Episodes from Liberty City is a package deal - a two-for-one special
containing two games based in the Grand Theft Auto IV world, capable of being played without the original GTA IV disc. It contains The Lost and The Damned - which we already reviewed here and The Ballad of Gay Tony, reviewed below. As a game in its own right, Episodes suffers from inelegant optimisation - there is a noticeable increase in pop-in (where a game's art assets don't load as fast as everything else, popping in to view some time after).
The same issues we had with The Lost and The Damned still exist here in The Ballad of Gay Tony. Once again, Ballad excels as a game in its own right, especially for the price point charged, but as a GTA title it seems cramped and restricted - the story of Luis Lopez is once again a tale which feels like it deserves the full GTA treatment.
You read correctly - Luis Lopez. You don't play as the titular Gay Tony in Ballad, you play as his heterosexual life partner/bodyguard/business partner. An ex-con, Tony keeps 'L' around as muscle - nevertheless you quickly notice Luis is the straighter character in the pair (no, not like that).
Luis is quickly established as a reluctant crook - when provoked however he turns into a caricature of Tony Montana. This contrast is also seen in many other characters who inch beyond the confines of their stereotype. As characters they're all larger than life - Ballad is a game full of Brucies. In fact Brucie (the most alpha character in GTA IV) makes a return here beautifully - and manages to grow as a character.
Fans of Niko Bellic and Johnny Klebitz's stories will love the multitude of story connections to the previous "Episodes" as
characters from both work their way into the plot. Those with no previous knowledge (or those with short memories) will still get a full story out of what Ballad has to offer, and fortunately most of the humour in the game (and there's a lot) isn't reliant on people knowing their GTA stuff. Nevertheless, those who haven't played the previous titles absolutely should go back to complete the connections.
Those with knowledge of Grand Theft Auto as a series though - they'll get the most out of what Ballad has to offer. People who remember the goofy antics of San Andreas and Vice City will love the overblown characters of Ballad. With the inclusion of a Vice City radio station (complete with "You're the Voice" by John Farnham) anyone who complained about the serious and dark nature of GTA IV and The Lost and The Damned will be instantly appeased.
The missions also take on this hyper-blown-out, over-the-top style - within only a few missions you'll be flying helicopter gunships and running from armoured assault vehicles before you eventually find yourself parachuting around assassinating people, running clubs and participating in fully choreographed dance numbers (no, really). It's easy to get distracted with Luis's Liberty City because there's so much to do. Running clubs, base jumping and participating in drug wars totally eclipses any side missions in either TLAD or GTA IV - making Ballad absolutely the most distracting episode.
The game remains as difficult as you've come to expect from a GTA game, but the frustration factor is significantly reduced thanks to better use of checkpoints. Chinatown Wars, the DS (and now PSP) chapter of the Liberty City story, provides Ballad with a scoring system which doesn't exactly work - it's good for the handheld versions of the game, but in Ballad it breaks up the flow of the narration.
Beyond what I've said, there isn't heaps you can say about Ballad that hasn't already been said about GTA IV or The Lost and The Damned. It's definitely a fitting ending to the GTA IV series (episodes, saga, epic, whatever), and like the other episode from Liberty City it feels like it's over way too soon. As an experiment, it's been a fun one - the way the
characters from the three titles all come together is phenomenal. In catering to the crowd of people who missed the caricature nature of the GTA IV series I fear that The Ballad of Gay Tony alienates fans of the new gritty and realistic style - nevertheless, Ballad is a genuinely good game with over 12 hours of the classic GTA gameplay, and it's tough not to love.
As a gameplay package Episodes from Liberty City offers literally over 20 hours of a superb GTA experience for a budget price. It has been put together to save people the trouble of making room on the ridiculously expensive Xbox 360 hard drives - however thanks to poor optimisation it might be the kind of title you install to your HDD. You only need to parachute and crater into a billboard which only existed after you died once before you come to this conclusion. If you traded in your copy of GTA IV or you are indeed rocking a smaller hard drive, absolutely get Episodes from Liberty City. Otherwise, maybe pick up Ballad on the Xbox Live Marketplace.