Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony Review

By Sterling McGarvey - Posted Oct 28, 2009

The Grand Theft Auto story arc comes to a close with The Ballad of Gay Tony, an experience that shows off yet another side to Liberty City. As Luis Lopez, the business partner and iron fist of club promoter "Gay Tony" Prince, you're thrust into a twisted scenario of excess and betrayal that will test your resolve. Oh, and along the way, you'll blow up more stuff than you ever did in The Lost and Damned (which is also available with Gay Tony on the Episodes from Liberty City disc) or GTA4.

The Pros
  • Main story hooks you and effectively weaves into GTA4's plot
  • Fun new weapons and activities
  • Huge checkpoint system improvements
  • Borrows mission replay structure from Chinatown Wars
The Cons
  • Mission replay doesn't replay everything
  • Some extracurricular activities are a little dull
  • Luis' side story feels a tad weak
  • Exclusive content for disc version

At this point, there’s a good chance that you know if you’re in the target audience for The Ballad of Gay Tony. If you wrote off Grand Theft Auto IV before finishing “Three Leaf Clover,” there’s a chance that you might overlook Rockstar North’s final effort in the Liberty City story arc. And that would be a shame. Although I found The Lost & Damned to be a more unsavory experience than GTA4, Gay Tony fires on all cylinders and delivers both solid storytelling and the same sort of over-the-top mayhem found in the best moments of GTA: San Andreas. It’s arguably the finest episodic content found in a console game this year.

Gay Tony tells the story of Luis Lopez, business partner and enforcer for aging club promoter “Gay Tony” Prince, who’s managed to rack up millions in debt to various unsavory figures. Tony might own the two hottest gay and straight clubs in Liberty City, but he’s up to his eyeballs in IOUs. Ex-con Luis inevitably gets wrapped up in odd jobs to keep the mob off Tony’s back. Fortunately for you and me, those odd jobs usually involve big guns, fast cars, and huge explosions.

After a grim rendering of the immigrant experience and the grittiness of an urban biker gang, Gay Tony’s focus on the ups and downs of Liberty City’s nightlife contrasts effectively with the darker elements of The Lost and Damned. Rockstar’s biting social commentary -- from getting personal with a bitchy celebrity blogger to spoofing a Twitter-obsessed culture -- is decidedly spot-on. It’s much funnier and irreverent than the prior games, and the rather upbeat finale sends off Liberty City with a sunny smile and a wave.

Grand Thef Auto IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony

This. Is. Fierce.

Structurally, it seems that with Gay Tony, Rockstar North has struck the right chord between satisfying GTA fans who want story to go alongside their mayhem and giving giddy pseudo-anarchists something to pull them back into the fray from the likes of the Saints Row series. Yes, there are sticky bombs that do ridiculous damage and automatic shotgun with explosive shells, and yet, these super-powered explosives have credible context within Luis’ missions. I won’t spoil the context for base-jumping, but rest assured that the activity is cleverly woven into Luis’ missions.

Big explosions aside, there are other elements within Gay Tony that point to advancements that would’ve made GTA4 more forgiving to some gamers. If you’re killed mid-mission, there’s now an in-mission checkpoint system that ensures that you won’t need to repeat the tedium of driving to a start point and re-playing moments over and over. I can’t remember how many times I hung onto a “replay” text message long enough to cab it over to a weapons shop, load up on body armor, and jump back into the checkpoint of a nasty firefight. It’s a sorely needed element that I’m glad Rockstar North has addressed.

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Relive It All

Also, in a decidedly self-reflexive move, Gay Tony borrows the mission replay feature from GTA: Chinatown Wars (which borrowed liberally from GTA4) to allow you to relive great missions over and over. Plus, you can upload your best times to Rockstar Social Club to plaster the leaderboards. There are some limits to what you can do, though. If you’re looking to capture the introductory cutscenes, they’re not available after clearing the game. Also, if you use any shortcuts, such as taxis, you’ll be disqualified from uploading your stats. But even with those limits, it’s a sorely needed addition to the series.

There are a few moments in which Gay Tony sags a bit. Although Rockstar North has refined elements of the friend system since GTA4 -- Luis’ dim-witted friends from the block won’t blow up your inbox like Niko’s pals and their perks unlock early -- the extracurricular activities won’t hold your interest for too long. From time to time, Luis will get a call to go and work at Maisonette 9, Tony’s club. Usually, it consists of surveying the dance floor, breaking up fights, and random missions. In one instance, Luis hooks up with a girl in the office. In another, he has to drive to Hercules, Tony’s other club, to rescue a closeted rapper from paparazzi. Your enjoyment, like mileage, may vary. I found the side mission to be entertaining, but ultimately a tad trivial. You might be better off base-jumping.

Grand Thef Auto IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony

Luis’ backstory involving his family and friends from the barrio starts up interesting (if not a little cliché), but never really unfolds with the same level of solid narrative seen in the main missions. It’s a bit more intriguing to watch Luis sarcastically blow off Arab rich kid Yusef Amir’s coked-up ramblings than to watch him argue with his mother about straightening his life out. Also, you’ll never look at one of GTA4’s best characters the same way after clearing this episode. Indeed, most of the fun of Gay Tony comes from the fact that it assumes that you know side characters, you know the moments from the other Liberty City tales, and it delivers on them all with a wink and a smile.

Music geeks will also find some of the new soundtrack adjustments to be interesting. I played Gay Tony on the Episodes from Liberty City disc, which includes revamped radio stations. It appears that thanks to licensing, some stations are gone -- The Journey is now Self-Actualization Radio -- but Vice City FM returns with Fernando in full fatuous cry. Unfortunately, the catch is that the station is exclusive to the disc. Consider that when you decide to download the episode versus purchasing the disc, which also features The Lost and Damned, just in case you haven’t played it.

Grand Thef Auto IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony

A Fabulous Finale

Ten and a half hours later -- it probably took me longer than most GTA4 vets, since I’m awful with cars -- the credits rolled to the sounds of classic disco. Ultimately, the credits genuinely encapsulate the fifty-odd hours I’ve invested in Grand Theft Auto IV over the past 18 months, and I’m confident that fans will feel the same way. Life goes on for these characters -- even if we’re not going to see new tales from the city -- and it’s a rewardingly upbeat celebration of the time you’ve invested in the world. The Ballad of Gay Tony serves as a great send-off for the Liberty City story arc, and provides good structure for Rockstar North’s next foray into the Grand Theft Auto universe.