Developer: Rockstar North / Publisher: Rockstar Games / ESRB: Mature (Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs and Alcohol) / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $20.00
Just in time for Halloween, Rockstar has released another downloadable episode for its hit title, Grand Theft Auto IV. The new installment, The Ballad of Gay Tony, features dozens more missions, new characters and vehicles, and welcome game play additions from previous entries in the series. While fans can buy the new episode on Xbox Live, it is also available in stores as a standalone expansion entitled Grand Theft Auto: Episodes From Liberty City. This 2-for-1 deal includes both The Ballad of Gay Tony and the previous GTA IV episode, The Lost and Damned, on one disc.
While this all may sound compelling on its face, the question that remains is how well The Ballad of Gay Tony stacks up to its predecessors. Does the game offer new, compelling content, or is it simply a tired rehash of elements that came before it?
The Ballad of Gay Tony looks ostensibly identical to GTA IV. Although the GTA IV engine is over a year old, it’s still astounding to see the amount of detail, from the trash to the unique bystanders, contained on each block of Liberty City. Moreover, the transitions are seamless. The player can parachute from a helicopter, enjoy the beautiful Liberty City skyline, and eventually land on top of a semi – all without being burdened by load times. The game’s cut-scene cinematography possesses the same high degree of quality of its predecessors. Top-notch editing helps to adequately convey tension and push forward the story.
The game is more aesthetically pleasing than The Lost and Damned. This is more due to the art direction of each episode than any graphical improvements. The Lost and Damned possessed darker, grungier tones that fit with the episode’s focus on Liberty City’s biker subculture. Conversely, The Ballad of Gay Tony takes place in glitzy nightclubs and other exotic locales.
While the game generally looks great, there are a few graphical downsides. During particular actions, such as dancing, the character models move robotically. Additionally, the facial animation quality is inconsistent. The main characters’ faces move in a fluid, life-like fashion while others appear more mask-like and unnatural. It would also have been nice if Rockstar had made some improvements to the game’s physics. As before, hitting a small tree while driving can bring the one’s journey to a quick stop while, puzzlingly, the player can fell lampposts with willful abandon.
In this outing the player takes control of Luis Lopez, a twenty-something ex-con who serves as a bodyguard to “Gay Tony” Prince, a prominent owner of several nightclubs around Liberty City. The gist of the story is that, due to Tony’s indebtedness, Luis must wheel and deal with the city’s most unsavory elements to keep both their heads above water. Along the way, The Ballad of Gay Tony’s narrative expands on both the original GTA IV’s and The Lost and Damned’s storylines. The diamond heist, for example, which was featured prominently in the two previous games, plays heavily into the new plotline. Characters from past episodes such as Roman Bellic, Patrick McReary, Brucie, and Billy Grey also make appearances.
The game’s characters are generally more interesting and entertaining to watch than those of The Lost and the Damned. While Luis comes off a bit clichéd, with his hyper-sexuality and penchant for violence, his no-nonsense attitude and deep loyalty to Tony nevertheless make him a compelling character.
The titular Gay Tony is refreshing. Rockstar wisely chose not make Tony a gay stereotype. Tony is a survivor, and while he has his share of drug problems and idiosyncrasies, none of it can be chalked up to the fact that he is gay. It’s nice to see a video game – particularly one as supersaturated with machismo as the GTA series – present a straight man and gay man as best friends. This friendship comes across as genuine, making the episode more of a buddy story than previous installments.
The Ballad of Gay Tony features the same sandbox-style gameplay that the series more or less patented years ago. Players navigate Luis between locations to find and complete missions. Over time, as the story progresses, the player unlocks more missions. Most of these quests – with a few welcome exceptions – revolve around some variation of killing everyone that gets in Luis’s way. The gameplay, however, never becomes tiring. It’s genuinely exciting to see what challenges await Luis in the next scenario.
As previously mentioned, the game features several new vehicles and weapons. The most prominent vehicle is the new Buzzard helicopter, a small attack chopper that plays prominently into several missions. New weapons include the Assault SMG, the Explosive Shotgun, the Advanced Sniper Rifle, and Sticky Bombs. The Explosive Shotgun is a much more convenient way of blowing vehicles to bits than RPGs. As the name suggests, Sticky Bombs adhere to vehicles and can be detonated remotely.
The most noteworthy addition is the return of parachutes from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The game makes liberal use these parachutes in the missions. From helicopters to buildings, Luis is willing to throw himself off seemingly everything in Liberty City. These are consistently entertaining segments redolent of the parachuting scenes from Point Break. It’s quite thrilling to leap out of a helicopter high above the city, fall at terminal velocity, and open the parachute right before Luis becomes a red stain on the pavement.
The player can engage in several new activities around Liberty City, including managing Tony’s clubs, drinking games, cage fighting, and base-jumping with the aforementioned parachutes. Some of these, like base-jumping, are entertaining and challenging. Others, such as the club management (in which Luis is essentially a bouncer), are tedious.
Once players complete the game, they are able to replay missions and achieve better scores. This is a feature, making its home console debut, that was first implemented in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars on the Nintendo DS. Overall this is an incredibly welcome feature to the game that increases the episode’s replay value (and the player’s save slots) considerably.
The game’s multiplayer options are sadly limited to deathmatch, team deathmatch, racing, and free-range mode. These are fun in their own right, especially with the new weapons, but it would have been nice to see Rockstar add more variety. There is nothing new that matches the original GTA IV’s Cops n’ Crooks mode in terms of pure, adrenaline pumping excitement.
The game’s voice acting is top-notch. Every actor does an exemplary job bringing his or her colorful characters to life, particularly D.B. Cooper who voices Gay Tony. That being said, while there is nothing wrong the game’s voice acting in terms of delivery, there is some issue regarding vocal variety. The characters often sound too similar to one another, or to characters from previous episodes. Furthermore, the cut-scenes at times feel needlessly verbose compared to other entries.
The in-game music is still fantastic, with a variety of channels to choose from on car radios. The episode adds new content to three of GTA IV’s radio stations: Electrochoc, K109 The Studio, and Vladivostok FM. In addition, the Episodes From Liberty City disc features a new radio station, Vice City FM. This new station features 1980s hits clearly inspired by Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
The game’s controls are essentially unchanged from the original GTA IV. This is mostly good news. The cars still handle responsively and realistically. Likewise, the shooting and cover mechanics that Rockstar introduced in GTA IV continue to shine. The new parachuting segments are also extremely easy to control, thereby adding to their fun factor.
The helicopters are a different story. Aiming weapons and determining one’s position is often difficult to discern while flying. These problems make some missions needlessly frustrating. While these controls are essentially the same as the original GTA IV, their cumbersome nature is more pronounced in The Ballad of Gay Tony since helicopters are the focal points of many missions.
The Ballad of Gay Tony is a welcome return to the glitzy side of Liberty City. The story is terrifically compelling, due in no small part to the relationship between Luis and Tony. The new and returning features, from the parachutes to the new music, are an excellent amalgamation of the best elements of the series. Adding these special ingredients to the original title’s groundbreaking gameplay makes The Ballad of Gay Tony a fun-filled farewell to GTA IV and this incarnation of Liberty City.
All in all, the episode feels a bit on the short side. Experienced players will easily complete the main quest in less than ten hours. That being said, the ease of replaying missions adds to those hours considerably. At $20, the new episode is a must buy. Those who have yet to play The Lost and Damned may also want to pick up the Episodes From Liberty City disc. At $40 it packs some of the best bang for the buck since The Orange Box.