Niko Bellic never had friends, missions or "toys" like Luis Lopez gets next month.
Those who have played Grand Theft Auto over the years know that 2008's adventure of Niko Bellic was, relatively speaking, one of the calmer GTAs. Ballistic bank heists and motorcycle chases in subway tunnels notwithstanding, Niko didn't parachute from skyscrapers or drive military vehicles down Broadway. That, with style, is where the next GTA IV episode comes in.
I played and watched a few missions from Rockstar Games' next and final extension of Grand Theft Auto IV at the company's New York City headquarters yesterday. The new episode, which Rockstar says will be similar in size to the last one, offers a few notable game design tweaks but will most likely stand out to series fans as a modern way to reintroduce some of the eccentricities not seen in a console GTA since the PlayStation 2-era Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
Bodyguard Luis Lopez, star of the Ballad of Gay Tony, is committed in this episode to help his friend and employer, the beleaguered nightclub owner, Tony Prince, resist the encroachment of some crooked gangsters. That's the set-up for a wild ride.
Rockstar is pitching this episode as an experience on the other side of Liberty City's velvet rope, an indulgence in the excesses of the super-rich and likely not-so-nice. So it was no surprise to hear that there's a champagne mini-game in Gay Tony, nor to witness a mission that involved stealing an attack helicopter from the back of a yacht before using said chopper's rockets to blow up some boats — nor to try a mission myself that had Luis walking along the top of a moving, elevated subway, using a shotgun with explosive shells to eliminate swarming police helicopters. That last mission's motivation? We're doing it to steal a subway car for a rich guy who wants to build a re-creation of Liberty City in the Middle East.
San Andreas would let you eat enough burgers to make its hero slovenly. It would hide a big purple sex toy for you to find and use to bludgeon people. There isn't any sign that Gay Tony is taking things quite that far. Instead, the new episode defines its colorfulness within the lines of Liberty City's demented wealthy. I witnessed one cut-scene that had Luis considering a job for a man with so much money that he has a super-hero costume, a TV running the end-credits of GTA IV and a big bird sculpture in his penthouse apartment… a man who has people upstairs making noises Luis mistakes for the filming of a pornographic movie... a man who delivers a life lesson that culminates with the instruction that an individual must always do what money dictates even if that dictation involves the loss of one's own legs.
For this eccentric cast Luis might machine-gun his way through the upper floors of the MeTV building, where, instead of my old MTV offices from my last job, we find on one high-rise floor the offices for the crooked owners of Liberty City's hockey team. Extra credit goes to the gamers who can shoot one of these no-good franchise owners in such a way that he crashes through a window and down many stories to the Liberty City version of the patio outside my old company's cafeteria. And more extra credit to the gamer who can follow that with a parachute jump out of the skyscraper and onto the back of a flatbed truck.
Rockstar's previous episodic expansion of GTA IV, The Lost and Damned, expanded the gameplay options of the base game by allowing and encouraging players to ride through the city and fight with a gang of other characters providing back-up. The twist in this episode is that Luis' missions will include optional goals — ideal completion times, ideal damage taken, bonus objectives like shooting that guy out of the window or landing on that truck. A mission can be completed without them, but Rockstar is enabling and encouraging gamers to re-launch the missions after having completed them, as players could in the DS' Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, and to strive for those goals. Rockstar reps couldn't tell me what the rewards for perfect completion might be.
I used to work with a guy who was almost depressed about the lack of access to a military tank in Grand Theft Auto IV. He liked the new game but missed the older games' wildness. It's for people like him that Rockstar is now promising in Gay Tony access to an armored personnel carrier with a 50-caliber gun, more advanced and devastating helicopters and even a more potent arsenal of firearms, which will be made available to Luis early in the episode. But I think the addition that will most excite my former co-worker is Luis Lopez' parachute. Find a high spot in Liberty City, equip the parachute and jump. Players can experiment with it freely, though be warned that it can't be used infinitely. You'll need to replenish your parachute supply. Gay Tony will also provide access to 15 parachute-jumping challenges, five of which involve trying to bullseye a target after leaping off a building, five of which involve leaping from helicopters and five of which involve leaping from motorcycles.
Rockstar estimates that this new episode will be similar in size to the previous one, The Lost And Damned, an episode that took me 12 hours to reach its narrative conclusion. The new game won't have any new multiplayer modes but will support existing ones. The radio stations will be beefed up once again, with more music, new DJs and new talk. There will be new in-game TV programming. Some missions will intersect with the previous GTA IV releases, allowing gamers to again encounter Niko Bellic and Lost and Damned protagonist Johnny Klebitz. Some side missions will be randomly generated, enabling Luis to do tasks for people who hang out in Tony's clubs. The story missions will have a more Algonquin/Manhattan focus than those of Lost and Damned.
Rockstar always keeps some secrets out of its GTA previews. That headline-grabbing full-frontal nudity in The Lost and Damned was not featured in any preview I got of that episode. Who knows what other eccentricities will be in this one. But what I've seen so far of what Rockstar says is this last-planned GTA IV episode is wild enough to wrap the saga of Grand Theft Auto in entertaining and eccentric fashion.
Grand Theft Auto IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony will be available on October 29 both as a $20 download through Xbox Live or on an $40 Xbox 360 standalone disc called Grand Theft Auto: Episodes From Liberty City that also included The Lost and Damned and does not require ownership of GTA IV. As with the previous expansion to GTA IV, Rockstar has only announced this new episode for the Xbox 360 and gave no word that it is ever coming to the PlayStation 3.