Grand Theft Auto IV is a game about the American Dream. While Niko’s story took him from rags to unfulfilled riches and The Lost and Damned‘s Johnny bore the ruination of his violent brotherhood and lifestyle, The Ballad of Gay Tony explores financial collapse, but does so with a smile and a wink. It’s a game of glorious, ridiculous excessiveness, presented through a series of antidotes against the recession’s effects on the underbelly of Liberty City’s glitz and glamour.
Even when things seem to be collapsing all around you, the clubs are perfect, the drinks are free, the women are all desperate to drag you into the nearest bathroom and the shotguns can take down a friggin’ helicopter in three shots. And it’s fun. Absurdly, gloriously fun.
The game casts you in the role of Luis Lopez, assistant, gunman and bodyguard for the drug-addled, money-strapped nightclub owner Gay Tony. Profits are way down, Tony’s pill and cocaine usage is way up, and there’s heat coming down on you from all sorts of different angles. Without going into too many details, it wraps up a few loose ends from Niko’s plot – including what exactly happened to Bulgarian – and acts as a neat bookend for the Grand Theft Auto IV saga.
The Ballad of Gay Tony presents you with a dizzying array of delights. It’s far more expansive and ambitious than the already brilliant The Lost and Damned was (except in multiplayer – more on that later). While the gameplay is, by and large, similar to what was featured in the original game, there’s more variety in the game’s 26 missions than before, as the distinct personalities of your various ‘bosses’ and friends who issue the missions dictate what sort of mischief you get up to. If it’s Mori (Brucie’s Oompa-Loompaesque older brother), expect to drive fast cars dangerously. If it’s Yusif Amir (a rich, slightly mental investor with daddy issues), you’re going to be blowing stuff up and stealing special vehicles. There isn’t a single dud mission in the bunch, despite the occasional frustrating section.
Considering the game’s price (1600 MS Points, equating to $19.99US, $26.40AU or £13.60), the amount of new content is ludicrously generous. Aside from the missions themselves, the game offers up a bunch of new weapons, cars, TV shows, websites and songs, new indoor environments, ‘triathlon’ events, new ‘random encounters’, parachutes and a few subtle changes to Liberty City itself. Be sure to check out ‘Princess Robot Bubblegum’ on the in-game TV, which is, by a wide margin, the funniest parody Rockstar North have pulled off yet.
The new toys are the heart and soul of Gay Tony. The increasing extravagance of the weapons and activities the game indulges you in are in direct contrast to the game’s motif of financial hardship and falling on hard times. Perhaps Rockstar are making a statement on how games can mix strong narratives with giddy, sugar-rush escapism. However you read into it, having a shotgun that fires explosive bullets is awesome. As are attack helicopters, crowd-control tanks and races that start with you diving out of a helicopter, move on to speedboats and end with top of the line sports cars.
The firefights often feel different in Gay Tony, putting an emphasis on acting fast, letting off a lot of bullets and taking down multiple targets before they can get a good shot off, rather than always relying on cover or blind-fire. This occasional change of pace is incredibly welcome, and allows for some very guilty pleasures as you, say, mow through a room of Russian gangsters with a huge machine gun, or take out pursuing cops with sticky bombs. Missions have checkpoints, as they did in The Lost and Damned, and can now also be replayed for high-score, if you so desire. Getting a 100% score on every mission is going to be an almost impossible badge of honour to earn for the truly dedicated.
The storyline and cast are both excellent. The game manages a great sense of personality, while at the same time cutting down greatly on time spent simply ‘hanging out’ with characters to flesh out their motivations. While ultimately the secondary characters aren’t as well realised as some of Niko’s friends, but we shouldn’t really expect that from an expansion. The aforementioned Yusif Amir, in particular, is amazing (although I won’t spoil anything here), while Luis himself is fairly intruiging, despite being a delusional arsehole. Most impressive of all, perhaps, is Gay Tony himself, the self-proclaimed ‘old queen’ whose sexuality is expressed in a way that is essential to his character, yet in no way overdone or stereotypical, as it was with Florian Kravich in Niko’s story.
It should be noted that you spend a lot of time in Gay Tony piloting helicopters, and in two missions need to attack moving targets with your helicopter’s rockets/minigun. Personally, I found both instances hugely enjoyable, having spent ridiculous amounts of time playing The Lost and Damned‘s Chopper vs. Chopper mode. For some, though, these missions will prove frustrating, as I learned whilst consoling a slightly drunken friend online as he failed the same section over and over again. There’s a certain expectation that you haven’t forgotten how to play, and some players may need to spend time between missions re-learning a few old tricks.
There are a few minor issues to discuss. The combat controls have had issues since the original’s release, and they haven’t been resolved here. Sometimes Luis will stick to the wrong cover, you’ll get shot up simply because you can’t tell where bullets are hitting you from. It would have been nice to see a few things tightened up here and there. It also would have been helpful to have included a few more icons on the map – not having all the health-replenishing eateries isn’t too big a sin, but only one nightclub of the three featured is easy to find, which is a shame considering how big a role they play.
The multiplayer is also a fairly limited offering compared to what the previous two chapters offered. The more ‘standard’ modes are available with a few tweaks, the most noticeable of which is that freeplay now has parachuting. The ‘vanilla’ playlist of deathmatch/racing/etc. is probably at its best in Gay Tony, but the best multiplayer modes in the previous chapters were objective-based (bar the aforementioned Chopper vs. Chopper), and it’s a shame to not have any new co-op missions. Still, it seems unfair to criticize a game for something it was under no obligation to deliver, and regardless of whether you’re accessing the expansion through XBox Live or on a disc with The Lost and Damned, you’ll have access to plenty of other multiplayer content. Oh, and the golf mini game isn’t much fun, yet against all odds the dancing mini game is great, so it sort of evens out.
All too often, developers take the greedy route with downloadable content. Simple costume packs are released and priced in lieu of proper content, extra levels last for less than half an hour, simple multiplayer modes are sold at prices so high that the people who do buy them find no one else to play against, and content that should have been on the disc is released with an additional fee attached.
With The Lost and Damned, Rockstar showed that this doesn’t always have to be the way, and with The Ballad of Gay Tony, they have proven themselves as developers committed to quality. This pack could have featured a fifth of the content it features, and still have sold on name alone. But instead, they have gone the extra mile, providing us with the absolute best expansion available on XBox Live, and for that, they should be applauded.
The GTA IV engine could do with a few touch-ups here and there, but Rockstar North have nailed the glitzy vibe they went for here. Plus 'Princess Robot Bubblegum' is amazing.
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Much like the original, but with a bigger emphasis on fun. Occasionally clunky combat, but still never anything less than amazing.
I've found a place...where we can boogie. As always, there's something for everyone here, and the voice acting is uniformly excellent.
Far more than you could reasonably ask for. You can finish the campaign within 7-10 hours, but the drug wars, base jumping, triathlons and fight clubs will keep you going, plus missions are replayable for high scores if you're really dedicated.
The Ballad of Gay Tony is more than just a bargain expansion: it's the single best game add-on available on Xbox Live. In fact, baring any huge surprises in the next two months, it's the best 360 exclusive of 2009