You would think that with all of the crime, crooked cops, loudmouth politicians, immoral activities and road rage, I would have had my fill of Liberty City and moved elsewhere. But when Rockstar Games' newest (and possibly final) Grand Theft Auto IV expansion pack hit the Xbox Live Marketplace, I was ready and willing to take another stab at the crime-ridden streets of Liberty City. I'm glad I did, because The Ballad of Gay Tony tells a phenomenal story that not only wraps up all of the loose ends, but it also gives me a greater appreciation for just how phenomenal Grand Theft Auto IV really was.
If you've been keeping up with the Grand Theft Auto saga, then you'll know that this is the second of two expansion packs that Rockstar Games promised at E3 several years ago. The first was a dark and gritty adventure called The Lost and Damned, an aggressive look at the harsh world of a motorcycle gang. This time around we trade in the rough exterior for something a little lighter. With its bright and colorful imagery, the disco on the radio and the barrage of funny characters, it's clear from the get-go that The Ballad of Gay Tony doesn't take itself too serious. But don't get me wrong, this lengthy expansion pack still offers all of the crime, debauchery and over-the-top ultra violence that has made the series so popular.
The "Gay Tony" mentioned referenced in the title is a club owner that controls many of the hot spots that litter Liberty City. Even if you don't know him Tony Prince by name, you've no doubt been to one of his clubs (or at least driven by them and noticed the commotion). You play Tony's bodyguard, Luis Lopez, a Dominican street gangster who has already done time for drug dealing and is loyal to a fault. He's the kind of guy who seems ready to fix just about any problem which is good, because Tony Prince has a LOT of problems.
You would think that a man controlling so many popular gay and straight nightclubs wouldn't have anything to worry about. But that couldn't be further from the truth. Thanks to his attraction to the wrong kind of man and his dabbling in drugs and alcohol, Tony is about to lose everything. He's being blackmailed, he's running out of money and, worst of all, he's being bad mouthed by Liberty City's most influential celebrity blogger. It sounds like it's time for Luis to steal a car and right some wrongs.
If you've played Grand Theft Auto IV or The Lost and Damned (or any other Grand Theft Auto game, for that matter) then you'll immediately recognize the game's structure. You have free reign over the sprawling city and the ability to take on missions at your leisure. You can cause wanton violence in the street or take on odd jobs around the fictional New York City. And when you're bored playing around in this gigantic sandbox, you can move on to seeing what the story has to offer.
Early on many of your missions will be doled out by none other than Gay Tony, but before long you'll be introduced to a whole assortment of colorful characters who will also require your expertise. Think the flamboyantly gay Tony Prince is a character? Wait until you get a load of Yusuf Amir, a Middle Eastern immigrant with a penchant for gold-plated guns and powerful helicopters. You will also meet Mori Kibbutz, the older (and shorter) brother of GTA IV's Brucie. Ever wonder why Brucie is the way he is? The Ballad of Gay Tony will shed light on that boy's over-the-top demeanor. These are just a couple of the memorable characters you'll run into in this expansion pack. The rest of the cast will not disappoint, that I can guarantee.
You also won't be disappointed with the two dozen or so missions found in The Ballad of Gay Tony. Fans of the series will find Luis pulling off many familiar tasks (stealing people's cars, killing marked men and so on), but there is enough new here to keep this expansion pack fresh and exciting. For one thing, this game takes to the air a lot more than the other two installments. Part of the reason for this is because Luis has a brand new skill that he brings to the table, namely the ability to skydive. Throughout the course of the game you will discover that many of Luis's most hair-raising missions involve you leaping from high up and parachuting to safety. This brand new ability is reason enough to invest the $20 in the game, there's a great deal of fun to be had climbing on tall buildings and base jumping, it's something sorely missing from Grand Theft Auto IV.
Base jumping isn't the only new thing Luis brings to the table. My favorite moments in the game involve you and the brand new explosive shotgun shells. This weapon is powerful. Seriously powerful. So powerful that all it takes is two or three shots to the side of a helicopter to send it crashing to the ground. In one of the game's most exciting moments you find yourself stuck on the top of a fast moving train, having to shoot down enemy helicopters while dodging bullets. There's something extremely satisfying about watching these helpless helicopters crash to the ground while you advance on the front car. It's a scene that I knew I wanted to go back and play over and over again.What surprised me the most about The Ballad of Gay Tony wasn't how many new elements were added to the mix, but rather how they handled the old stuff. In a lot of ways this game goes a long way to completely wrapping up the Grand Theft Auto IV storyline. The events in this game coincide with many of the most pivotal moments from the first two installments. At long last you will see the other side of the diamond heist, one of the biggest storylines of the first game. You'll discover where they went and why they were taken in the first place. You'll also find out what went down at the museum, how everybody is connected and much, much more. This is one of those games that will make you want to go back and revisit the Grand Theft Auto IV storyline, if for no other reason than to see how everything fits together. This is something I plan on doing once the busy holiday season winds down and I finally have enough free time to take on Niko Bellic's adventure.
Much to my surprise (and delight), The Ballad of Gay Tony is the funniest Grand Theft Auto game yet. The series has always had a great sense of humor, but the writers worked overtime to write witty and clever dialog for each and every character found in this installment. You know you're in for a good time when a good chunk of the story involves Brucie and his insufferable brother. And Yusuf's incredibly offensive (yet completely clueless) dialogue is hilarious. Heck, even Luis Lopez's deadpan delivery cracked me up. Sure, he's out there killing people and having random sexual encounters, but he also seems to be the only one with his head on straight. He often has sage advice ... it's a shame nobody actually takes it.
As with all other Grand Theft Auto games, the single-player campaign is only half of the fun. The Ballad of Gay Tony introduces a bunch of brand new mini-games to the mix, all while retaining many of the activities you loved from the other two installments. This time around you get to manage clubs, go on drug war outings, dance, golf and more. One of the most compelling modes involves base jumping off of tall objects and trying to hit a small target. It's a little tricky, but once you perfect your parachuting skills it can be a lot of fun. And did I mention that you are finally given the opportunity to compete in a one-on-one cage fight? It's true. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, you can also call up friends and go to the club, or better yet, call up one of your hot girlfriends for a booty call. There's really a lot to do when you're not playing through missions, enough to keep you playing long after you've beaten the 10+ hour quest.
On top of the crazy single-player content, you'll also find a number of improvements to the online mode. New weapons and game modes are to be expected, but I had a lot of fun fighting it out on a number of new locations around the city. Best of all, base jumping and multi-vehicle races have been added to the online modes. Chances are you've moved on to other online action games, but I have a hunch that the content in The Ballad of Gay Tony may be enough to bring you back into the fold.
As you would expect from an expansion pack, much of the core mechanics and gameplay remain the same. The graphics and sound is about what you would expect, so if you didn't care for the controls and the visuals in either of the other two installments you likely won't have a change of heart here. The problem with keeping everything the same is that it shows how outdated the graphics are. What was state of the art a year and a half ago is now showing its age. Not enough to where it bothered me, but compared to some of the big games coming out this fall this Grand Theft Auto expansion pack comes up a little short. Then again, you're paying $20 to continue the story; it's hard to judge the game too harshly.
No matter how you look at it, The Ballad of Gay Tony is a fantastic value. This $20 download offers more character, story, gameplay and modes than most full-price titles. Even if you rush through the story, it's still going to take you around ten hours, and that's without touching any of the extra content or going online. And best of all, this title offers a satisfying ending to one of the Xbox 360's very best games. After putting this much time into Liberty City, I think it's about time to move on to the next location. I heart Liberty City, but it's about time for Grand Theft Auto V!