Gay TonyI feel I need to explain myself. At the beginning of this year I made a decision to not buy any new games. The embarrassing stack of backlogged and unfinished games was just evidence that I had let things get out of control. Now, don’t play innocent with me: We’ve all got a backlog. These forgotten and lost games once demanded our attention but were shelved for some other flashy, popular game that you just had to play or own. Well, I aim to give these games their due. Meanwhile, those hot new games will just get cheaper in price as their flames dim and they too are replaced. So my game reviews will not always be about the newest releases unless I am loaned a copy (which was the case with Tomb Raider – thanks again, Meatloaf). Anyway, that’s why I spent some twiddle time with The Ballad of Gay Tony, the second of two expansion packs for GTA IV.

Back in 2008, GTA IV was a commercial and critical success, winning numerous awards, including several game-of-the-year awards. I agree that the game was deserving of all of it. I had never played a GTA game completely (what with me being an Xbox devotee and GTA being a Playstation thing) until San Andreas made the console jump. But after setting foot onto the streets of Liberty City, I was hooked. From April until September of 2008, the game rarely left the disc tray. It was a game to get lost in. In 2009, I enjoyed the first expansion, The Lost and Damned. It too was aces and added a few new features to the game with some retooled motorcycle controls. With really no bad memories from those two experiences, why did Ballad feel like a torturous chore to get through?

I was gifted a brand spanking new copy of Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City for Uncanny X-Mas in 2010. It sat there in shrink-wrap (admit it, you’ve got an unwrapped game, too) until May of this year. I was excited to revisit the city I remembered so fondly, and at first it was pretty great. It was all there: The incredibly expansive city, teeming with residents just waiting to be carjacked or killed in crossfire. Vehicles, of every kind, just begging to be stolen – I quickly remembered which ones I favored and which were to be avoided. The impressive amount of licensed music used in the games has always been fantastically varied. Making the many radio stations a thrill to flip through. Radio Broker is still my favorite (the soundtrack, which was illegally downloaded in 2008, is now spinning as I write this). Driving through the city, I was surprised by how quickly it all came back to me. I knew these streets and where certain ones would lead. But holy shit I don’t recall the controls being so bloody bad.

It took a handful of hours for the driving controls to become mastered again. Unless of course we’re talking helicopters, because those controls never get better. Never. And get this: There are a lot of helicopter missions in this expansion, and they are a nightmare. Outside of vehicles, one must contend with a wackadoo camera. It swings wildly in the wrong direction at the worst of times. This includes shooting sequences. There were many missions that seemed impossible because the controls were so crap. But the game has always been set up so you must complete certain missions for others to become available, so it’s either fight through them or quit. I did complete the expansion’s story missions, although many times I contemplated quitting altogether. But early on it was decided that this was not a game to hunt cheevos on. Get in and get out was the path to take – ’cause did I mention the controls? What a difference five years make.

Now it wasn’t all bad. This expansion added more new features. Like base-jumping from the tops of skyscrapers and out of airborne vehicles (more of them damn helicopters). It does give one another cool way to interact with the city. Car crashes and damage are so well done, and it’s a hoot to become involved in them. Chaos lives, for random events can start at the flip of a switch. Piss off the wrong pedestrian and it could lead to some crazy and unexpected experiences. The city still lives beyond the scripted events and storyline. It’s pretty cool how Rockstar overlapped the two expansions with each other and the core game itself. There’s one mission that involves all the central playable characters. So by the time you’ve played through the main game and both expansions, you will have experienced the same mission from three different perspectives. Many of the personalities you interact with cross over from the main game to both expansions, further tying them together. And for all the whining, the controls themselves did become tolerable. Oh yeah, they added dancing and booty calls, too.

I won’t spoil the story here. It’s more of the same. You play another criminal, mixed up and working with other criminals. As Luis Fernando Lopez, an assistant to nightclub owner Tony “Gay Tony” Prince, you will resolve conflicts involving friends, family, and your boss. You will resolve conflicts with dance. OK. Enough. It’s full of glitz, gangsters, drugs, sex and violence. So do I recommend it? Yes, if you are a fan of GTA IV and need more. But know what you are getting into. If you’ve never played GTA and the $15 price tag is appealing … well maybe put that money down toward pre-ordering GTA V.

Final verdict: Rent it … if you have to.

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Wooly Toots is just a man. A man like any other. Although there is not a corner of geekdom that has escaped his eye, he doesn’t always like what he sees. He is uncomfortable with the term “love slave.”