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