Last generation, although it eventually made its way onto other systems, Grand Theft Auto meant PlayStation. When it was announced that the first iteration of the series on next-gen consoles, a franchise which always had at least moderately lengthy stretches of exclusivity with Sony, would launch simultaneously on the Xbox 360 and PS3, there was shock in the industry. To many, it was the first sign that the previous generation’s trend of third-party exclusivity was coming to an end. The same can’t be said about downloadable content. Microsoft paid a reported 50 million dollars for exclusive DLC for Grand Theft Auto IV, a massive amount of money for content that, until recently, meant map packs and horse armor. After Lost & Damned was released it was apparent that Rockstar’s brand of DLC was unlike any released yet, and could be more closely equated to a retail release than a map pack. Next in line was the curious Ballad of Gay Tony, looking to bring the Liberty City chapter to a large, glamorous finish.
I, like many, didn’t believe my eyes when the rainbow emblazoned logo was first revealed. Lost & Damned seemed to take the manliest route possible, pumping testosterone into Liberty City by putting players in control of The Lost, Liberty City’s premier biker gang. The Ballad of Gay Tony couldn’t go any further in the opposite direction, putting players in control of Luis Lopez, assistant to Anthony "Gay Tony" Prince. Whereas Lost & Damned brought gamers to the dirty side, adding a film grain overlay and a gritty story, Gay Tony makes it all, well, gay, adding pink HUD elements and nightclubs.
And that’s the name of the game in The Ballad of Gay Tony: change. Sure, it’s set in the same Liberty City and shares more similarities with Grand Theft Auto IV than Lost & Damned did, but the mood is a step away from the typical Grand Theft Auto formula. The protagonist, while still a stone-cold killer like Niko and Johnny, has a different outlook on life than past anti-heroes. He works for Tony, who owns some of the biggest clubs in the entire city, and makes enough to live comfortably while kicking some of the money to his mother. He’s actually happy with the life he’s managed to make for himself.
However, this swanky life might all be coming to an end thanks to Tony’s penchant for drugs and bad decision-making. He’s dug himself into a number of different holes he can’t climb out of, borrowing money from the wrong people and making inebriated choices he shouldn’t be making. This, mixed in with the already struggling U.S. economy, means his nightclubs, and life, are slowly slipping out of control. This is where Luis comes in. Tony is the father figure he never had, and his job as bodyguard and business partner means it’s up to him to assure the Tony Prince Empire doesn’t crumble, something made increasingly difficult as the game goes on.
In order to make sure none of the mob bosses Tony owes favors to put a bullet in his head, Luis needs to accommodate the crime lords who run the city. Since most of them already have all of the money they need, it’s more about collecting things they can’t easily buy, or taking out anyone who isn’t willing to sell. They have the deepest pockets in Liberty City, and the jobs they give Luis can be a bit ridiculous. Bulgarin, for instance, is a Russian mobster whose entire goal in Liberty City is to purchase a hockey team, sending Luis on missions to take down some of the owners who don’t want to sell their share of the team. Yusuf Amir, in particular, stands out among the new additions, and the debaucherous billionaire’s quest to please his conservative, Islamic father is consistently entertaining, as are the insane missions he sends Luis on.
Early on, the missions feel very similar to the ones in GTA IV but slowly they grow to more ludicrous levels. Using new weapons like sticky bombs and explosive shotgun rounds make destroying attacking helicopters much easier, and powerful military vehicles allow for Luis to lay waste to even the toughest opponents. The crazy missions represent the largest difference between the previous episodes and The Ballad of Gay Tony, and explain why people have been comparing the expansion to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Even so, it never feels as forced as it did in San Andreas, and it ends up making sense when Luis has to jump out of a helicopter to scare a blogger out of writing mean things about Tony. While stealing tanks being transported by NOOSE helicopters and driving them through the city streets might seem like something that wouldn’t have fit in Niko’s story, it meshes perfectly with Luis’s, and gets better and better as the game goes on, ending in explosive finale that needs to be played.
