GTA IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony Review
Long time readers may be well aware of my disappointment when it came to “the greatest game of all time ever” Grand Theft Auto IV being released. Despite the jump in visual quality, to me it seemed like Rockstar had stripped a lot of the really fun elements from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas out and replaced them with questionable gameplay mechanics. Gone was the expansive feeling of the game’s world, replaced by a cramped three-island city without much to explore. Also gone was a lot of the crazier mini-games, which had been replaced by compulsory bowling/theatre-going to keep your contacts happy.
So when I heard that Rockstar’s latest DLC episode, The Ballad of Gay Tony, was going to return skydiving to the game, I was interested to find out if they were looking to recapture the feel of their older games.
The result, however, was a very confusing mix of both good and bad choices when it comes to gameplay. In a sense, it truly is a ballad, a narrative set to music, but the music is distracting and the narrative doesn’t jump in to pick up the slack. I’ll explain what the hell I’m on about in just a second, suffice to say that in the end I didn’t really enjoy our second DLC story in Liberty City.
In The Ballad of Gay Tony, players take the role of Luis Lopez, the brawn of a business partner relationship with the titular “Gay” Tony Prince. Gay Tony owns two of the most popular nightclubs in town, one gay, one straight, but is up to his eyeballs in debt and has effectively sold the clubs to two seperate groups. During the game, Luis has to attempt to keep the nightclubs afloat amongst pressure from several warring factions who want to control them, and keep Gay Tony from getting killed, killing himself or overdosing on perscription pills.
Let it not be said that the life of a nightclub manager was always going to be an easy one.
Like previous GTA titles, you won’t always be completely on your own. Luis is helped by his childhood friends (now drug dealers), Henrique and Armando, and forms an unlikely alliance with the hyper-rich Yusuf Amir (voiced brilliantly by Omid Djalili), who is only interested in aquiring things that money can’t buy. Like an authentic Liberty City subway train, for instance.
If you’ve played the games before, you know exactly what to expect. There is more double-dealing and backstabbing than you can shake a Tom Clancy novel at, and through it all you’ll continue to wonder exactly why the game attempts to justify the crazy situations it puts you in. At least with Luis, there seems to be a personal acceptance of the fact that he kills people for money. Although even this is a little murky sometimes, as he claims later in the episode that he’s “not a hitman”. But in the end, what you’ll probably enjoy the most about The Ballad of Gay Tony is the way that the plot works in and around the previous stories. You’ll have more than one run-in with Nico Bellic (in fact the game begins during the bank heist with Packie), members of the Lost biker gang from The Lost and Damned, and work with people who play different roles in the other games’ minor stories.
Now, back to my rather shaky analogy with the whole “ballad” thing. Here’s where I lost my way on this one:
There is suprisingly little action to be had in The Ballad of Gay Tony. The majority of any given mission is usually spent driving to the mission’s location, listening to the fourteen and a half hours of car conversation that’s been newly recorded for this episode. It took me a little while to realise it, but quite frequently that’s all this DLC seems to want of you, to listen to the in-vehicle dialogue. Take, for example, a mission where you’re sent to scare a popular blogger into giving your nightclub a positive review. You spend a lot of the mission going higher and higher in a helicopter, chatting, before you toss him out and have to catch him before he hits the ground. The mission is perhaps 10% action, 90% yakking.
And this was a disturbingly frequent occurence. Maybe not to those exact percentages, but it always seemed to take more time to set the scene for a mission than it did actually performing it. I began to dread the pre-mission drive because of the unending nattering. And I’m sorry, when you can drive all the way (not even that efficiently) to a mission location on another island and STILL have your tag-along talking at you, then you’ve recorded too damn much. I shouldn’t feel the need to park a block away from a checkpoint just in case whatever exposition is going on in the car hasn’t finished and could eventually be pertinent to the plot.
So yes, much of the game is plot set to vehicle music, which I guess justifies the use of the word ballad in the game’s title. I just didn’t know they were going to take the idea so literally.
OK, that’s enough bitching, because the episode did do quite a few things well. Yes, sky-diving has been put back into the game, and it’s about as much fun as it always was (especially if you’re playing it multiplayer online). Also back in the mix is the dancing mini-game, although it’s been altered slightly to freshen it up a little. The animations of the character models seem to have improved a great deal too, which helps in attempting to decipher the emotional state that Luis is currently inhabiting. On top of the new missions, there are also new random encounters to enjoy, although they’re made slightly less random than in the original GTAIV by the fact that they pop up and stay on your world map until you activate them. There are also an entirely new set of radio station, internet and TV content to spend hours cruising the city and enjoying.
Oh, and you FINALLY get to play some golf (something I’ve been wanting to do ever since GTA: Vice City’s golf-style interrogation scene), even if it is just a simple driving range mini-game.
Most of the mini-games are enjoyable, although the “club security” mini-game was possibly a little too close to reality, with the majority of the activity being one unending shift of wandering around the club and tossing out any drunks or dealers you spot. Similarly, the champagne drinking game didn’t make a whole lot of sense in the context of the game, especially when the first thing your now drunk Luis will do afterward is fall down a flight of steps from the VIP room. Funny, undoubtably, but I’m failing to see where it lies in the “make sure people have a good time” scale of club managing.
Also, was I the only one who found it a little strange that Luis could only play security in the straight nightclub? I suppose Rockstar wanted to stay away from the whole “violence against homosexuals” issue.
In the end, there are plenty of things that make The Ballad of Gay Tony fun, but it’s a little too much conversation, and not enough action to reclaim the entertainment value of GTA:SA.
Pros: Skydiving is finally back, and as bizarre as it might sound I’d missed the dancing mini-game. Rockstar have put their usual love and care into the immersive world of Liberty City. Player animations have improved with a little spit and polish.
Cons: Plot missions aren’t especially compelling, and pre-vehicle conversations seem to go on forever. There isn’t a great deal extra to explore around Liberty City that you haven’t already experienced with Nico.
Overall: While the production values of this episode are undoubtably through the roof compared to most DLC (which will easily excuse the price tag, be assured), I wasn’t really engaged in the storyline beyond the hilarious interactions with Yusuf Amir. While the plot isn’t necessarily bad, it certainly suffers from being more talk than action. Let’s call it a 3.5 out of 5, shall we?
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