A Criminal’s Story
New York is a big city, and Grand Theft Auto IV was perhaps the first video game to truly capture that. Even GTA IV, though, only captured the city’s size geographically. It’s taken two expansions, The Lost and Damned and now The Ballad of Gay Tony (both downloadable on Xbox LIVE and also in the Episodes of Liberty City retail disc), to flesh out the Big Apple’s various cultures and classes. In that sense (and most others), The Ballad of Gay Tony is an almost perfect end to this GTA iteration.
This isn’t obvious right away; at first glance, The Ballad of Gay Tony is just more GTA. Players take control of Luis Lopez, who has a fair amount in common with his predecessors, Niko Bellic and Johnny Klebitz. Like them, he is a cold-hearted killer who’s just a little bit more sensible than the people around him. Also like Niko and Johnny, Luis has a troubled past and a present situation that requires him to break the law; he grew up poor, recently spent time in prison, has friends and a mother who lure him into criminal mischief, and works as a bodyguard/assistant for a man nicknamed Gay Tony.
All of these elements play about equal roles in the game’s first few hours, but thereafter Luis’s past falls off the radar and the Gay Tony story takes precedence. Tony is what makes this game different. Tony owns some of the city’s most popular high-end nightclubs, but he’s struggling with business problems and drug addiction. Through Tony, players get a glimpse of the New York high life, something GTAIV has so far stayed far away from.
Tony and his spoiled-brat friend Yusuf Amir dole out many of your missions. Tony’s goals are to keep his head above water, stave off the various criminals he runs into trouble with, and keep his traction in the nightclub industry. The playboy Yusuf, meanwhile, is trying to prove to his father that he can make something of himself. The story in part follows the diamonds that got stolen in GTA IV – those jewels are the main element tying the three stories together – but if you look and listen closely, you’ll see lots of indicators that you’re living in the same world that Niko, Johnny, and their supporting casts inhabit. Maybe you’ll run into some bikers in Burger Shot, or hear a commercial from Brucie on the radio.
Since Tony’s New York is a world of posh apartments and glamorous drugs, the tone of this story departs from that of the previous two; it’s more satirical and borrows a lot from the decadent Vice City. This will be off-putting to some, but even as big fans of the previous two installments, we can’t complain: it may not be all that hard-hitting, but this is another great tale from Rockstar, and the lighter vibe made it possible for the dialogue writers to slip in countless hilarious one-liners.
It also made it possible for the mission designers to throw GTA IV’s somewhat greater sense of realism out the window. You’ll pull all sorts of crazy stunts in all sorts of crazy (and unfortunately hard-to-control) vehicles. In one mission, one of your fellow thugs ties a union leader to a golf cart, and you have to pelt him with golf balls, kill off his goons when they show up, and escape in a golf cart. In another, you fight through waves of law enforcement while chasing your target up a tower, then parachute to safety from the top. In still another, you intimidate a journalist by throwing him out of a helicopter, diving after him, catching him, and parachuting. At one point, you even drive a tank through downtown Manhattan. You’ll see tons of huge explosions and use some ridiculous new weapons, such as “sticky bombs” (you throw them at enemies and vehicles, then detonate them with the D-pad) and a shotgun with explosive shells. When it comes to missions, as opposed to story, The Ballad of Gay Tony is essentially a bad action movie. That’s great, because bad action movies are a lot of fun to control, even if they’re terribly boring to watch.
Also, while Rockstar has long been fixing the various frustration factors that plagued the GTA III series, it finally has the difficulty set just about right. Like The Lost and Damned, The Ballad of Gay Tony has checkpoints and sprinkles them in a basically fair way through the stages. Unlike its predecessor, however, The Ballad of Gay Tony scores your performance on each mission based on criteria like health and time remaining, vehicle damage, etc. The catch is that you can only post your scores online if you earn them without mission restarts. This is the best of both worlds: casual gamers can actually finish this game, while the hardcore (or sadistic) are rewarded for playing it the old-fashioned way, driving long stretches of road over and over again just to get to the missions. Also, once you’ve beaten the game, you can play any mission you want whenever you want, so if you need a restart the first time through, you can try for the online scoreboards later on.
In the single-player mode, The Ballad of Gay Tony adds a few new features to the already-impressive GTA IV lineup of things to do. GTA IV was already a racing game, a third-person shooter, a mini-game collection, and something of an adventure, but The Ballad of Gay Tony throws one-on-one kickboxing into the mix. We found the movements to be a little slow and clumsy, and thus this facet of the game is unlikely to capture too many players’ attention for too long, but with refinements it could help turn the GTA franchise into the one-stop-shop it strives to be.
The adjustments to multiplayer are milder; it’s pretty much the online GTA you know and love, with a few tweaks. Whereas Johnny’s motorcycle opened up lots of new avenues for Rockstar to run down, Luis is, physically at least, the same thing as Niko: a reasonably in-shape adult male capable of stealing cars and shooting things. The deathmatch modes feature the new weapons, and the races include nitrous. Free mode includes parachute challenges and the new military vehicles. The kickboxing matches don’t make their way into the game’s online capabilities, which is surprising if not very disappointing (see above).
Of course, The Ballad of Gay Tony also features more of all the little things that make Grand Theft Auto fun, with the exception of the grainy visual filters from The Lost and Damned, which are gone in keeping with the lighter themes. There are new TV shows (most notably the anime satire Princess Robot Bubblegum, though it goes a bit long), new side missions (helping out Luis’s childhood friends in a gang war, doing favors for assorted characters, working at a club for Tony, etc.), and new radio programming. These extras aren’t as fun as the core content is, but we didn’t expect them to be, and they will keep players occupied and entertained long after the credits roll. A rabid completionist could spend days with this game before exhausting his options.
It’s easy to see some fans being frustrated at this expansion’s direction. The tone of the story is, after all, quite a departure from the franchise’s previous two outings. However, the amusing dialogue, fun gameplay, and delightfully absurd missions make this a must-buy for everyone, whether by download (in which case it requires a copy of GTA IV to run) or on disc with The Lost and Damned. The only question remaining is how Grand Theft Auto V and its expansions can top what Rockstar has given us these past two years.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.7 Graphics
We miss the visual filters from The Lost and Damned, but still, it’s the Liberty City we met in Grand Theft Auto IV, and we love the way it looks. 4.3 Control
No complaints for the most part, but some of the new military vehicles are a pain to wrestle around. 5.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Again, it’s the Liberty City from Grand Theft Auto IV, with all its radio stations, street dialogue, etc. The new voice acting here is up to the standards set in the previous games, which is to say it’s perfect. 4.3 Play Value
The average player will spend maybe 10-15 hours with this game, which justifies the $20 purchase price (note: it’s $40 when bought on disc, but then it comes with The Lost and Damned). Some will spend weeks exploring Liberty City and playing multiplayer games. 4.5 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.