Grand Theft Auto: Episodes From Liberty City is a very nice package. Moreover, the two pieces of Rockstarâ€™s downloadable GTA IV content on one disk (retailing at roughly $70NZ) make for a very nice deal. A mighty fine deal, really, considering these episodes are more enjoyable than the original beast, which suffered from a cheeky pretentiousness that â€“ despite its ultimate brilliance â€“ made playing it occasionally feel like a chore. Rockstarâ€™s first episode, The Lost And The Damned (read our full review here) pried apart GTA IVâ€™s rigid world by making protagonist Johnny part of a biking brotherhood, immediately providing him with a support network of buddies, bikes and babes; not to mention long overdue mid-mission checkpoints.
GTA IVâ€™s swan song, The Ballad Of Gay Tony, appropriately takes this concept of liberation a step further. No longer are you scraping the bowels of Liberty City for cash, or shopping in Wholesale Bargain Barns - for Luis Lopez, the business partner of notorious nightclub entrepreneur Tony Prince, money is no object; respect, weapons and Armani come easy. Disappointingly, Luis still adheres to Rockstarâ€™s inflexible protagonist mold, an intelligent, yet alarmingly sociopathic lackey with a 'heart of gold', and a tired reminder of the GTA IV oeuvre that crime begets crime.
However, it is not Luis who lends his name to the game's title, but Gay Tony, who's made his megabucks by managing the two most prolific nightclubs in Liberty City - Maisonette 9 (straight) and Hercules (not-so-straight). Less grating than GTA IVâ€™s Roman Bellick and less aggressive than The Lost And The Damnedâ€™s Billy, Tony is comparatively sympathetic, treading a fine line between bitchy, drug-fuelled queen and lovable man-child. The relationship between Tony and Luis is a sweet-natured one, although Tonyâ€™s love comes at a price; the further he descends into (frequently drug-induced) financial suicide, the further into Liberty City's criminal underbelly Luis must descend in order to bail him out.
This, as it turns out, is pretty far. The Ballad of Gay Tony is more anarchic than the Lost And The Damned, and makes the original GTA IV look like a piece of slow-cinema in comparison. Luis skydives, cage-fights, base-jumps, pilots helicopters, blows up planes, trains, automobiles, and destroys the reputation of celebrity bloggers, generally having a grand old time in his big apple playground. No dirty deed, it seems, is out-of-bounds in Liberty City if youâ€™ve got the cash, and the completion â€“ or failure thereof â€“ of these outrageous missions makes for some of the most memorable moments in the series.
It must be noted, however, that aerial combat, a major new feature in Gay Tony, is clumsily implemented. Fighting in a helicopter is a sweat-inducing affair due to sluggish controls and lack of weapon lock-on, which more often than not will send you crashing into the sea or the side of a building as you try to shoot down your target. One is left wishing that the copter controls were streamlined with the same fluidity as the bikes in The Lost And The Damned, but as they stand are cripplingly tricky to manoeuvre; a wasted opportunity.
The new mini-games, on the other hand, are a joy. Base-jumping, be it from skyscraper or helicopter, is wonderfully scenic - the sprawl of Liberty City as you lazily descend is magnificent from every angle. For-all-out chaos, multi-vehicle racing incorporates skydiving, boat and vehicle racing in one frantic turn, and there are drug-dealing side quests which invariably end in wild firefights. For a seedier experience, Luis can head down to Tony's Maisonette 9 nightclub where he can either take on managerial duties or simply dry-hump the female clientele - if timed right, Luis will receive a 'surprise' in the gents. The options are, for lack of a better word, stimulating.
The Ballad Of Gay Tony's biggest success - by a mile - lies with its supporting cast. A narcissist dunderhead with a gold cellphone, billionaire playboy Yusuf Amir deserves his own paragraph, as does Brucie Kibbutz's louder-mouthed brother Mori, who suffers from a crippling case of short-man syndrome. There's a wonderful sense that the writers have shrugged their shoulders and said 'what-the-hell' when fleshing out these irreverent losers - the script revels in its own bad-taste. The cut-scenes in Gay Tony are frequently hilarious, and the casual driver/passenger banter so odd you'll want to skip the missions in order to hear it play out.
Ultimately, itâ€™s remarkable that Rockstar have managed to keep this series fresh to the bitter end. Despite sticking so adamantly to the aging GTA IV controls, both episodes in Episodes From Liberty City succeed thanks to skilful writing and a hugely charismatic virtual world. In this reviewerâ€™s opinion, The Ballad Of Gay Tony is the most enjoyable by simply upping the ante a notch, reminding us that even in a city 'where the money is making the plan', you can still have a little fun.