Review: GTA: The Ballad of Gay Tony

November 7, 2009, Author: Brian Gourlay

I really have a soft spot for Rockstar North. Not only are they responsible for the one of the most critically and commercially lauded game series of all time, but they’re based right down the road from me and even named a racing horse after my hometown in GTA: San Andreas! GTA 4 was  revolutionary in the way that it brought the sandbox game to the next generation, with fantastic production values, a fantastic story with great characters and a well accomplished multi-player to boot.

In all honesty, they could have been forgiven for lying back and watching the money roll in after GTA 4 was released, but ever the workhorses they announced two Xbox 360 exclusive DLC packs were going to be released. The Lost and The Damned was released to equally positive reviews back in February, and now The Ballad of Gay Tony completes the saga. A lot has changed since GTA 4 first came out, so there was always a danger that the expansion packs could come across as dated as unnecessary. I was on the case to find out what’s new in the more flamboyant side of Liberty city, and whether it would be worthwhile to make a return visit.

The horse was Falkirk Boy in case you were wondering, not that the useless mare ever won me anything.

This time… it’s FABULOUS
The Ballad of Gay Tony still takes place in Liberty City, but shifts the perspective from Niko Bellic to Luis Lopez, a business partner/gun toting enforcer for Tony Prince, aka Gay Tony, who runs a successful chain of nightclubs in LC. However, things start to spiral out of control for Luis pretty much as soon as the game starts as Tony gets involved with some unsavoury characters, leaving Luis to clean up most of Gay Tony’s many messes.

The strength of the GTA 4 and The Lost and the Damned in terms of storyline was the broad range of quirky and funny characters, and I think that this installment tops them both in this element. Like Niko, Lopez is a loyal and likable protagonist, which is quite a relief after having to play as Johnny Klebitz, who came across as a bit of an unbearable douchebag in The Lost and the Damned. Gay Tony is another great addition to the catalogue, and the relationship between him and Luis is really funny to watch. It’s not just the protagonists that get all the limelight though, almost every character, no matter how small an appearance they make, is fantastically thought out, voiced and animated. My personal favourites are Brucie Kibbutz’ older (and much, much shorter) brother Mori, as well as Yusuf, who is voiced by the briiliant Omid Djalili.

Luis and Tony

"Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just ple...oh, it IS a gun?"

The Ballad of Gay Tony also contains a few missions that cross over with the narrative of the original GTA 4, as well as The Lost and the Damned. It’s done very well and it’s really cool to see the different missions from another perspective; they fill in a lot of unanswered questions, particularly concerning one of Niko’s biggest enemies. Overall, I was very impressed with the story; I thought Gay Tony in particular was a surprisingly sympathetic character who stole every scene he was in. The glitzy, camp feeling of the story and dialogue is also a big departure from the other two installments which keeps things nice and fresh for the people who were getting a bit tired of the uber serious Niko and Johnny.

Bigger, bolder and a hell of a lot bloodier
A common complaint about GTA 4 from long-time fans of the series is that a lot of the more adventurous gameplay features from San Andreas had been dropped in favour of gritty realism. Well not anymore. Everything about The Ballad of Gay Tony just screams affluence and excess, from the sparkly pink menus to the selection of new game modes. The missions themselves are also a lot more explosive and varied. After about an hour of playing the game I had strutted my stuff in one of Tony’s nightclubs, played golf, had an epic shootout with the fuzz and had an exhilarating chase through a park… in a golf cart. While most missions still follow the “drive to objective, shoot the place up, run away” formula, they’re all  packed with so many set pieces that you’ll never find yourself hungry for more variety.

With Tony being the owner of two of Liberty City’s hottest clubs (Maisonette 9 and Hercules) it only makes sense that Luis gets the chance to venture into them during the course of the game. There are essentially two main elements to the nightclubs when you walk past the bouncer; work and play. While working security at either of the clubs you’re instructed by earphone to check out different parts of the club and look for trouble. Most of the time it just involved throwing out unruly guests on their rump but there’s often a special mission at the end of a shift where you’re called on to help out a VIP member of the club with whatever problem they’re having.

