Rockstar has a knack for shape-shifting their flagship series. They conjured up the 80's drenched Vice City, the thug life-themed San Andreas, the "bikers gone wild" The Lost and Damned, and most recently The Ballad of Gay Tony. Though all these titles build on GTA games that came before, they've managed to stand on their own as great additions to the series, and its pretty clear now that episode numero dos for GTA IV is no one trick Tony... err, pony.
The protagonist of The Ballad of Gay Tony is actually not Gay Tony, but his business partner/friend/bodyguard Luis. The people Luis works for are some of the richest mofos in Liberty City, and as such have very extravagant ways of getting around, and more importantly, getting their dirty work done. The helicopter-to-parachute-drop combo was used in the first mission I played, which tasked Luis with taking out the owner of local hockey team. To put the drop on the owner Luis had to sky dive out of a moving helicopter and parachute down onto the top of the hockey team's business headquarters. After fighting my way through hordes of security guards I finally found the owner. The cut-scene that followed involved Luis kicking the owner out of a nearby window to his death, jumping out the same window (with parachute in tow, of course), and landing on top of a moving big rig to get the hell out while cops stormed the building.
By far the most entertaining mission I played through involved navigating across a speeding train, attaching a helicopter rigged with a crane-like tool to one of the train cars, and flying off with it. I wasn't kidding when I said this episode is straight out of an over-the-top action flick. As you'd expect it wasn't as easy as it sounds, with hordes of thugs attacking Luis from every direction. The moments before the helicopter pick up were so epic that I'll leave it for you guys to find out, but suffice to say The Ballad of Gay Tony will whet your appetite for action. This also marks the first time Rockstar will allow gamers to replay completed missions, as they've snuck in a heaping spoonful of mini-achievements for the perfectionists.
Aside from the skydiving-centric missions, the new episode also introduces some brutal new firepower to the GTA IV arsenal. The AA12 is an explosive shotgun conceivably made to shoot holes in elephants, as I found it useful to easily take out brigades of vehicles and thugs without breaking a sweat. Another great addition is the P-90, a submachine gun that I used excessively throughout the hockey owner assassination mission. Rockstar is also giving players immediate access to some destructive vehicles, like an army helicopter mounted with a giant .50 caliber gun. In case you were wondering, it has enough firepower to sink a luxury yacht and any security boats that might be guarding it. Yeah, you can do that in Gay Tony.
There are also quite a few BASE jumping/skydiving activities to supplement the main missions; think Pilotwings gangster-style. The skydiving mechanics are deep, with players having full control over Luis' speed of falling and angle of movement. One mission I took a stab at had me guiding Luis through rings as he plummeted downward. Soft landing in the targeted area will be key to scoring high in these activities. Another such mission required Luis to land on the back of a moving big rig (see the hockey assassination mission). It's nice to see Rockstar trying new variations of GTA's tried and true gameplay, and the best part is, it works.
GTA fans may feel that Rockstar has squeezed every last drop out of their fourth main title, but Gay Tony may prove them otherwise. Now where did I leave my parachute...