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Rockstar North throws caution to the wind with a more outlandish experience...
The final chapter in The Episodes of Liberty City (well the ones that Microsoft paid for) begins with a bang and refuses to let up. Concluding plotlines that began with 2008's GTA IV and developed through The Lost & Damned, The Ballad of Gay Tony introduces us to the world of nightclub impresario Tony "Gay Tony" Prince and his assistant Luis Lopez.
To a certain extent the events of GTA IV and The Lost & Damned have already established the duo. The central storyline of the blood diamonds, which came over to Liberty City along with Niko Bellic on The Platypus, is brought to a conclusion with a masterful approach and a sharp ending. We won't spoil the surprise, but it seems there's a moral in the tale for Liberty City's cast of nihilistic characters.
The focus on the glitzy (if not exactly glamorous) night-clubs and the lifestyle starkly contrasts the dark and grimy undertones of The Lost & Damned. The main plotline revolves around Luis' attempts to retrieve the bag of diamonds that were stolen from his boss, first revealed in GTA IV, expanded in The Lost & Damned and finally concluded in the events of The Ballad of Gay Tony. The crossover of the three plots arcs centres upon the deal with the Jewish Mafia in The Libertonian. We've previously seen it from the perspective of Niko Bellic and Johnny Klebitz, and now get to see it from Luis' viewpoint as he hi-jacks the deal. The way in which Rockstar has integrated the 'Episodes' into the GTA IV canon is nothing short of masterful. Like The Lost & Damned before it, such crossovers aren't blatantly dished out in an overt manner, but carefully delivered to ensure such moments have a genuinely satisfying effect. It's like a Guy Ritchie film, but with the substance to match the style and a little more intelligence. It's difficult to envision any other video game franchise having the depth and richness of its characters and universe to provide such a canvas.
But of course The Ballad of Gay Tony is a video game, and looking beyond its wealth of rich characters, elaborate plot-arcs, and clever scripts, it's reassuring to note that Rockstar North has decided to loosen the reigns a little when it comes to the more creative nature of the missions and the cast of flamboyant characters. Outlandish and over-the-top appear to be the themes running throughout the 27 missions on offer. There are too many missions that are worth noting, but examples of the most extreme include destroying a super-sized yacht, stealing a N.O.O.S.E tank which is being airlifted across the skies of Liberty City, and taking swings at an unfortunate chap strapped onto the front of a golf cart. The introduction of a parachute and base jumping highlights the shift away from the realism of GTA IV, and such a fan-favourite is superbly implemented across a handful of the main missions.
Cast as the son of a wealthy sheikh with aspirations to build the biggest skyscraper in Liberty City, the self-proclaimed British-Iranian comedian Omid Djalili as Yusuf Amir grabs the centre stage having briefly appeared alongside Playboy X in GTA IV. Of course the loose women and abundance of narcotics soon gets in his way, which leads to Yusuf providing the background behind some of the most memorable and entertaining missions. It all helps to put the fun firmly back into GTA. Arguably in the mindset to create a masterpiece, GTA IV got a little too caught up in trying to be realistic. Whether it's leaping off the tower of Liberty City's tallest skyscraper or indulging a sadistic whim with sticky bombs, The Ballad of Gay Tony contrasts the balance of gameplay that GTA IV and The Lost & Damned provided. The ability to replay missions and earn high scores under a range of different criteria compliments the switch in the style of mission challenges and provides a motive to replaying missions, something that GTA has occasionally lacked.
We noted from our playtest that The Ballad of Gay Tony places considerably less emphasis on the chore of making money and buying weapons. We never needed to visit an Ammu-Nation store and were constantly surprised by just how many weapons were at our disposal. Luis gets his hands on the deadly AA-12 Combat Shotgun early on in the game, and this is easily enough firepower to see you through the game, which will last between 8 and 10 hours excluding the side missions. It's fatal at short distances and equally lethal at range. Perhaps its effectiveness outbalances the game's challenge a little, but you get the feeling that Rockstar North was keen to put the focus squarely on having fun and the game is played at a much faster tempo as a result.
The Ballad of Gay Tony also introduces a series of new side missions that are amongst some of the best we've seen from the series, thankfully putting the tedium of bowling and darts to rest. Beyond the base jumping challenges which require you to land as closely to a specific target as possible, Luis' other job as a nightclub manager entail him ejecting anybody who's causing too much trouble and catering to the needs of the club's celebrity clientele. A mission that details Luis' mother's troubles with a loan-shark opens up a series of cage-fighting mini-games, in which you can participate or bet on the outcomes. The golf driving range can be revisited to compete in a series of swings to see who gets closest to the hole, while you can also drive around Liberty City and bust drug deals to earn the stash and cash. Multi-vehicle races that involve parachute jumps, speedboats and fast cars are the most enjoyable however, combining GTA's strongest elements into pulse-pounding races that are a genuine highlight.
It also seems that Rockstar North hasn't shied away from controversy with the final chapter. Luis is certainly a ladies man and happy to get his rocks off at any opportunity in scenes that leave little to the imagination. Now we're not morally opposed to seeing a GTA protagonist enjoying the company of a slightly strange looking female characters, but seeing bodies hurtling towards the ground from a skyscraper, with a city-line inspired by New York City, could perhaps be a little close to the bone for some.
The multiplayer modes also benefit from various tweaks and changes. Beyond the fun that parachutes bring (along with the new weapons and vehicles) the introduction of kill-streak and assisted kill bonuses helps to develop the experience into something that packs a little more substance.
Like The Lost & Damned before it, The Ballad of Gay Tony is available for 1600 Microsoft Points via the Xbox Live Marketplace. If you didn't catch The Lost & Damned the first time around, or perhaps unexplainably haven't had the pleasure of GTA IV yet, then we'd urge you to check out the 'Episodes From Liberty City' disc, which bundles both the downloadable titles together into an attractive box that doesn't require a copy of the original GTA IV to play.
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