Review / Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony (Xbox 360)

18 months in real life isn’t much of anything in the grand scheme of things, but in the world of videogames, that’s an eternity. That’s 25% of the average console’s lifespan, so the fact that Grand Theft Auto IV is still in the collective conciseness of gamers is a testament to the game’s quality and the developer’s long term support for the game. So when Microsoft paid the rumored $50 million for the exclusive rights to GTA4’s downloadable content, I figured it would be substantial, and the first of the two downloadable “episodes”, The Lost & Damned, did not disappoint. They were able to make the game feel very different in tone from Niko Bellic’s story, which considering the fact that they both took place in the same location, is no small feat.

Nine months after Johnny “the Jew” Klebitz tore up Liberty City, we now have The Ballad of Gay Tony, and the audience for this game is the smallest of the three GTA4 stories. The series has always had its detractors, and The Ballad of Gay Tony will once again not change their minds. Add to that the fact that after two full campaigns of the same GTA gameplay set in the same city, a lot of people are just going to be burned out on the game and ready to try something new. So if you fall into one of these categories, then I implore you to check out one of the many other fine articles here on this website, as the following review isn’t going to do you any good.

So if you’re still around, then you’re probably like myself, and the main draw to keep playing GTA4 is Rockstar’s fantastic storytelling and writing, and it is here where The Ballad of Gay Tony really drops the ball. The player takes the role of Luis Lopez, a Dominican ex con who has risen from the streets to work in the upper echelon of Liberty City’s underworld, and he is a successful business partner with Anthony Prince, otherwise known as Gay Tony. Tony concurrently owns the biggest straight and gay night clubs in Liberty City, but business has been tough given the “dark economic times”, so Tony has been forced to borrow money from some people he probably shouldn’t have, and Luis now has to bail him out and save the nightclubs.

The game’s main problem is that it just doesn’t have that same spark that the first two stories had, and the main culprit here is, surprisingly, the writing. I can’t remember the last time I played a game with this much swearing. Granted, GTA has always had a lot of swearing, but it was always used smartly to convey emotion, it always fit the mood, and it was never taken to the downright offensive extremes it goes to in The Ballad of Gay Tony. It’s not just the swearing, but the barrage of racial and sexual slurs is somewhat unsettling. Almost every scene with Gay Tony involves about 14 people making fun of his sexual orientation, and the dialog in general just doesn’t have that same pitch black humor or charm that Rockstar is known for. Everything just feels very shallow and forced.

While the dialog can be cringe worthy, the story’s biggest problem is the main character. In short, Luis is a thoroughly unlikable putz. One of the complaints about the protagonists in most GTA games is that you have these seemingly nice guys with at least some form of morals who for some reason or another go and do these horrible atrocities against humanity for complete jerks when you would think they know better but do it anyways. Well at least the last two guys had reasons for committing these crimes. Niko had a specific goal that consumed his life and he would do anything to complete it, and Johnny had nothing in life but the brotherhood, and thus would do anything for them no questions asked. Luis is just a hypocrite who says one thing and does another thing entirely.

Here’s an example: In one of the early missions, Luis accompanies his cousin and his knuckle-headed buddy to a drug deal. The entire way there, Luis is preaching about how this is a terrible idea, how they need to get out of the game and do something with their lives, and how dealing drugs is going to be the end of them. The deal, of course, goes bad (just once I would like to do a GTA mission where the deal goes well and everyone walks away happy), and after killing about 40 cops and taking out a helicopter, what does Luis do? He spends the entire way back home telling these dimwits about how they are too small time, and that they need to go start robbing drug lords to get big payoffs and make something of themselves. What gives Luis? If anything, becoming #1 on the FBI’s most wanted list after taking out a entire brigade of police officers could’ve provided the proof you needed to help these wayward souls go into the light, but instead you tell them to go steal drugs to sell them for a bigger profit? Check yourself. To make matters worse, Luis is poorly acted. The man who voices him, Mario D’Leon, comes off as flat and completely uninterested, which is truly shocking given Rockstar’s near immaculate track record when it comes to voice work.

So without the story to keep you going, all the blemishes and warts GTA4 has grown over the last 18 months become much more noticeable. The game engine is really starting to show its age with stiff character movement and shoddy cover mechanics compared to current games on the market. The character models aren’t great, and compared to games like Dragon Age and Uncharted 2, the then highly touted facial expressions don’t hold up. There are a few new distractions such as the Liberty City Fight Club and the base jumping minigame, but there isn’t anything here as substantial as the modified motorcycle physics that were in The Lost & Damned.

The aging mechanics add to The Ballad of Gay Tony’s problems, but after finishing the game in about eight hours, the main feeling I had was that Rockstar didn’t put their best foot forward here. Maybe the main GTA people are already looking ahead and working on the next entry in the series, as it’s obvious to me that The Ballad of Gay Tony just didn’t get the tender loving care that the rest of the episodes did. If you’re a hardcore GTA fan, at $20, this is still not a terrible investment, but everyone else probably has a whole stack of games to play this holiday season that are better uses of your spare time.

+ There’s a lot of game here for $20
+ Liberty City itself is still amazing
+ A mediocre GTA story is still better then 90% of stories in videogames

– Just not as interesting as the rest of GTA4
– Luis is a chump
– The core game is really starting to age quickly