When compared to Lost & Damned, which felt like an entirely different game within the GTA universe thanks to the focus on motorcycle warfare, there’s definitely more familiarity this time around. That’s not to say it doesn’t feel different at all – on the contrary, there are a number of different elements that have been added to the game to keep things feeling fresh. Beyond the new vehicles and weapons, Base Jumping, which takes advantage of the parachute, and Drug War, which is no more than an excuse to slaughter dozens of enemies, have been added. On top of that, the ability to manage Tony’s clubs is available, letting Luis throw out drunks to keep things orderly. Sadly, the management isn’t actually all that interesting, and while it serves its purpose of giving more to do in between story segments, it feels like it could have been expanded beyond suggestively spraying strangers with champagne and busting moves on the dance floor.
Some issues from previous episodes remain, like the mediocre cover mechanics and picky weapon lock-on, but it’s obvious that Rockstar has managed to clean up the GTA engine as much as possible, adding several new features that will hopefully be continued in future iterations. Beyond keeping the mid-mission checkpoints Lost & Damned added, meaning difficult missions aren’t as frustrating to replay, the inclusion of mission scores adds a good deal of replayability. After each mission is over, a set of criteria is listed, including time spent, damage taken, and other more specific elements. It all ties in to the Rockstar Social club, giving a reason to repeat jobs after completion. On that same note, the actual ability to do just that is unlocked after completing the game, meaning it’s simple to repeat fun missions with a few button presses.
While it doesn’t bring the new modes that Lost & Damned did, The Ballad of Gay Tony does add all of the enhancements it made to the singleplayer game online, as well as rewarding players bonus points for kill streaks. The new weapons and vehicles are added to the same Deathmatch and racing modes that were already available, meaning more diversity to an already entertaining offering. As usual, most of the fun is in running around with friends in free mode, something that is absolutely enhanced with parachutes and sticky bombs. It’s obvious that multiplayer wasn’t a focus in this chapter, but if you’re playing Gay Tony it means you either have GTA IV or bought the Episodes from Liberty City pack, so there’s already a good deal of multiplayer fun to be had.
It’s an incredibly tight package, with ten hours of gameplay and an involved, character-driven story. In typical Rockstar fashion, everything rolls out with cutting social commentary, including references to the current U.S. economic crisis, the overabundance of celebrity sex tapes, Perez Hilton, and even Twitter, all with nonstop musings on the faults of American society. Just as before, plot points are told through numerous cutscenes, wonderfully acted by a brilliant cast of characters. Throughout the game, a handful of new faces are introduced, all sporting unique personalities, fantastic animations, and hilarious scripts. Rockstar proves that they are masters of their craft by creating emotional attachments to the characters, despite their obvious social and mental disorders. Through all of their combined faults, it’s hard not to fall in love with Tony and Luis, and while he can be a drama queen it really feels like Tony’s father-like relationship with Luis is sincere.
That said, some of the best moments in Gay Tony come when the story intersects with the plots of Grand Theft Auto IV and the Lost & Damned. Seeing familiar characters show up is always gleefully entertaining, and the inevitable crossovers always play out perfectly. When the characters all converge during one memorable scene it’s brilliant, and makes it all the more upsetting that this is the end of the GTA IV saga.
Many have called The Ballad of Gay Tony GTA IV’s San Andreas, and it’s not too far off. It’s a glamorous, larger-than life finale to a wonderful trilogy, taking the lessons Rockstar learned with the previous two games and expanding upon them to create something fabulous. The ten hour story should keep anyone who enjoyed the previous entries entertained throughout, and the multiplayer enhancements and mission replay give the game legs. It’s sad to see the tale come to a close, but it’s a fitting conclusion, and ties up some loose ends from the previous chapters. Now, all there is left to do is sit around and wait for Grand Theft Auto V, and pray that Yusif is the main character.