I stopped playing Grand Theft Auto IV a few hours shy of the triple digit count. Two pigeons kept me from 100% perfection, but I gleefully devoured every other morsel of the offline experience. I picked the retail disc up for my Playstation 3, which meant I was out of luck if I ever wanted to play the Xbox350-exclusive downloadable content. For those of us in the same boat, or if you want it all on a disc, GTA IV: Episodes from Liberty City is good news. Both last winter's The Lost and Damned and the just released The Ballad of Gay Tony have been pressed to one disc with no extraneous cost. The perception of downloadable content may change as a standalone retail product, so let's see how this collection turned out.
The Lost and Damned
Last February’s entry, The Lost and Damned, puts you in the shoes of The Lost Motorcycle Club’s second in command, Johnny Klebitz. Having just surrendered leadership back to Billy, the Lost's fresh out of rehab former leader, conflict arises when Johnny no longer sees eye to eye with Billy's leadership. From there the narrative sort of into a power struggle archetype, and, unfortunately, free of most of GTA's usual subtlety. Heavy metaphors (like gazing at the skyline of downtown Algonquin from the slums of south Broker) followed Niko's path through GTA IV, but Johnny's journey is a far more straight forward affair. While the narrative strokes may be a bit more direct, at least they're stylistically different from GTA IV. Being in a Motorcycle gang, along with a few gameplay quirks I'll get to later, changes the atmosphere considerably. Brotherhood and honor join the usual murder rampages, drug running carnage, and hair-on-fire police chases, but the slightly different context adds a layer of freshness to the narrative.
Having fully explored the content of GTA IV, I hoped The Lost and Damned would offer a host of new ideas in the gameplay department. From one point of view, that wish is largely realized. As Johnny, you'll do stuff like hijack a prison bus full of convicts, drop pipe bombs out your window to blow up vans, and hold up a convoy by hiding out at a toll booth. Unfortunately, missions frequently devolve into a kill-everyone-in-the-room shootout. Rockstar has a lot of confidence in GTA IV's gunplay, but, in the closing months of 2009, it just doesn't measure up to the current bar. When other recent games, like InFamous, handle combat with far more grace, GTA IV's cover and shooting come off a bit clunky. It's fully functional and it gets easier as time goes on, but trying to shoot around cover, maneuver a considerably (and intentionally) sluggish Johnny, or shoot outside of lock-on comes off as feeling harder than it needs to be.
While some of the missions aren't fresh with content, a bunch of new mechanics are there to help cover some ground. Being in a biker gang has perks like not flying off your bike at the slightest bit of contact, or the ability to call up a bunch of brothers to help you out on some missions. Calling for backup usually entails added firepower for the numerous gunfights, but sometimes it can change a mission entirely. For example, I had to infiltrate this house and find a guy, but, with two guys from my gang waiting out back, I could chuck a grenade in a window, flush people inside out the back door, and let my guys deal with the fallout. Your backup is a fleshed out with stats too, and they get essentially get better the more they're used. If they die they're replaced with low level new guys, which gives consequence to using them carelessly.
New flavors of gameplay carry over to the side missions as well. Races, for instance, now take place exclusively on motorcycles. You're also given a baseball bat with which you can whack your fellow racers and summon memories of Road Rash. Gang Wars also make a return from San Andreas, along with the blessings of better AI backup against the backdrop of a motorcycle rumble. Random citizen missions, some clever motorcycle theft stuff, some side missions for Stubbs, and the usual elimination of fifty pigeons round out the extraneous content.
Above all else, the inherent fun of Rockstar's ace sandbox design is still there. The random nature of missions that cover the entire city guarantee the holy grail of game design - creating a unique experience for the player. While the motorcycle chase (one of the series' best ever) will always impress, I know no one else ever took a prison bus off a gap in an over pass, crashed on the ground, and then had to dodge a litany of exploding-on-contact police cars that endlessly followed me off the 400ft drop. Memorable experiences are created through both developer intention and the inherent spontaneity of the open world design, and, really it’s hard to ask for much else outside of those barriers. Now, to move onto commentary for…
The Ballad of Gay Tony
While I appreciated the different aim for The Lost and Damned, the grimy overlay failed to appeal to me. I didn't care for the biker theme, the music that blared over the safe house, or the personalities behind the characters. The world was masterfully reinterpreted for the new take on Liberty City, but it just didn't connect with my tastes. The Ballad of Gay Tony, on the other hand, grabbed me right from the start and never let go.
Gay Tony opens with Luis Lopez on the floor of the bank being robbed by Niko and the McCreary's, and then segues into a scene of him walking down the street, casually shaking off being at a robbery, and slipping into a dance club to party his ass off. You can dance, take shots at a bar, and play a drinking game -- all with an assault of fast music and waves of neon lights. Even the user interface, from the pause menu to the armor gauge, is draped in bright colors. The veritable rainbow of activity was welcomed refreshment, especially after being stuck in the colorless grain of Lost and Damned.
It’s always sunny in Liberty City
Luis is a recently acquired business partner and occasional bodyguard of Tony Prince, aka the titular Gay Tony. Tony is a long standing owner of some of the hottest gay and straight night clubs in the city, but lately he's seemed to lose a bit of control courtesy a new drug habit. Money starts flying out the window, and somehow it's up to Luis to find a new source of funds to keep Tony's clubs afloat. While Luis has a fair amount of back story regarding his exgirlfriend, his mother and siblings, and his friends, Gay Tony is really about, well, Gay Tony. You view his story through Luis' eyes, which works out since Tony enables Luis to do just about everything.
