"I have a deep sadness in me, Luis. Will you join me, please, for an orgy of champagne, cocaine, women, watermelons and whatever else this city may have to offer?"
These are the words of Yusuf Amir - spoiled rich kid, property magnate and part-time arms dealer. Yusuf likes many things - prostitutes, class A drugs and stolen military hardware - but most of all he likes to have fun. The invitation I just quoted is taken from one of the early missions in The Ballad of Gay Tony, and in many ways it sums up what this episode is all about. Like The Lost and Damned, and GTA IV before it, TBoGT is ultimately a story about flawed, messed-up people - but this time the melancholy is all but overwhelmed by a massive streak of hedonism.
Yusuf himself is one of many elements that make this an extremely successful add-on. Thanks to the vocal talents of comedian Omid Djalili, Yusuf is a colourful and hugely endearing character - a maniac playboy who'll equip you with ludicrously powerful weapons before sending you off to steal police tanks and rocket-spewing helicopters. In short, he's a party animal - and his infectious enthusiasm underpins the spirit of Rockstar's final GTA IV episode. The player takes on the role of Luis Lopez, the Dominican-American bodyguard and business partner of Gay Tony, Liberty City's number one nightclub owner. Tony owns both Hercules and Maisonette 9 - respectively the hottest gay and straight clubs in town - but his personal life is in tatters. He's a hopeless, drug-addled mess, surrounded by leeches and hanger-ons, and he owes vast sums of money to two separate sets of gangsters.
It's a typical GTA setup, with a violent but otherwise intelligent antihero surrounded by a cast of incompetent lunatics. However, in a serious departure from the adventures of Niko Bellic and Johnny Klebitz, TBoGT seems hell-bent on serving up ludicrously over-the-top scenarios with every mission. Some 10 minutes into the game you'll be racing across town in a golf cart as angry mobsters give hot pursuit; later on you'll find yourself climbing to the top of a Space Needle-like tower, gunning down police choppers with a shotgun that fires exploding shells. Later still you'll enter a race that starts with the participants jumping out of a helicopter; you'll parachute right into the cockpit of an awaiting speedboat, tear across the waves, and eventually transfer to a juiced-up race car that features a screen-blurring turbo boost.
For the most part there is very little filler in terms of mission design, and the campaign is jam-packed with wild set pieces. On occasion the chaos seems to be almost too much for the game's ageing engine, resulting in a noticeable drop in frame-rate, but thankfully this never becomes a serious problem. The action here is also notably harder than GTA IV, to an even greater extent than was the case with The Lost and Damned, but it's all so much fun that you're unlikely to be too bothered about the odd restart. As with TLaD, there's a smart checkpoint system to skip you past the bits you've already done; there's still the minor hassle of having to re-arm before returning to the fray, but thankfully you can call one of Luis' buddies to get weapons and armour delivered on demand.
Outside of the main plot there's also a generous selection of side attractions. There's a golfing mini-game, an underground fight club to bet on or take part in, and the aforementioned multi-vehicle racing. There's also a base-jumping mini-game built around the new parachute mechanics, allowing you to take part in 20 jumps at locations dotted around the city. The controls here feel like an update on Nintendo's classic Pilot Wings series, allowing you to steer your descent by shifting your weight and using air-brakes. The mechanics are easy to pick up but hard to master, so it's supremely satisfying when you manage to pull off something flashy - like landing on the back of a moving truck, for example.