A fantastic double-dose of mayhem, if your PC can handle itEdit
Inside 2008’s re-drawn and re-imagined Liberty City, Rockstar declined to change the shape, structure and content of the game, or even the average mission. Niko Bellic’s freedom to roam around the city was comfortably stifled by constant prompts telling him what to do next, whether it was getting in a car, following the mini-map, losing the cops, or shooting a man with an arrow floating above his head. Grand Theft Auto IV’s sandbox element was mainly punching women’s shopping bags out of their hands. Gunplay was never the game’s strongest card and GTA IV’s new cover mechanics did little to enhance it. Now, you just slog along the odd corridor with your back to the wall, instead of facing it.
Let’s not be too down: it’s important to remember what GTA does with majestic, and rarely equalled, excellence: tell stories in a way that makes you feel. Take GTA IV: Brucie was a charming mentalist, and the futility of his missions was a superbly deflating payoff. The constant pestering of your phone might have been frustrating, but it created bonds with certain characters that gave their eventual betrayal a genuine sting. The much-vaunted openness of Liberty City – and the dry and meaningless cliche that it was “living and breathing” – paled next to the lives of its mission-dispensing stars. They might not be sympathetic characters, but they’re never boring, and they’re dripping with satire that the tabloids never acknowledged.
With Rockstar’s skilled writers providing redundant reams of character dialogue and satirical radio chat, Episodes from Liberty City develops the game’s strongest assets admirably – and even fixes one of the more tedious problems of GTA IV with mid-mission checkpoints. The release as two chapters that are playable independently of one other and GTA IV, even makes sense of the game’s bipolar attitude to gritty realism and over-the-top dick-waving. If you want real, get on your bike. If you want to jump out of a golden helicopter, go gay.
The Lost and the Damned drops you into the leathers of Johnny Klebitz, the second-in-command of The Lost, one of Liberty City’s motorcycle gangs. He’s been acting up while the proper boss, Billy, went through rehab. During this time, he negotiated a ceasefire with the rival gang and got the business side of the gang (selling drugs, naturally) sorted. Basically, he’s greatly improved the standard and life expectancy of the average gang member’s life.
But this isn’t a situation that pleases Billy when he returns. He doesn’t own a Biker to Pussy translating dictionary, so he’s not sure what “ceasefire” means. And he isn’t prone to respecting the boundaries of his enemy’s territory. So that’s the journey you take on in The Lost: the role of the reasonable man forced to watch his hard work being undone by a stubborn old-timer with mental health issues. This tense relationship is so expertly written, and with such self-control, that you’ll wince at the constant anticipation of Lost-on-Lost violence.
In terms of what you do in the world, few things change. You ride as part of a pack now, and riding over the icon that appears in the center of the pack triggers bonus dialogue that you’d normally get from being in a car.
The pack mentality extends to your members – they’re not a lot of nameless, faceless people. If someone dies, they stay dead. If they’re replaced, it’ll be with less helpful rookies. Group AI and health is always something of an opaque art in GTA IV – it’s difficult to tell what help your friends are actually offering, or what damage they’re taking. You often suspect they’re simply there to add to the spectacle rather than the battle.Beyond that (and the excellent handling on the bikes that undermines beefs about the GTA IV cars) this is classic DLC. More of the same, but with new characters that wouldn’t fit into the main story. Rockstar aren’t selling you the last level they didn’t finish by deadline.The Ballad Of Gay Tony is a very different beast. We don’t mean it’s a different game: you’ll still be driving to waypoints, and you’ll still have 25 side missions called Gang Wars. But the tone is bolder, the pace is faster, the music is camper, and the characters are bigger. Gay Tony isn’t even the star of the show, which shows considerable restraint: it’d be all too easy for Rockstar to pander to their target audience and turn him into a comedy flamer, so kudos for filling out his character. Admittedly, he’s pill and coke-addled, a lousy businessman and no role model, but if you come to GTA for your role models, you need taking out of society right now.
Like its titular hero, The Ballad of Gay Tony is a tackier, unsubtle and more fun affair. You’ll take down a helicopter with a rocket launcher in an introductory mission, and the parachutes are a flat rejection of The Lost’s grenade-launching grittiness, in favour of a colourful Just Cause-style attitude to reality. In a lovely touch, the relationship between player character Luis and Tony is one of genuine warmth.
Luis’ story is a new take on the GTA classic theme of a doomed new start – Tony sponsored Luis’ release from jail and offered him a job. Of course, Luis is dragged back into his old ways – with a mother in debt to a loan shark, hopeless friends trying to carve themselves a drug empire, and a boss whose business methods involve selling his clubs simultaneously to two different (and equally violent) gangs. There’s comedy here – for example, the escape from a golfing range in a caddy, but it rarely comes from Tony or Luis. They’re just friends in a world that tends to crazy levels of bat-shit.
Gay Tony has a loveable, hypermanic comedy figure from the Brucie’s school of self-regard – Yusuf Amir. He’s the kind of guy that wants a subway train to boost his social standing, and Tony’s the kind of guy who dangles bloggers from helicopters. Between them, Luis is the classic bemused observer, helping out because he doesn’t have a choice. And again, his is a story you’ll care about, and it’s pleasing to see that the openly homophobic characters are also the least intelligent.
The same issues that were annoying in GTA IV remain present in the Episodes. The double sign-in to the Rockstar Social Club and Games for Windows – LIVE still feels needless, and despite some optimization since the first PC release, this is still a punishingly demanding game that’ll swallow 17GB of hard disk and dip to ruinously stuttering framerates if you’re not on a relatively new PC.
Taking a corner is still frustrating on a keyboard – it’s like trying to control a suitcase full of kangaroos with a bit of dowel rod. Combined with cover-and-shoot segments of the game – clearly designed for consoles too – you might prefer to play this on a gamepad.
Episodes from Liberty City adds mature and expertly written stories and entertainingly unacceptable characters to the rapidly aging Liberty City. They’re punchier stories, and the imagination poured into GTA’s restrictive framework manages, on many occasions, to break out of the familiarity of Niko Bellic’s journey.