Version tested: Xbox 360
Rockstar's second downloadable add-on for Grand Theft Auto IV may be known as The Ballad of Gay Tony, but anyone who goes in expecting a radical social message from the world's most controversial developer will be disappointed. If anything, the homosexuality angle is superfluous to Rockstar's agenda: the GTA games have always demonstrated that acting outside the law is the great equaliser, and The Ballad is yet another story of how crime begets crime no matter your class, creed or sexual preference.
While the first episode, The Lost and Damned, focused on Liberty City's biker gangs, The Ballad of Gay Tony is rooted in the glitzy party districts of Algonquin, where nightclub impresario Tony Prince and his business partner and player character Luis Lopez preside over a pair of night spots. Lopez is a typical GTA hero - surrounded by addicts and criminals whom he looks down upon despite being, on the evidence of your actions and his justifications, the worst of all of them.
His adventures crisscross the stories of Niko Bellic and Johnny Klebitz, and it's entertaining to watch Rockstar coax more depth out of its existing matrix of conflicting plot-lines, but the smartest trick here is to shift the focus away from you and onto the supporting cast. Prince is a whiny coke-and-pills addict, and Lopez is a philandering murderer, which turns out to be as much his fault as yours. Neither is particularly sympathetic, and - perhaps deliberately - neither is particularly funny.
Yusuf Amir, however, you can't help but like. Superbly voiced by British-Iranian actor Omid Djalili, he's the star of The Ballad: a drug-fuelled billionaire playboy who makes up for this by being completely shameless. At one point you find yourself in his apartment listening to him explain away a gold uzi, lines of white powder and a hooker to his conservative father, all the while he's strutting around in a tracksuit top and a pair of padded Y-fronts. His dialogue is also the most outrageous since Brucie Kibbutz. "I'm the executive flying cobra," he explains at the end of an elaborate snake metaphor about his new combat helicopter. "When I stick my tongue in you, you know you've been poisoned."
He's not the only great new character - Brucie's older, shorter brother Mori is also good value for his ludicrous missions - but the other stars of The Ballad are a renewed focus on helicopters, the introduction of a parachute and a new shotgun with explosive shells.
The helicopters aren't really that different to the ones in regular GTAIV (give or take a few weapon systems), but they are used more often, and Rockstar gets more out of them because it has also raised the ceiling on the gameworld, which is perfect fodder for the parachute. Deployed with the A button once you're in freefall, and easily manoeuvred, it's a scenic way of navigating Liberty City, and also the basis of a new side-mission type, base jumping. Whether from buildings or helicopters, it's a Pilotwings-style exercise in precision movement, built around economy of control and timing.
There's also a promising-sounding multiplayer mode to go with this, where players work together to complete nine base jumps spread around the city in the fastest overall time, positioning fast cars near drop points and collaborating in other novel ways to reduce the downtime between jumps. (Sadly we were unable to test this out with our review code, but will do so when we take a separate look at the Episodes From Liberty City bundle that also includes The Lost and Damned. Look for that next week.)
As for the shotgun with explosive shells, FPS developers will be kicking themselves. While I'm no gun expert, I suspect the new boomshotty makes no real-world sense, acting more like a Quake 2 railgun with localised fireworks on impact, but it brings the cover-based third-person combat to life again - far more so than the vaunted P90, which is merely another machinegun with lots of bullets. More novelty guns, please.
Although The Ballad begins with familiar objectives (drive here, shoot these guys, drive home), it's not long before the explosive shotty, parachute, helos and lunatic cast start to dominate, and the result is the most memorable set of missions for some time. Tony and Luis scare up an adversary by throwing him out of a helicopter and then saving him. Then Yusuf decides he should steal a subway car using a skycrane helicopter while you bat police choppers away with explosive shells. There are new multi-vehicle races, too, in which you jump out of a chopper at peak altitude, land on a boat and eventually transfer to a sports car to speed to the finish line.
More traditional missions show Rockstar hitting its stride with the GTAIV template. At one point, Mori drags you and Brucie out to Middle Park, has you each steal a fast car and then calls the cops. For sport. The speed, riverside route, police set-pieces, radio banter and final cut-scene are all carefully tuned to keep you amused and avoid frustration.
With that said, there are a few too many missteps along the way to elevate The Ballad to the same glory as its host game. The first hour or two's cut-scenes are a trifle dull and difficult to follow, with rather more casual racism being thrown around by the cast than the quality of the context justifies, while the missions they bookend are stale compared to what follows, and often fall back on taxiing people around while characters continue their conversations.
GTAIV itself is starting to creak, too - the world is still fantastic to inhabit, but visibly strains the console to a degree that matters more with the passage of time, while Luis' physical relationship with the world around him, particularly in gun battles and busy environments, appears clumsier in its late-2009 context than Niko's did in April 2008. Helicopter combat is also rather fiddly, as Rockstar crams more simultaneous controls onto the pad buttons.
However, these are mere wobbles in the broader sweep of The Ballad, and easily forgotten. Like The Lost and Damned, it's a sizable chunk of game, too, taking around a dozen hours to exhaust completely, and that's before multiplayer is taken into account. Perhaps Tony Prince does nothing to drag the series forward - somewhat fittingly for a man with his head stuck in the eighties - but the episode Rockstar has named in his honour is a colourful and pleasingly unpredictable adventure that gets better throughout and ends on a high.
8 / 10