With a sprawling narrative and a mostly new cast of characters, the story reaches outside of the self repeating box that seemed to trap Lost and Damned. You'll meet Yusef, a profanity spewing Arab with a heart of gold and outrageous delusions of grandeur. Then there's Mori, an intense asshole and brother to Niko's friend Brucie (and boy do we ever see why Brucie is so messed up). Other characters, like Rocco and some Russian mobsters have more subdued quirks as well, but the whole cast generally makes for a lively assemblage of outrageous personalities.
The cast also contributes to a fresh set of missions. I faulted Lost and Damned for defaulting to uninspired gun fights too often, but Gay Tony opts to drop the "kill all these guys" frequency in favor of a bunch of new stuff. A handful of helicopter combat missions appear, and while manipulating that thing in complete 3D space can be a little unwieldy, the blessing of infinite ammo helps to balance out any misgivings. You'll also whack golf balls at a guy strapped to the front of a golf cart (and then get into a car chase in said golf cart with the guy still strapped to it), follow a guy around town based on his Bleater (twitter) updates, and a host of activities with some new sticky bombs. I had the most fun with Yusef's missions, which typically involve Luis stealing stuff you'd never, ever consider actually stealing.
Perhaps the most welcomed addition; parachutes make a return from San Andreas. It's pushed to full effect too; you'll be dropping out of helicopters and tasked to land on moving objects or buildings, throw a guy of a copter and dive after him, or follow a car around the city. It also does well to augment the typical "enter a building a kill these guys" staple by tasking you to land on a building and infiltrate from the roof. A whole lot of BASE jumping side missions also pop up all over the city, and those are a boat load of fun too.
The usual side stuff is there to break the pace of the story. With Luis' childhood friends, Armando and Henrique, you'll get to Drug Wars, which entail driving to a drug exchange, killing everyone there, and speeding off with the package. It's mostly combat based, but busting up a party by ramming half the people there with a giant SUV never failed to impress. You can also manage Tony's nightclubs, which is sort of lame, but they usually conclude with Luis getting dispatched to go do a smaller mission. Cage fighting tries to take advantage of GTA's hand to hand combat aspects, but I couldn't get into it. Races have taken a turn for the extreme, with each race consisting of a vehicular triathlon involving cars, boats, and the occasional sky dive. Lastly, just like Lost and Damned, fifty more pigeons for you to destroy are scattered across the city, if that's your thing.
GTA IV's multiplier was fun, but it didn't seem to stand the test of time. Many, myself included, fooled around with it for a few weeks, but it fell by the wayside along with everything else not named Call of Duty. The new modes that came with Lost and Damned and Gay Tony don't try and reinvent the wheel, but they do offer some decent content. Lost and Damned's standout is a Chopper vs. Chopper, which tasks a player in a helicopter to eliminate a checkpoint running player on a bike, but Witness Protection was pretty fun too. Gay Tony doesn't introduce any new modes, instead choosing to refine or add new limitations to existing modes. It's unexpected for Rockstar to not come up with something new but, then again, throwing nitrous and parachutes into the mix may up the ante of ridiculous crap you and a few buddies can accomplish.
Both the Lost and Damned and Gay Tony bring a wealth of flourishes to GTA IV's sandbox. New weapons and cars are a given, but a couple of the more subtle changes are felt through the city. The radio stations not only have a ton of new songs, but they also come with some modern commentary. You'll hear references to swine flu, the current recession, and an iPhone app (that involves peeing on your phone, a classic). For Gay Tony, check points also seem to be a bit friendlier and the end of missions almost always stick a good car at your location. You'll also be graded at the end of missions, with criteria like headshots, car damage, and time measured against a goal. If you don't hit your marks then you're free to retry them after you've beaten the game. The goals aren't particularly inspired, but more stuff to aim for, not to mention being able to replay the missions, adds a bit of value to Gay Tony.
One of the more subtle but undoubtedly appreciated facets of Gay Tony lies with its treatment of its titular character. Tony's homosexuality isn't overly exaggerated, or, unless it's by an antagonistic character, poked fun at. He's a guy with problems who happens to be gay, with the focus firmly on the former. Luis always treats him with respect and leaves the jokes to the typical casual banter between friends. Rockstar's critics typically lambast the publisher for exploiting the usual trio of sex, drugs, and violence, but, as usual, Rockstar pulls a fast one on your expectations. And, while the salty language can come off as gratuitous, it's usually presented in a fashion where it's hard to interpret it as anything other than a satire of American pop culture. It's brilliant, honestly, and it lays other single minded games to waste with its grace and candor.
Tying it all together…
Both games also do well to overlap and intersect with Niko's storyline. You’ll run into a lot of the same characters and, in the case of Johnny, even go out with Niko on a few missions. The big tie in, of course, goes with the failed diamond heist at the museum. The puzzles pieces are complete at the end of Gay Tony, and you'll finally see who wound up with the $2,000,000 loot. While it may come at the cost of a fresh narrative, I really liked how all the stories wound together. It gave credence to Liberty City's billing as the worst place in American, with a host of different characters running schemes all over the place. When the grand narrative is presented in a mashed up faction, it really makes me curious as to where Rockstar could go with the next true iteration of the franchise. Multiple playable characters could boost Grand Theft Auto’s pacing, and piecing the story together like Pulp Fiction could do wonders for the plot. In any case, it appears Gay Tony is the curtain call to Liberty City - so we'll have to wait and see.