When it comes to having a good time, The Ballad of Gay Tony gives you three options; drinking alcohol, dancing, and… erm… drinking more alcohol. You can go to the bar for shots or have a rhythm based champagne guzzling contest with some other patrons, both of which will result in some Euphoria induced drunken wobbliness. It’s entirely pointless and will probably get old soon, but after watching Luis tumble down the stairs of Maisonette 9 for about the 100th time now, I still get a kick out of it.

Dancing is much more of a fleshed out mini game and comes in two stages. At first Luis will pick out a lucky lady to pull some shapes with, which you help him to do by trying to fill up a dance meter by moving the analogue sticks to the beat. To be honest, the way the dancing sections work isn’t very intuitive and it’s pretty difficult to tell whether you’re lighting the room up or stinking up the dancefloor. However, after you’ve filled up the dance meter, an old fashioned quick time sequence is played while the entire club partakes in an oddly choreographed group dance. Now, I’d like to get another perspective on this since it might be different in other places, but the only collaborative dance that goes down in the Scottish clubs that I’ve frequented was the Macarena, and that was at a push. The whole thing seems very High School Musical and is pretty awkward to watch, although the songs you get to listen to while it’s going on are pretty good.

Also making a return from the days of San Andreas is base jumping, which basically involves jumping off really high things with a parachute. Simple eh? Not quite, as each base jumping mission has different objectives, such as getting through checkpoints on the way down or landing at a specific spot. Falling through the air is really well done and pretty exhilarating, and it’s to my shame that I “neglected” to pull Luis’ parachute once or twice (read: Forty times *hangs head*) just to see what would happen (for the record, pretty much what you would expect). Even though it’s a fairly incidental feature it does appear naturally in a couple of missions, and the base jumping is a good addition to GTA’s slowly increasing list of cool yet pointless things to do. There are around twenty five challenges in total so they act as a good distraction in between missions, even if it’s just for sick bastards like me who enjoy watching people melt into the ground.

I couldn't get a good shot, so had to make do with one of the more tame explosions

I couldn't get a good shot, so I had to make do with one of the more tame explosions

A more violent alternative to throwing yourself out of helicopters is the Drug War side missions, which involve you helping out your old pals Armando and Henrique from your time as a lowly drug pusher. Like the base jumping challenges, they’re entirely optional but well worth checking out even if just to listen to Henrique and Armando arguing with Luis and each other. The Drug Wars are pretty bog standard side missions that involve blowing stuff up, stealing stuff or shooting people, and it’s disappointing that sometimes entire missions, from the brief at the beginning to the conclusion, are sometimes replicated, even back to back on occasion. Overall it’s a more satisfying addition than the base jumping, and with another 25 missions to go through they’ll keep you occupied for a while.

As well as the new game modes, The Ballad of Gay Tony has seen heaps of new hardware been added to the already impressive arsenal. In keeping with the general theme of the game, pretty much everything is outrageously over the top. New sports cars, flashy suits, a fully fledged attack helicopter (which can be a bit fiddly to use, but is still satisfyingly destructive), subway cars as well as some very cool new weapons including a fully automatic shotgun that fires explosive rounds (possibly my favourite thing, in the world, ever, bar none). When you combine this new gear with everything else it really makes The Ballad of Gay Tony an impressive package.

There’s so much new content in every aspect of the gameplay that it’s impossible not to find something new to tickle your fancy, and it’s all been combined flawlessly to make for some very impressive in-mission set pieces. Not only that, but a new scoring system has been implemented with all missions that scores you on objectives such as damage taken and number of headshots. Once you’ve completed the game you can go back to every mission and try to get 100%, which really improves the re-playability. My only problem with this feature is that all of the missions will punish you for not completing a mission quickly enough. I like to really take my time with a game and try to get as much from the experience as I can, so I don’t appreciate achievements or objectives making  me feel like I’m being rushed.

