Game Review: GTA IV: Ballad of Gay Tony

October 30, 2009

Quick to follow up on the misadventures of an immigrant and a biker comes The Ballad of Gay Tony, the third and final act in the Grand Theft Auto IV saga. It adds to the series' diverse palette of themes with a touch of glitz and glam, wrapped up with a host of new additions, new features, and a new cast of morally depraved souls. Expectations are high for this last installment, but just how good is it?

In a word, simply fabulous.

Business just isn't what it used to be for Tony Prince, Liberty City's pre-eminent nightlife impresario. On top of staving off old age, dipping night club attendance, and a few nasty habits, the man's also landed himself in a bit of debt, stirring some conflict with his seedy investors who've come to collect. As Tony's business partner and bodyguard Luis, it falls on you to get him back on his feet. This, of course, entails handling a few questionable odd jobs for Tony's creditors, but somebody's gotta do all the dirty work around here.

In true Rockstar tradition, The Ballad of Gay Tony tells a dark tale with undercurrents of fanaticism and farce interspersed among its cast of well-developed characters. Tony is a neurotic, obnoxious mess who, despite his failings, is a truly lovable loser, while Luis plays foil to his loudmouth antics with an understated, no-nonsense intensity. The writing is sharp, packing plenty of wit and personality, and isn't afraid to push a few buttons in the name of entertainment. The bond that exists between Luis and Tony is genuine, and for all the trouble you'll run into, you'll definitely want to see his plight all the way to the end.

The Ballad of Gay Tony builds on the familiar framework established by prior iterations in the series. Like Lost and the Damned, the entire span of Liberty City is unlocked from the get-go, and once the formal introductions into the game's new nightlife aspect are through, you'll find yourself thrown into the city's sandbox for some open-world shakedowns.

In order to rebuild Tony's crumbling empire, you have to take on a number of jobs from various contacts. You'll run across some familiar situations like setting up car bombs and running some product, and you'll also encounter some scenarios that take advantage of new and returning features, like the parachute from San Andreas. It's here that the game does a good job of making things feel fresh; you'll approach the same mission type in different ways, like with a new weapon, or from a completely different perspective, as with some of the Pulp Fiction-esque flashback encounters with Niko and Johnny.

The Ballad of Gay Tony makes use of Lost and the Damned's mid-mission checkpoint system, which is great in some of the more difficult missions later down the road. After each successful mission, you'll receive a detailed analysis of your performance, which ties into the game's online connectivity to the Rockstar Social Club. Completing the game as a whole will allow you to revisit prior missions at your leisure, adding a good deal of replayability for those determined to be the best street hustler this side of Alderney.

If you're looking to unwind, Luis can engage in his nightlife duties with a few side activities in Tony's clubs. You can ferret out trouble, participate in drinking games, or hit on the local wildlife out on the dance floor. Outside of the club, you could also take up some new hobbies, like golfing, cage fighting, and base jumping. Most of them amount to little more than entertaining mini-games, but are fun nonetheless.

Multiplayer features a remix of past modes in small-scale arenas for a more deathmatch-oriented experience. New kill streak bonuses add to the mayhem, and races are now faster than ever with NOS thrown into the equation. With no new modes, it isn't far different from what GTA IV set out to do, but factor in all the new weapons, vehicles, and gadgets, and online in Gay Tony is a much more diversified experience.

The Ballad of Gay Tony clocks in at healthy 10-plus hours, comparable to many full-price retail games. From a design standpoint, the game's additions aren't quite as intriguing as the Lost and the Damned's gang-based spin on gameplay, but all the smaller details add up to an experience that meaningfully improves on the GTA formula.

Luis may not have been in the Serbian military or part of a gang of hardened bikers, but the guy is more than able to tackle the mean streets of Liberty City. Much of the series' core gameplay remains untouched; The Ballad of Gay Tony brings more content than it does innovation.

At the top of the menu is a new loadout of arms, with goodies like an assault SMG, incendiary shotgun ammo, and sticky bombs rounding out a short list of explosive new options. You'll find yourself with a lot more tools to dish out the damage, though a lot of the lingering issues, like iffy blind fire and sticky cover, remain annoying hindrances.

As was the case with past iterations, a lot of the game's flow is entirely what you make of it. You can choose to pursue your own interests with lazy, scenic drives around town, or get straight to the point with cab rides to the next story mission. A few new activities you can engage in, like helping to build a friend's budding drug empire, add substance to the side missions, but the night club aspect of the game feels underwhelming and underused. Compared to the Lost and the Damned, Gay Tony takes more of a safe bet by choosing to add more than to innovate, but there's no arguing that there's still plenty to see and do around Liberty City, and that's what truly counts.

As with Lost and the Damned before it, The Ballad of Gay Tony operates on the same graphics engine that Rockstar built for GTAIV. And though it's since been outdone by bigger and better tech, early 2008 still looks pretty good. The game ditches The Lost and the Damned's pulpy aesthetic for a return to an au natural look, and despite the occasional in-game weirdness like pop-in and framerate stutters, the game's attention to detail when it comes to animation and scene building is still top notch.

On the audio end, the voice acting is up to snuff with Rockstar's best. The actors pull off their roles with convincing determination, especially the emasculated Tony, who just can't seem to catch a break. The game also updates its radio playlist with a set of new tracks, as well as a choice selection of dance, disco, and house to fit in with each of the game's separate club settings. And if you buy the Episodes from Liberty City disc edition, you get an extra radio station, VICE FM, for a touch of 80's flavor thrown into the mix.

It doesn't so much reinvent Liberty City as it does re-skin it, but for a truly enjoyable way to end the GTA IV party right, The Ballad of Gay Tony fires on all cylinders. It's got plenty of bang for the buck, handily one-upping most full-price retail games. It's a bit of a shame to see the DLC bonanza ending so soon, but the game's driving experience, multiplayer additions, and replayability amount to nothing short of a fulfilling experience.



Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360.

Source: Rockstar Games