The final expansion pack (or episode) for Grand Theft Auto IV has been released in the form of The Ballad of Gay Tony. You assume the role of Luis, nightclub owner Gay Tony's right-hand man who must handle his dirty work across Liberty City.
We've had sometime with the final version of the game and here are our thoughts:
First thing's first. If you haven't downloaded The Lost and Damned, go out and buy Episodes From Liberty City. It's tough to recall such a great value in gaming prior to this double pack, and Xbox 360 owners don't need a copy of the original GTA IV to jump right in. There is an incredible amount of gameplay value here; it's like getting two full $60 games for less than the price of one.
The Ballad of Gay Tony is arguably the most lighthearted storyline of the GTA IV universe, as there are plenty of genuine moments of hilarity in the game's top-notch cut scenes. There's a certain chemistry between Gay Tony and Luis (your character) that is fun to watch and see evolve throughout the campaign.
Aside from the storyline and new and creative missions--including parachuting--there's not much beyond what GTA IV offered. Luckily, you've probably made your way through the original title already, so diving back into Liberty City with a unique spin on things is something that everyone who's a fan of the franchise should do.
We're more than satisfied with what Gay Tony is able to offer, but with this new chapter in GTA IV, the series is finally starting to show some age.
Rockstar is onto a formula that could change the gaming industry: rather than release sequels, it has chosen to build a really good game on top of an already amazing one--the original GTA IV. While downloadable content that's provided entire chapters and spin-off adventures has been done before (Oblivion, Fallout 3), no one has packaged such compelling stand-alone material as The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony together. In terms of total hours of gameplay (including side missions), Gay Tony could easily have been sold on its own as a packaged full-price disc.
On the other hand, while Gay Tony is everything a GTA fan could want, the expectations in terms of dialogue, story pacing, and even third-person game controls are starting to change in a rapidly evolving gaming landscape. It's been only a year and a half since GTA IV hit shelves, but after playing Uncharted 2, Gay Tony feels a bit clunkier in terms of its pacing and controls. Episodes still takes a long time to load and play through, and there still aren't enough checkpoints mid mission, requiring a lot of die-and-replay loops that can take up lots of your GTA gaming minutes. In addition, Liberty City is starting to show its age compared with other increasingly impressive 360 games, although the scope of its world still can't be beat. The added music stations, TV content (I spent 10 minutes watching a disturbing anime program in my virtual apartment) and minigames are great bonuses.
Still, I miss GTA's more deliberate satire from the earlier PS2 days. Gay Tony seemed from the trailers like it would be over-the-top, but a lot of the actual story and dialogue sometimes aims for grittier David Chase-style realism, without the true grit. Maybe I'm expecting too much, but if GTA aspires to be a crime saga as opposed to pop culture, it's going to be a hard road. Gay Tony is the best console game value of the holidays, no doubt--it's more of the same, without a high price tag, like a second helping at half price. We could do with more of that across the industry.
Like visiting old friends, it's always nice to make a return trip to Liberty City. While no game, or game publisher, has yet come up with the magic formula to keep players hooked with regular infusions of downloadable content, the two Grand Theft Auto IV add-on packs (The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony) have both done an excellent job of creating new content for fans, without having to build a whole new game from scratch.
Playing through this new story, one is reminded that the marquee star of GTAIV, and its spin-offs, is the city itself. Easily the most brilliantly conceived urban landscape ever devised for a piece of interactive entertainment, it's a thrilling place to just drive around and see. As a native New Yorker, the claim can be made that while Liberty City is only based on New York, it really does capture the look, feel, and spirit of the city.
Unfortunately, while vast cityscape returns, so do some of GTA's gameplay problems--ones that the roughly 18 months since the original release of GTAIV have only served to amplify. The actual running around and shooting--a big part of the game--is still awkward, and feels increasingly dated. Characters run in slow motion, and juggling the buttons to pop in and out of cover, switch weapons, aim, and shoot all at the same time led to many frustrating mission failures.
At the same time, the writing, acting, and art direction remain top notch--easily among the best the medium has to offer. Protagonist Luis' journey through the dark side of a classic American "up by your bootstraps" tale recalls crime dramas from "King of New York" to Carlito's Way. It's a pulp tale, to be sure, but one with heart.