Reviewed: May 8, 2010
Released: April 13, 2010
Undoubtedly no other franchise in the history of gaming carries the infamous reputation of Grand Theft Auto. Over the course of four releases, Rockstar Games' flagstone series has all but revolutionized gaming with its open-world design and in-your-face subject matter - and in doing so has simultaneously garnered rave critical review, and mass infamy.|
Over the last decade, the GTA series has taken gamers from the tawdry streets of New York (Liberty City), to the sunny beached of Miami (Vice City), to Los Angeles' urban neighborhoods (San Andreas), and the casinos of Las Vegas (Las Venturas) and back to the streets of Liberty City. Gamers have been able to take the roles of a variety of "Made Men" and gangster types, from Italian Mafiosos to Don Johnson wannabes, and from Urban Gangstas to Russian Mobsters.
The PS3 release of Episodes from Liberty City now introduces gamers to the seedy underworld of biker gangs and the unsavory decadence of high-class crime with the once Xbox 360-exclusive GTA IV expansion episodes The Lost and The Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony. Originally released as two independant standalone downloadable titles, both episodes have been packaged and released on a single BluRay disc for PS3 owners. The titles still retain their original individuality on the disc - each is selected from an initial menu screen requires a unique install to the PS3 hard drive - and each is a standalone release, so owning GTA IV is not a prerequisite.
The two stories take place in parallel to the events of GTA IV, and many of your favorite characters from the aforementioned title make cameos throughout the 16-plus hours of gameplay. And even more special than seeing your favorite characters pop up in scenes is to see specific scenarios from GTA IV played from a different point of view - whether first-hand in the gameplay, or second-hand from a cutscene. Both stories are everything we have come to expect from the Grand Theft Auto series - corny yet compelling, twisted yet predictable - but wholly entertaining from beginning to end. Each follows a unique character within the GTA universe, and each features a unique play mechanic that separates it from the gameplay of GTA IV.
One important fact to mention is that even though both titles are technically standalone games, they were originally released as additional downloadable content to extend the primary GTA IV experience. The result is that the games seem to assume that the player is already well-versed in the ways and means of Liberty City and the hardcore action starts right from the get-go with an incredibly steep learning curve - which can make it a bit tough for newcomers to the series.
The two stories play as follows:
Obviously, a great deal of the gameplay takes part from the back of a motorcycle - with any number of delivery missions, escort missions, cross-town chases and back-alley races. Thankfully, the motorcycle riding has been refined to the point where it is actually enjoyable. Whereas the prior releases featured motorcycles as little more than an ill-fated novelty, the control of The Lost and The Damned's bikes is noticeably more forgiving, and the vehicles are actually quite effective for navigating the city.
The story's focus on motorcycling tasks gamers with maintaining riding formations during biker gang missions, shooting from the back of motorcycles, and protecting fellow bikers during firefights, it also and adds a ton of cycle-based racing events and challenges. The gang-based firefights are typically quite large, time consuming, and tough - with wave after wave of rivals approaching from every direction. Thankfully, the game bookmarks periodically during the firefight, so unexpected deaths do not always mean a complete mission restart - as least in most cases, that is.
The name of the game with The Ballad of Gay Tony is unabashed excess - Luis is already connected, meaning money is of no object, and every weapon and vehicle is at Luis' disposal. For Luis, the word "chopper" does not refer to a motorcycles, but rather high-priced custom military grade helicopters - add to this high end sportscars, and even armored APC's. The vehicles are big, bold, and a real blast - and really add to the fun. And if that were not enough, the parachute is officially back for a whole series of skydiving missions.
The Ballad of Gay Tony features some of the best cameos of the two, starting with the opening scene - Luis' perspective as a hostage during the Packie and Nico's big bank heist scene from GTA IV, and even brings meathead Brucie back in the mix. Even The Lost and The Damned's Billy and Johnny come into play periodically to fully intertwine the three titles.
But beyond all the glitz and glam of Gay Tony, what the story really adds to the series is new gameplay in the form of a scored mission structure where gamers receive points for each mission completion. The points don't necessarily mean that much to the actual enjoyment of the game, but they definitely add to the replay value as gamers retry missions to improve their mission scores and achieve the corresponding trophies.
Both titles feature the same top-shelf presentation we have come to expect from the GTA series - I dare to say the PS3 version surpasses the Xbox 360 versions in terms of quality. Liberty City looks simply fantastic with increased draw distance, sharper lines, and improved textures. As if that were not enough, the addition of new vehicles and the focus on new locales seems to put a new coat of paint on our favorite GTA city. Where the PS3 version stumbles a bit is with the controls, especially on foot where they seem sloppy and loose - nowhere near as fluid and responsive as they are with the Xbox 360 controller. It is nothing that cannot be conquered given time, but cross-platform gamers will definitely take notice.
Both titles feature the same enjoyable multiplayer as their predecessor, with additional modes based upon their gameplay focuses - The Lost and The Damned leaning heavily on cat-and-mouse style motorcycle missions and races, and The Ballad of Gay Tony adding a slew of new vehicles and weapons to the standard team and solo-based multiplayer modes. PS3's GTA IV fans owe it to themselves to pick up Episodes From Liberty City to experience the fun and enjoyment that Xbox 360 fans have already known for nearly a year. The two stories are excellent in their own rights, and add a ton of side story to the already excellent story of GTA IV.