I'm going to miss Johnny Klebitz, the troubled anti-hero of The Lost and Damned. I'm going to miss his weary presence, miss the reassuring outline of his oddly noble nose, and miss his fatherly way with a sawed-off shotgun. New GTA IV DLC means that old friends move back into the shadows while former bit-parts step forward to take centre stage, so Klebitz and his biker gang have ducked out, making way for Liberty City's party class: big-spending, coke-powered low-lifes whose days pass in a neon blur of turbulent excess.
Although the forthcoming episode is called The Ballad of Gay Tony (the comments sections of a handful of American websites already show a certain segment of Rockstar's audience struggling manfully with concerns that their favourite developer might have returned all of its Mickey Spillane paperbacks to the local library and checked out Armistead Maupin's back catalogue instead) you won't be playing as the eponymous night club magnate in this instalment. Instead, the developer has cast you in the more conventional GTA role of Luis Lopez, Gay Tony's trusted assistant and sometime business partner.
Lopez is extremely likeable - he stands in a kind of half-slouch, one foot cockily forward, arms down by his sides like a gunslinger and, compared to Klebitz, he seems distinctly carefree. But it's a bit of a shame, really: if anyone could induce bible belt teens to pick up their controllers and experience the life of a gay disco impresario, it's probably Rockstar, and you can't help but hope the world would be a more understanding place afterwards. I should know: I was deeply prejudiced against anyone with a silly little under-mouth goatee until I picked up Gears of War for the first time. That's the true power of games.
The Lost and Damned came with the kind of content and construction that most developers would be willing to push out the door as a sequel, and there's no reason to believe that won't be the case here, but there are also significant differences between the two episodes. As with Bellic's story, Johnny Klebitz' Liberty City adventure was marked by a rather brooding tone. Sure, you could do a wheelie off the roof of an airport terminal while firing a rocket launcher into the cool blue sky, but the narrative at the game's centre was a tense, often claustrophobic tale of betrayal and madness. Gay Tony, however, seems to be something of a return to the knockabout days of San Andreas: it's loud and cheerfully blood-splattered, and even if Rockstar isn't about to let you loose with a jetpack, you feel it might at least come fairly close this time around. So while the plot itself seems tinged with worldly desperation - Gay Tony's up to his elbows in all kinds of trouble, and needs Lopez to keep the worst of it at bay - the pace and detailing is pure action cinema.
The first mission Rockstar unveils during a recent visit to the company's London offices sets the tone brilliantly. Dropping In sees you tasked with helping out a Russian gangster who plans to buy the Liberty City ice hockey team - and in this case, "helping out" means shooting the current owner in the head until he agrees to the deal. It's a simple agenda, then, but Rockstar breezes through the checkpoints in the most lavish manner imaginable, choppering you high above the owner's penthouse offices (Gay Tony allows players to reach loftier altitudes than they ever could previously, which, besides providing a very obscure bullet point for the back of the box, blends well with the return of San Andreas' parachute, allowing Rockstar to mess around amongst the rooftops of its playground in a way it hasn't for a while). Then you're sent skydiving down onto the roof, shooting your way into the boardroom, and making your escape, post-execution, by parachuting through a window and onto a flat-bed truck passing below.
It's a hilariously fast-paced killing spree, aided by a nasty addition to GTA's arsenal in the form of the P90, a gun that allegedly fires 900 rounds a minute. (Is that even possible? I was taking notes in the dark.) It's the first of a handful of new weapons available, all of them tilted towards the dramatic end of the scale, and while it's a beast, chewing through security guards and blasting open doors in a style you might not initially be prepared for, it's a shrinking violet compared to what you'll get later on.
The second mission I'm shown, and the first I get to play through, only reinforces the sensation that Gay Tony sees Rockstar letting its hair down. In For the Man who has Everything, Yusuf - a middle-eastern crime pudding in a dorky tracksuit who featured fleetingly in GTAIV itself, and who is brilliantly voiced in this instalment by Omid Djalili - wants to get hold of a Liberty City subway carriage to decorate a hotel he's building overseas. This sends you leaping onto the roof of a passing tube train and uncoupling the last coach, before it's winched away by helicopter.
Always competitive, the police have their own helicopters of course, and the sky's soon thick with them, buzzing overhead and peppering everything with bullets. Luckily, you're carrying perhaps the finest addition to GTA's weapon set, the AA12, an automatic shotgun that comes in two varieties: one of them fires standard rounds, another unleashes explosive shells. This is the latter, as it happens, and it makes light work of the helicopters, tearing them out of the sky in flaming chunks, and leaving you to duck the occasional falling propeller. The AA12 is so horribly effective you almost feel bad using it, and its very presence turns a mission that on paper is rather simple into an explosive speed-run.
The final missions on offer at the moment, Going Deep and Sexy Time, are similar exercises in fleet-footed excess, the former seeing you setting a fiery ambush for a bunch of corrupt cops, while the latter has you racing across the bay in a speedboat to fetch Yusuf a new make of attack helicopter currently being marketed on a luxury yacht. Playing out in an underground parking garage, Going Deep is all about the game's new sticky grenades - laid in advance, and then triggered in one go while you watch from behind a car, or thrown out the window as you make your high-speed escape. Sexy Time, however, hinges on the joys of guided missiles as you make off with the nifty new chopper before using it to sink the yacht and finish off any fleeing survivors.
With its new weapons and easygoing lead, Gay Tony seems built for the impromptu GTA rampages of old, and the icing on the cake comes in the shape of that parachute introduced with Dropping In. While the 'chute features in missions, it comes into its own with a series of target markers spread around the city. It's brilliant fun to pulp traffic and blast pedestrians' hats off with that explosive shotgun, of course, but the most enjoyment to be had on this visit to Liberty City so far is in spiralling down off the roof of a skyscraper to land on the back of a moving vehicle. Triggers and thumb-sticks give you total control over swooping, turning, and shifting your weight to speed up your descent, and there's a distinct hint of Super Monkey Ball in the way the game encourages you to open your parachute at the very last possible minute.
The Ballad of Gay Tony is also the episode which will bring the entirety of GTA IV to its conclusion. It's been an exhaustive tour through Rockstar's eternal city, kicking off so long ago in the gloom of night with Nico's low-key arrival. It seems only fitting that the whole thing's going to end, a million miles away in terms of tone, with a cheery kind of chaos, bidding adieu in a freewheeling muddle of speedboats, fireballs and hair's-breadth base-jump landings. The most persistent criticism levelled at the developer's urban juggernaut over the past few years has been that, as the company grows as a storyteller, its games lose that sense of hedonistic fun. In this final chapter, then, Rockstar seems to be trying to prove that it can handle the highs as well as the lows - that just because it's learnt to craft characters you'll truly care about, it hasn't forgotten that players also like to donut a bus into a funfair every now and then. That's a challenge, to be sure, but if the first handful of missions are anything to go by, like Lopez drifting down out of the clouds for a perfect landing in the middle of a penthouse helipad, the team seems to be right on target.
The Ballad of Gay Tony is exclusive to Xbox 360 and will be available on Xbox Live on 29th October for 1600 Microsoft Points (£13.60 / €19.20). You'll also be able to buy it in the shops on a disc called Episodes from Liberty City, which also includes previous DLC The Lost and Damned. This disc will cost £34.99, and you won't need a copy of the original GTAIV to play it. Got that?