Graphic scenes (No, not that kind. Well, maybe…)
The Ballad of Gay Tony uses the same game engine as GTA 4 and TLAD, so nothing has really changed in terms of how the game looks. That being said, the graphics engine still just about stands the test of time. The sheer scale of the city is still a technical marvel, and the fact that you can see all the way to the horizon just makes helicopter rides and base jumping all the more impressive.

It looks like some of the effects have been tweaked a bit, with explosions in particular looking spectacular (watching a luxury yacht capsize in flames is a good example of this). I’m still amazed at the quality of the lip synching in cut scenes; it’s frighteningly accurate and brings the brilliantly written characters to life, even if the textures can sometimes be a bit ropey. Visually however, the ace in the hole for Rockstar is the Euphoria engine, which makes conventional ragdoll physics look like they belong on the Game Boy. Despite it being used since GTA 4, it never ceases to amaze me just how fluid and realistic it looks. Watching people roll over the hood of your car, or trip and fall down a flight of stairs has never been so satisfying. The fact that it is prevalent in every part of the game, applies to every single person in the metropolis that is Liberty City, well that’s just gravy.

Tracks of Liberty City
While TLAD added new songs to the roster that catered to the hardcore and punk crowd, The Ballad of Gay Tony expands the soundtrack further, and it’s all about the disco beats. New songs have been added to K109, San Juan Sounds and Vladivostok FM, and they’re all great additions. There’s just something so… right… about speeding down the highways in the middle of an epic gunfight with some cheesy 70s porno slap bass to compliment it. It just fits in with the whole theme of the game perfectly, as much as listening to AC/DC while cruising with The Lost was in the previous expansion.

A few new radio stations have also been added, which lets you listen to reggae, chillout or 80s pop tracks, but unfortunately you can only get them with the Episodes from Liberty City disc. This strikes me as a bit of a bizarre decision really, as it punishes the people who bought TLAD when it was first released, since they’re obviously not going to shell out for Episodes from Liberty City when they already have half of the content.

Gang Warfare
The multi-player modes in The Ballad of Gay Tony have probably received the least amount of attention out of anything in the GTA series; the number of new game modes for online gamers totals up to zero, which is really disappointing since I enjoyed playing GTA online. Some of the game modes have been nipped and tucked a bit (the addition of kill streaks is welcome, but why did it take so long?) but overall there really isn’t anything there that will drag anyone from Call of Duty or Halo into the online world of Liberty City.

This contributes to what I thought was the biggest problem in the first place with GTA’s multiplayer, in that it has an extremely passive community. Since death-matches could take place in the entire city (although this has at least been rectified now), you would spend a lot of time just trying to get to a fight instead of actually fighting. Combine this with the fact that the GTA community was full of anti-social no-mic players and it made the whole thing very impersonal and dull at times. Since the multi-player is essentially the same thing, the problem remains and you’ll struggle to have any really memorable experiences online.

Buy it, try it or avoid it?
I’m not going to beat around the bush here, you should buy this expansion pack. The Ballad of Gay Tony is fantastic value for money, measuring in at just shy of 15 hours of gameplay (which is more than some full price games) you’d be crazy not to shell out the 1600 MS Points for it. It’s full of new content, including another brilliantly written story, but the gameplay is all familiar enough for fans of the original game to jump straight back into things. Even though the lack of development in the multi-player side of things is a shame, this is a very modestly sized DLC pack, with the scoring systems in missions a great way to increase re-playability. The Ballad of Gay Tony is a perfect way to end the series, both in terms of the narrative and the sheer quality of the game itself, and anyone who wants another little slice of life in Liberty City will be very, very pleased with this installment.


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