It’s fantastic DLC, there’s no doubt. Rockstar North have produced, with their two elaborations of Liberty City life, the most compelling argument for why we should tolerate downloadable content in the wake of the expansion pack’s death (which occurred under mysterious circumstances, but best not to dwell). First came The Lost and The Damned, nine or ten hours of smoky, leather-clad brutality in the brotherhood, and then followed The Ballad of Gay Tony, which I heard was sort of like Vice City and ergo awesome.

Well, I’ve only just finished TBoGT (which for reasons I can’t describe is an unexpectedly joyous acronym to type), and though it does return to GTA’s roots, it feels to me more like a Natural Motion-guided drunken stumble backwards than a celebratory homecoming.


There were some complaints about GTA4 and TLaTD (hmm, that one doesn’t do it for me), how they were too concerned with PROBLEMS and GREY and STODGINESS and in providing a more sobering tale of criminality inevitably lost some of that crazy magic that made GTA so blissful, and such a pleasurable toy box. But both of them demonstrated to me that GTA could provide enjoyment beyond wacky missions with tenuous links to your rise in the underworld and machines with unbridled potential for chaos. Holy crap, I was hooked on the narrative. I wanted to see where Nico ended up, because it didn’t seem an inevitable ascent to the gold throne of Mob-dom over a pile of dead bodies.


Last one to watermark his screenshots IS A GREAT BIG HOMO
Okay, he took a little long to stop chauffeuring nobodies around and start ruffling feathers, and in large part that’s thanks to the game’s ambition and its “go on, chuck it in” approach to features. These were not a problem in TLaTD; the developers were able to start throwing things at you with an assumed knowledge that you’d know how to catch them. As a result, the first DLC contained a more tightly-contained plot, with less deviation and no flailing tendrils that made a mess of the flow-chart of game progression. A lovely little package, and, to me at least, the best DLC ever made at its release.


I'm here to break up unsightly word-piles!TBoGT took that formula and stuck its head in the toilet. Providing tanks, attack helicopters, parachutes and more demanded both inane excuses in their set up and the explanation of how to get to grips with these confounding new novelties. Unlike in TLaTD I felt I was once more in an unusual place, busy getting to grips with new playthings that demanded my attention at the expense of investing myself in the story, which is itself more erratic in trying to accommodate the eclectic mix of new gameplay elements. The gradual progression of linked and familiar mechanics in TLaTD helped keep me focused on the larger picture of the protagonist’s troubles; TBoGT’s habit of jack-knifing from one seemingly unrelated mission after another dreamt up after watching too much Looney Tunes (retraction: you cannot watch too much Looney Tunes) eventually numbed me to the point where I gave up trying to figure out what was going on with my character. The eponymous Tony was a fascinating (and grudgingly likeable) character, but he’s only really explored in the sense that you experience the after effects of events surrounding him.


Little Bird, Big Bird's cousin who went off the rails.
A lot of praise was directed towards TBoGT at GTA4’s previous efforts’ expense as detractors from the muted themes previously present delighted at a return to plain, simple fun. Yet the problems that always dragged me away from doing what I wanted to do – have fun – haven’t been addressed: I still get passive-aggressive calls from ‘friends’ demanding I escort them to the nearest bar, I’m nudged into checking my emails every so often to help move things along, and I now apparently have to do shifts as a bouncer (or so the constantly nagging phone calls tell me). Was there a petition asking Rockstar to provide an electronic simulation of what is probably the most mind-numbingly dull job on the planet? Hell, they even brought back that abysmal rhythm-action dancing mini-game from San Andreas, and I get the insidious feeling they’re monitoring our response to the ‘drug war’ missions as a preliminary study aimed at bringing back the ‘turf war’ agony of SA, too. What I can’t help shake the feeling is that TBoGT sacrificed aspects of what Rockstar North had achieved with its previous two releases to make room for a few atmosphere-breaking party tricks, and it's a brighter, louder and dumber game for it.

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