sections of road to either sport a horrid featureless sheen or disappear altogether before detailing was finally jolted into place. Similarly, vehicles driven by fellow road users would often float slightly above the tarmac while waiting for textures to emerge, and even entire buildings would be missing on occasion.
Beyond those sporadic intrusions, which could well be down to a dodgy disc or an aging console, there's little to complain about regarding overall presentation. Although the graphics are perhaps a little rough around the edges, the sprawling cityscape is as appealing as it ever was, the NPC population just as lively, and the renowned in-car radio broadcasts swing between a bonanza of musical styles and fabulously written politically incorrect talk shows and discussions that are laugh-out-loud funny.
If the rags-to-riches story of Niko Bellic didn't blow your skirt up while considering the purchase of Grand Theft Auto IV, then the double-barreled appeal of Episodes from Liberty City - and the fact that the original GTA IV game disc is not required to enjoy either expansion - may yet secure your investment. With The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony pushing around 25 hours of combined gameplay across an open-world playground of proven quality, laying out the cash for Rockstar's staggeringly good DLC bundle really is something of a no-brainer.