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Luis and Gay Tony in GTA IV: Ballad of Gay Tony

Luis and Gay Tony in GTA IV: Ballad of Gay Tony

Last week, the second and final installment of the Episodes of Liberty City downloadable content for Grand Theft Auto IV, The Ballad of Gay Tony, was released. Unlike the more sullen story of Nico Bellic, clawing his way up from nothing, Gay Tony’s Luis begins with a crisp suit, good job, plenty of cash and all sorts of expensive items to wreak havoc throughout Liberty City. What marks out GTA IV‘s DLC from a simple mission pack or extra campaign is that it offers the chance to experience Liberty City from a new perspective, reimagining the gameplay, and thus, the game, in the process.

This is something I heartily commend.

Casting our minds back through the mysts of tyme, in ye olden days, expansion packs for PC games were popular stop-gaps between development cycles. Often, the best packs would invite a new experience, for better or worse. Blizzard’s Frozen Throne expansion for Warcraft III included some fairly awful squad-based levels, eschewing the base management aspect the original. However, the attempt was there, the price of development was low, and the cost to the consumer was reduced too. Win-win. Now that DLC has become entwined in the fate of games on the current generation of consoles, we see this trend returning.

Burnout Paradise: Big Surf Island

Burnout Paradise: Big Surf Island

While GTA IV asks players to see the city through the eyes of a new protagonist, with new motivations and financial status (equaling new mission, weapons and cars, gameplay-wise), Burnout Paradise‘s expansion, Big Surf Island is an unashamed distillation of the core game. Criterion took all the aspects that made the original fun: huge jumps, secret areas, inventing Tony Hawk-esque routes to create the most exhilarating run, and shrunk it down into a tiny area, converting the game from a weak beer to a hard shot of tequila. It’s a wonderful addition to the game. In fact, the only problem is that the island is too much fun. Driving between both areas, linked from a bridge, is now a jarring experience: the jumps, twists and turns of the new island give way to open, flat, straight, roads of the original. Roads that once seemed exciting and fast are now tedious and one-dimensional.

The difference between these expansions and those that the PC cultivated is that while we need to build new content, we can still situate the player in the same environment that they know, playing off their familiarity with surprise and nostalgia. The re-imagining of these games shows just how many play-styles modern games are capable of supporting, if only the developers had the time to do so. There are strong parallels with MMOs here, visiting the old friend of Azeroth after six months away can reveal new secrets and functionality, delighting players for years on end. Revisitating promotes an ownership of virtual worlds that were hitherto transient places, existing for a single game, for a single purpose.

I hope this signals a new style of development, building on solid foundations to support ever more complex and ever more exciting gameplay, refining original ideas over time, rather than creating monolithic pieces that remain the same forever. The intent is the same as the (arguably failed) episodic gaming movement of a few years ago, but the execution different.

And now, back to Gay Tony. I have some skyscrapers to base jump off.

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