Grand Theft Auto – The Ballad of Gay Tony – I never much liked Grand Theft Auto IV. I bought it at launch, the ‘special’ edition I might add, played it for a few hours, thought it was a bit average and then put it on the shelf. A year later I forced myself through it in an influenza haze and it wasn’t until the last hour or so that I felt any semblance of enjoyment in what GTA IV offered, but even then I came away thoroughly underwhelmed. I felt the narrative was broken, the characters schizophrenic in their motivations and a story that was punctuated by a few key moments strung together by stochastic interactions with a whole bunch of randoms. Couple that with the fact that the game was just no fun to play and you have a game that I feel is highly, highly overrated.
The Ballad of Gay Tony, the second expansion for Grand Theft Auto IV, is big, bright and bombastic. It is filled to the brim with interesting characters and relationships that feel real, with personal problems that we can all relate to on some level. Cut scenes are well-written making it a compelling proposition to see through to the credits. You take the role of Luis, a dominican ex-con who has found his feet in business with night-club owner and socialite Tony Prince (Gay Tony). Torn between the demands of the high-rolling lifestyle and actually having to earn a living, Tony gets ‘in bed’ with some not-so-wholesome types and it is naturally up to Luis to clean things up. It is a legitimately interesting premise that while it doesn’t deliver any earth-shattering moments, does the job and gives you enough investment in the plights of this odd couple to keep you interested.
And this really is one of the main strengths of Gay Tony. Tony Prince is the star of the show and is one of the more interesting characters to come from the GTA franchise in quite some time. He isn’t an all-bravado member of a crime syndicate, an all too common trope on the series, but rather a vulnerable character whose reliance on drugs and alcohol at tough times makes him helpless and able to be taken advantage of. A thesis could be written on how Tony Prince both adheres to and breaks simultaneously the gay stereotypes that are used in popular culture, but it isn’t his homosexuality that defines him. It is his weakness and his self-destructive behaviour that makes him an interesting case for how Rockstar should take character development forward in Grand Theft Auto V. He is driven by vanity rather than criminal intent, and that makes everything far more complicated in how he interacts with your character – and in turn strains the relationship between the two in a far different way to the usual ‘go here, steal this, give me a cut’ way.
But like everything Grand Theft Auto IV, the Ballad of Gay Tony is really just no fun to play. Driving around the city forms a major part of the game but the cars handle too loosely to ever feel like you are in control. Watching the suspension bear the weight of the car’s chassis as it takes a corner looks the deal, but it never feels like the weight is shifting as it should resulting in every car feeling like it is a top-heavy 4WD all too-eager to turnover. All of this makes car chases that should be exhilarating, frustrating, and traversing the world more of a chore than anything else. And the other half of the story isn’t much better with the cover and shoot system leading to far more accidental deaths and failed attempts at murder than should be the case in a big polished AAA title. Don’t get me wrong, GTA IV and as such this expansion made huge strides from the utter frustration that was the last-gen GTA series, but it certainly isn’t as good as other similar structured games. The good news is Rockstar seemed to get it right with the stellar Red Dead Redemption so GTA IV may signal an end to the combat woes that have plagued the series since it went 3D way back in the PS2 era.
And the problem all seems to stem from a serious case of identity crisis. The Grand Theft Auto IV never really knew whether it was trying to be a serious crime epic, or an over-the-top video game experience, and as a result feels like it is constantly trying to find its feet. It wants you to be an almost superhuman driver, shooter and flyer, but gives you simulated real world powers and physics to do them. It would be like asking Spiderman to climb a building using only suction cups.
All of this said I think that the Ballad of Gay Tony, like the first expansion the Lost and Damned before it, is streets ahead of their namesake title. The characters aren’t as inconsistent in their actions and Niko Bellic was and it is more ambitious in its mission design despite fundamentally being a go-here and do-this structured game. It doesn’t break the mould in any meaningful way but the Ballad of Gay Tony is a decent distraction that more than anything is a reminder that developer Rockstar has a long way to go before it perfects the popular series. I just hope a whole lot of those strides toward perfection come packaged in Grand Theft Auto V.