Grand Theft Auto IV may have overstayed its welcome, but it seems Liberty City has not. From the perspective of fresh characters, GTAIV’s episodic expansions shine light on a simple truth: Rockstar does open-world environments like no other. Their take on New York City is, through thousands of little touches, so evocative of the real deal it’s eerie. It’s because of this that the humble beginnings of each new GTAIV protagonist are always a welcome joy.
The Ballad of Gay Tony’s opening missions are no different. You play as Luis Lopez, business partner and bodyguard to the bumbling and pill-popping Gay Tony. Early on you’ll take on nightclub management, troubles with your corner boy buddies, and a nagging mother. Sure, you’ll ventilate a few gangsters here and there (with a high-tech sub-machine gun, no less), but most of the early game borders on the mundane. And just like Niko Bellic’s adventure in the original GTAIV, or Johnny Klebitz’s in The Lost & Damned these more down-to-Earth moments bring the city and its cast of characters into focus.
This cast and their story meander a bit at the outset. A few too many plot points may leave you confused, lost, and disinterested. You’re coming into it in the middle of some conflicts – characters are mentioned in passing, and you’re left to get yourself up to speed. But once the plot starts to come together, you’ll quickly get lost in developer Rockstar’s trademark dialogue and characters.
Gay Tony’s relationship with Luis is fascinatingly well-conceived. One is the owner of the hottest nightclubs in Liberty City, and the other is a former gang-banger and drug-dealer. They couldn’t be more different, and yet they need and show genuine concern for each other. These unlikely business partners ooze charm, but the quality characterization goes to waste as the game continues.
The subtlety of the first handful of missions doesn’t last long. Soon you’ll be flying a helicopter, firing missiles out of a cruise ship, or blowing up police officers with explosive shotgun shells. It is, as with previous entries, a blessing and curse – the gameplay is more action-packed, but the insane violence detracts from the believability and likeability of the cast of characters. It’s impossible to sympathize with someone who violently guns down over 200 people by the game’s end for no real reason but to save their own neck.
Thankfully, Luis Lopez isn’t pushing for sympathy as much as previous “protagonists” seemed to. “I kill people for money,” he boasts. This isn’t some tale of life-long revenge or betrayal, and it doesn’t have the gall to dramatically kill off characters well after you stopped caring about their fates. Rockstar’s writers don’t show any signs of maturing, but they certainly seem to back off on the pretension.
In both regular GTAIV and its first episode, The Lost & Damned, this descent into madness soured the entire experience. The characters lost credibility, and the missions became more murderous, but rarely much more fun. The Ballad of Gay Tony fares much better though, hitting high action notes reminiscent of the legendary, Heat-inspired bank robbery from GTAIV. The later missions do this often, and they add new weapons, vehicles, and sky-diving to the Liberty City experience.
One mission has you leaping out of a helicopter and parachuting down to the roof of an office building. This flows into a harrowing shoot-out, an assassination, and a daring escape out of a window. In other missions you’ll leap onto a moving train, fight your way through a carnival, and chase a jet on a motorcycle. When the story and world become less riveting, these Hollywood action scenes certainly pick up the slack.
Side missions fill out the experience, providing an extra distraction beyond the sizeable, 10-12 hour story. These range from sky-diving, to drug-running, races, and club management. While the first three play out more like mini-games than full missions, club management is a little more experimental and interesting. It plays with a mission progression more in line with Western RPGs, where a simple quest may lead into something more involved. You’ll begin the night patrolling the club and kicking out troublemakers, but eventually a celebrity or acquaintance may show up and need your help. This flows into a full mission, one that’s entirely optional. Organic transitions like this are foreign to the GTA series, which relies on clearly defined mission starting points, but experimentation here could lead to more natural plot progression in future entries. For now, it’s a welcome surprise at the very least.
The Ballad of Gay Tony is the culmination of over a year of development beyond the original Grand Theft Auto IV. The lessons there and in The Lost & Damned leave us with the most well-rounded tale yet. But are they really lessons learned when Rockstar falls prey to many of the same faults? The faults aren’t so bad this time around, but their stubborn attempts to strike a balance between fun missions and charismatic protagonists always result in a feeling of lost potential. These games are on the cusp of telling the next classic crime story, but they never take that extra daring step. That’s what was missing from The Ballad of Gay Tony – there was no ground-breaking twist, and nothing pushing the genre forward. It’s just more of the same in an admittedly more balanced and enjoyable package.