birkettsblog's Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City (Xbox 360) review

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Two great additions to GTA IV's template

The Ballad of Gay Tony

The Ballad of Gay Tony gives players the chance to experience Liberty City in an all new light. The opening scenes use of colour and upbeat tones thematically setting this game apart from both GTA IV and The Lost And Damned in immediate fashion. Its blend of visual flair- swaggering, no-nonsense protagonist Luis complemented with its synth, electronic pop music backing track. This is an upmarket, high class, neon-lit Liberty City focused on its night life and in particular, Luis and his boss- past-it, degenerate loser Tony 'Gay Tony' Prince, a nightclub owner.

As ever, Rockstar succeed in delivering a superbly defined cast of outlandish and over-the-top characters, all brought to life with fantastic voice work and Rockstar North's legendary animation modelling that still holds up tremendously well amongst new releases. A brief glimpse of GTA IV 's previous characters; Roman, Niko, Billy, Johnny et al. all work well within the context of their position in the story and are complemented with BOGT 's superb new additions- from business socio-path Yusif Amir to glitzy socialite bloggers and unstable Russian gangsters. The plot itself remains well structured and driven throughout, towards its thrilling, explosive airborne finale that 007 would be proud of- engaging and positively classic GTA .

The core component to The Ballad of Gay Tony 's fulfilling playtime (I stuck over 9 hours into the game, without completing all side missions!) is all about fun . A far cry from the downtrodden Niko and the grittiness of TLAD 's campaign, BOGT injects fun by the bucket load with a whole array of new explosive weaponry (sticky bombs, the hugely powerful 'Assault SMG'), new vehicles reserved for the rich and famous (the 'Buzzard' copter, the 'Super-drop diamond') and enough scale and variety in mission design to keep things feeling far from stale. Missions are short and sweet, with the checkpoint system returning to ease any frustration that may have incurred if GTA IV 's template were to be repeated. Yes, Rockstar have listened to their doubters and adjusted accordingly in time for the DLC releases and the release is that much stronger for it.

The key distractions from the main missions are generally all well conceived. 'Drug Wars' ensures a smooth and steady flow of cash is amounted throughout the play experience- a luxury TLAD failed to acquire. Thus, weapons and extras are thankfully, always freely available. The brilliant base jumps and 'multiple vehicle races' provide the thrills whilst odd jobs can be completed for citizens over LC for small rewards. The 'Club Management' mini games are, in my opinion, the weakest of TBOGT side mission objectives- a dodgy mix of rhythm action dance routines mixed with socialising at the bar. It doesn't help that the doorman feels the need to constantly keep calling to remind you that your management standards at 'Maisonette 9' are slipping, in an annoying return of GTA IV' s pervasive mobile phone distractions.

From the fancy condos and minted cars, The Ballad of Gay Tony is an uplifting change in tone from the previous instalments and all the better for it. Never has Liberty City felt so vibrant and glitzy than here. The frustrating cover and shooting mechanics, texture pop-in and frame rate issues can not detract from what is a package well worth its price tag. Great value and a must buy.

The Lost and Damned


The Lost and Damned is the first of two pieces of DLC that Rockstar released for the epic GTA IV . Replacing immigrant protagonist Niko Bellic from the main game, here, biker and 'Vice president' of the 'Lost' biker gang, Johnny Klebitz is the focus of a seedy and gritty sweep into the realm of drug smuggling, inner-gang conflict and head-on gang war. The dark and menacing overtones are established early in a package that shows its balls, quite literally, as Billy, president of the 'Lost', returns after a stint in rehab. Rockstar again surpassing themselves with triple-A characterisation that is key to the whole package. Their ever impressive ability to direct superb voice work and produce top-quality facial animation making sure a strong foundation of characters are crafted- injecting the story with enough humour, banter and interesting personalities to keep the plot consistently engaging. From the insanely loose, psychotic Billy to “kiss-ass” Brian, friendly face Jim, and the calm yet troublesome Johnny.

Both the positive and negative aspects of GTA IV have made their way into the game, although a re-worked checkpoint system is great to see and removes the gripes from the first foray into Liberty City. Now, upon restarting a failed mission, the spawn point is much closer to where the action takes off meaning the often daunting repetition of getting to the right location time after time, death after death, can be forgotten this time round. The ever entertaining radio stations return, with some new heavy metal additions that provides a fitting backtrack to cruising with the gang. Upon returning to Liberty City, it's quite a shock to experience the often dreadful game play mechanics at work. It's re-treading old ground if you've already played GTA IV but if not, the sticky cover and gun combat can be extremely aggravating at times. It's difficult to get a good grasp of the way the cover mechanics work, even after an extended period of play. Add to this the often frustrating way in which the whole health system works- a non-regenerating bar which, although perfectly acceptable, is less forgiveable when health packs are no-where to be seen and GTA IV 's fast food chains have been “temporarily closed”- meaning health will often be dangerously low when starting a mission. At times, I went into the mission knowing full well I would die simply to get full health upon re spawning again and re-starting the mission. If Rockstar North remain adamant that the health system works, it'd be nice to see the health bar fill for missions, at least, which are still very much a case of driving to a location, activating a cut-scene and more often than not, shooting all the enemies until another cut scene is played. Vehicle sections and side missions (bike races) help to improve the monotony that could have been endured, with two-wheeled vehicles now standing in greater stead due to improved handling. So, not a total success but missions have never been GTA 's forte- instead relying on the story to create an experience that is likely to be enjoyed time and time again. It's also great to see nods to the original game in intertwining plot-lines with Niko, Roman and Demitiri whilst a brief cameo of 'Gay Tony' also points towards the following DLC release of The Ballad of Gay Tony . To tell you the fashion in which the characters are used would be to ruin the story- it's brilliant, nonetheless. Returning characters such as Elizabeta also ensure a good crossover between the two titles.

Rockstar have again delivered a top quality GTA game. The use of the gang as its main focal point means an often thrilling experience is given as a climactic conclusion draws ever nearer, Johnny every bit the match for Niko. And whilst the story can not quite keep up its pace consistently throughout, with some noticeable slowing through the middle section of the game once a main character is, again, out of the picture- it's still a release that can match GTA IV' s highs for every low. New weapons are good additions, with a devastatingly frightful grenade launcher, sawn off shotgun, 'Streetsweeper', an automatic sub-machine gun, half of a pool cue and pipe bombs all keeping content feeling fresh and gun-fights consistently fun. Brilliant.


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