‘Grand Theft Auto 4: The Ballad of Gay Tony’ Review

“The Ballad of Gay Tony,” the second (and presumably final) DLC episode for “Grand Theft Auto 4″ drops this week. The episode is available through Xbox Live Marketplace, or as part of a stand-alone retail disc, “Episodes From Liberty City,” which also includes the content released in the last DLC pack, “The Lost and The Damned.” Since the latter has been covered extensively, we’ll be focusing on “The Ballad of Gay Tony” in this review.

The Basics

Same as it ever was, folks. Not that “GTA” fans would have it any other way. “The Ballad of Gay Tony” brings us back to Liberty City, giving us new perspectives on Rockstar’s New York City-in-satire from the point of view of a club-hopping bodyguard/enforcer. It weaves in and out of pre-existing storylines while introducing a colorful cast of all-new characters.

The Highs

Same Old Story
Rockstar understands how to tell a story. Exposition remains about as separated from gameplay as it’s ever been, but the cutscenes in “Gay Tony” are tighter and more well put together than anything that’s come before. The entertaining characters and (mostly) well-written dialogue certainly helps, but even from a formal standpoint, the “filmmaking” on display in the cutscenes is as sharp as it’s ever been.

Gameplay Served Fresh
The bulk of the missions in your typical “Grand Theft Auto” game generally involve more than their share of driving. You’ll definitely be burning rubber in “Gay Tony,” but the action is mixed up quite a bit with waterborne and airborne missions, turret missions and skydiving, which makes a welcome return from “GTA: San Andreas.”

Building Community Through Shared Frustrations
In addition to each mission’s overarching story goals, there are also now a quantitative set of values that players can shoot for in their quest for 100% completion. One the story is completed, players can access and replay any mission to work towards fulfilling a varying set of target goals, in categories as diverse as play time, player damage, headshots, vehicle damage and more.

“If I Can Make It There…”
The main character in “Gay Tony” is Luis Lopez, the right hand man of hard-partying club owner “Gay Tony” Prince. Unlike Niko Bellic and Johnny Klebitz, Luis has a well-deserved rep. He walks with a carefree swagger, he makes money hand-over-fist and he’s a family man with the heart of a hardened killer. Still very much an anti-hero of course, and perhaps not as lovable as Mr. Bellic, but Luis has an undeniable charm that constantly drives you onward in unfolding his story.

New Diversions
In addition to parachuting, there are some new activities to engage in when you’re not behaving like an unabashed sociopath. Luis can hit some balls out on the driving range, which is modeled after New York’s Chelsea Piers. The activity is introduced amusingly, in an early mission involving a captive wiseguy strapped to the outside of a cage-covered golf cart. There’s also a new dancing minigame that requires rhythmic movements of the analog sticks and trigger presses. There are also some new multiplayer modes — which we were sadly unable to test prior to this review — and a variety of more complex activities: Club Management, combat-oriented Drug Wars, Booty Calls and, that old standby, hard drinking.

The Lows

Luis is unbalanced, yes, but that’s not what I’m talking about. It isn’t that “Gay Tony” feels more difficult than its predecessors, but there’s far more tedium. It feels like less thought was given — or perhaps less time put in — to ensuring that players enjoy a smooth experience. More than a few missions are set over the water, and failure means you’ve got to swim to some landmass in order to pull out your phone and call for a retry. As compelling as the story is and as much as the core gameplay continues to entertain, it feels like there’s a lot more soul-crushing tedium in “Gay Tony” than there was in “IV” or “Damned.”

Challenge Through Repetition
Too many times in “Gay Tony,” I found myself failing a mission simply because the objective wasn’t clear. This is particularly true of missions involving the parachute, when timing is tight and distant visual cues are difficult to distinguish. To be fair, “GTA” has always been a mixed bag in terms of how it challenges players. But it definitely feels like the balance has shifted towards trial & error repetition in this outing.

Churning Rubber
This doesn’t apply to everyone. Personally, I’m a fan of the driving mechanics that were introduced in “GTA IV.” They’re more than functional; they’re fun. Not everyone agrees however. And, for any minor tweaks that may have been made to the physics of it all, driving still demands a careful interplay between gas, brake and E-brake. I like it, but your mileage may vary (pun definitely intended).

Final Word

It’s more “Grand Theft Auto,” which should be enough for most people. Despite its flaws, fans are still going to go apes–t over this game, and deservedly so. Rockstar didn’t quite bring their triple-A game this time around, but “The Ballad of Gay Tony” remains a strong effort and one well worth owning for any fan of the series.