[13 June 2010]
It’s been so long now since gamers were introduced to Grand Theft Auto III that I think that it’s easy to forget not only how much the gaming landscape has been influenced by Rockstar but further how polished the game experiences that they deliver can be. In the past several years, “sandbox” or “open world” games have become their own genre, granting players more freedom with respect to the kind of experience that they want out of a game to begin with. After the numbers generated by the Grand Theft Auto franchise in the last console generation, there was understandably a good deal of excitement around the release of GTA IV, particularly given the announcement that it would be reaching Microsoft and Sony consoles at the same time, a first for the series.
Microsoft clearly gained a lot of ground in the console market with the original Xbox, but the Grand Theft Auto behemoth had long been primarily associated with Sony. So Microsoft made the risky move of investing $50 million in exclusivity for two downloadable episodes to be released at some unspecified future date. At the time, Microsoft seemed to be playing a risky game, spending so much in an age when the notion of episodic DLC for a console really was in its infancy. Looking at the amount of units sold digitally over XBLA doesn’t give a complete picture of the relative success of this move.
The fact that the these episodes were subject to time-based exclusivity wasn’t exactly publicized when the deal was first announced. As such, I think it’s likely that many players chose to buy the game for the 360 (if not the console itself) for the chance to play these episodes, sight unseen, and these numbers are likely harder to quantify.
When the concept of DLC was discussed in the lead up to this console generation, I admit that I immediately viewed the whole thing rather cynically. Microtransactions for costumes and other such frills seemed like nickel and diming to me. When The Lost and Damned was first released in early 2009, I was surprised by how meaty additional content could actually be. Here was a legitimate reason to revisit Liberty City, experiencing a concurrent narrative that crossed paths with that of the core game in small but smart ways. Certainly, new vehicles and weapons (the kinds of things that I previously thought DLC were limited to) were present, but more importantly, there was an entirely new story being played out by a new set of characters. Liberty City felt astoundingly alive when it was first introduced in GTA IV, and the freshness of The Lost and Damned made it seem all the more so.
The Ballad of Gay Tony offers another enjoyable Liberty City experience and demonstrates that more so than Niko Bellic, Johnny Klebitz, or Luis Lopez (the protagonist of the final GTA IV episode) it is Liberty City’s realization itself that makes the whole thing entertaining. This notion is underscored by the fact that while Luis isn’t as downright unsympathetic as Johnny (something particularly noticeable given how likable Niko was), as a character, he really doesn’t contribute much to the personality of the game. Rather, the supporting cast and the city itself are what make The Ballad of Gay Tony shine. While the core presentation of Grand Theft Auto IV (as well as the experience of familiarizing yourself with Liberty City to begin with) seemed to highlight the “stranger in a strange land” themes of Niko’s introduction to America, The Lost and Damned had a dirty, gritty feel (and accompanying grain filter) appropriate for a biker protagonist. The Ballad of Gay Tony takes this one step further by being overtly glitzy, from the nightclub locales where much of it takes place to various design elements of the game itself.
In my estimation, The Ballad of Gay Tony is more enjoyable overall than The Lost and Damned. While this perception might simply be due to the fact that I had already played The Lost And Damned last spring while The Ballad of Gay Tony was completely new to me, I would argue that there’s more to it than that. Perhaps by virtue of having a core game and a meaty episode already exploring Liberty City, Rockstar seems to have spread their creative wings and gotten as inventive as possible with respect to missions in this swan song to GTA IV. While The Lost And Damned was impressive largely because of how much it eschewed notions of what console DLC could be, the lunacy on display in The Ballad of Gay Tony makes it feel a little bit more fun overall.
The fact that Episodes is available as a standalone package is fantastic for those who either never bought the original game (or simply don’t have the disc anymore) or want to be able to play these expansions on a friend’s console. The release of these episodes on the PS3 is a fantastic treat for GTA fans who don’t own a 360. The fact that a physically packaged version of Episodes from Liberty City feels like a great deal at $40 is indicative of how accomplished it is as DLC. As a package, these episodes nearly double the longevity of GTA IV in meaty, meaningful ways. Any fan of GTA IV would do well to play these titles, particularly since your system of choice is no longer a barrier for entry.