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GTA: Episodes from Liberty City Review

By Jeff Buckland, 11/5/2009

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It's been a year and a half since Rockstar Games unleashed Grand Theft Auto IV on the world, and since then we've seen two downloadable "episodes" released. Each take place in the same exquisitely detailed Liberty City, the same as in GTAIV, and it's hard to argue against it. They put an astounding amount of effort into recreating the feel of New York City, and they're right to try and get some payoff from that investment.

Episodes from Liberty City is a collection of those two downloadable episodes - The Lost & Damned from earlier this year, and the just-released Ballad of Gay Tony. Each episode is a separate story centered around unique characters, and both take place during the main events of GTAIV - and both episodes intertwine with what its protagonist, Niko Bellic, happens to be doing. Here, though, Rockstar has put both of these DLC episodes on a disc, charged $40 for it (the price of both episodes if you bought them off of the Xbox Live marketplace), and made it all work together without needing the original game.

We've already reviewed The Lost & Damned, but to summarize, it made for a great addition to the GTAIV world by introducing a very different protagonist and adding new gameplay and mechanics. It also had some great story elements and gave you an organization you belong to and group of people to actually rely on (at least, in earlier missions) that the fresh-off-the-boat Niko Bellic never had.

Unfortunately, the new release in this package, The Ballad of Gay Tony, just doesn't live up to the standards Rockstar has set for themselves. Its main character, Luis Lopez, seems like a smart, sensible guy at first. He's trying to embody the brains and the brawn in the midst of a business partnership with nightclub owner Tony Prince, but the guys are feeling the crunch from all sides. The customers are getting listless, the economy is keeping people at home, some TMZ-like blogger is talking trash, and "Gay Tony" has been borrowing money from the wrong people in a drug-addled haze - and Tony's debtors figure out quickly that Luis has a penchant for violence that they can put to use. Luis starts feeling even more pressure from his old friends that are trying to get him back into the drug-dealing game, and his mother starts getting threatening visits from a loan shark that she borrowed from.

All of that seems reasonable, but Rockstar didn't want to tone down the level of action from the past games so they intentionally made the situations Luis gets into, and his reactions to it all, completely over-the-top. One of the earlier missions has you go and talk to a guy about a drug deal, but when the cops show up, Luis doesn't run - instead, the game has you kill at least fifteen of them before you blow up a police chopper with a rocket launcher to get the cops off of you. That only sets the stage, though, and it gets even more insane than that. If Luis is so smart, cool, and calculating, why is he doing multiple missions around Liberty City that involve thieving and murdering on a regular basis? Why does Luis take crap from some guy that says he owns him during a cutscene when he just killed dozens of innocent people in what amounts to little more than a terrorist attack ten minutes prior? Why wouldn't he just kill the loan shark threatening his mother when he's so quick to pull out a gun any other time?

Obviously it wouldn't be a very good GTA game if the action was totally mundane, but I think Rockstar made some missteps when creating its main characters this time around. Sure, new interactions with Johnny from Lost and Damned and our old favorite Brucie (and his "little" brother Mori) do make things more interesting, but Luis himself always seems to be the voice of reason during the cutscenes - and then he turns into the biggest psychopath when control is given to the player and you're tasked with these ridiculous objectives. Compare Luis to Tommy Vercetti from Vice City (who was a lovably murderous loon from start to finish), and I think you'll agree that there's a huge disconnect between what Luis should do and what this latest GTA has him do. At the very least, the difference was just too big to suspend my disbelief the way past games in the series succeeded in doing. Yes, I'm even counting the stuff CJ did in San Andreas.

And where we got some great new ways to play the same game with Lost & Damned, especially the new motorcycle handling and combat, we get a good chunk of new activities here that simply don't seem to work as well. You can participate in a couple of new mini-games at clubs (including an awkward dancing bit and some drink-offs), hit a few balls with a golf club at the driving range, base jump with a parachute, and get into some turf wars with your drug-slinging idiot buddies. There's plenty to do and a lot of specific challenges for these, but I found that these new activities got boring much faster than I expected them to.

What Rockstar does do very well is integrate new content into the game so subtly that you may not even notice it's there for a while. From new vehicles (including the kind of military hardware you've been wanting to see since the last time you played GTA San Andreas) to weapons, music, and TV stations, you'll find that this secondary element of GTAIV has never been better than it is in Gay Tony. The multiplayer action has been further beefed up and now includes base-jumping modes as well as much of the new content from the single player game, and the Vice City FM radio station exclusive to the Episodes from Liberty City disc is a fun throwback as well.

Despite my complaints about the storyline in Gay Tony, the game itself is still great, and that's only half of this $40 package - if you also haven't played The Lost and Damned, then Episodes from Liberty City is pretty much a must-have if you are a fan of the series. The on-disc exclusives aren't enough to make this worth buying if you already own The Lost and Damned, so if you do, then you should still pick up Gay Tony for $20 on the Live Marketplace. But either way, if you still find yourself popping in these games just to have fun and wreak havoc, then it's difficult to go wrong with Gay Tony.

Overall: 90%



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