How it fits in
By this point, some of you are probably wondering how The Ballad of Gay Tony meshes with the larger GTA IV narrative. We already know that the game opens in the bank during the Three Leaf Clover mission, and you can probably guess that you’ll eventually play through Luis’ side of the museum mission, which is a hell of a lot easier than what Niko and Johnny had to go through. You’ll also get into a firefight with Johnny’s gang over the series’ ill-fated diamonds, and later head to Charge Island with Tony to exchange those same diamonds for kidnapped Mob brat Gracie Ancelotti.
Above: It’s not because you particularly like her, either
For fans, though, half the fun will be in seeing the motivations behind these events and coming away with a full picture of what was really happening the whole time. Ballad of Gay Tony also ties up a lot of the loose threads left dangling by GTA IV, such as what happened to Bulgarin and where, ultimately, the diamonds ended up.
It’s also interesting to note that Ballad of Gay Tony holds up a fun-house mirror to GTA IV, in that a lot of its new or expanded characters are what earlier characters aspired to be. Billionaire developer Yusuf Aziz, with his fleet of helicopters, bottomless finances and tacky sensibilities, is what Playboy X (and to some degree, Roman) would have become with more money.
Above: Playboy wishes he could be this rich. Roman wishes he could be this obnoxious
The same could be said of Bulgarin (who’s insanely wealthy) and the comparatively insignificant Mikhail Faustin and Dmitri Rascalov. But the most blatant example is Mori Kibbutz, a sawed-off little bully who clearly provided the frat-boy template from which Brucie’s been working this whole time, and next to whom poor Brucie looks absolutely pathetic.
And Luis, for his part, represents the best that GTA IV’s other anti-heroes could possibly hope for: even after clawing his way to the top, he’s still just an errand boy for greedy sociopaths.
That just leaves one burning question about the plot:
How ‘gay’ is The Ballad of Gay Tony?
In spite of its neon-lit clubs (one of which is filled with 1970s gay stereotypes), catchy new dance and disco tracks – how do you not like a game that enables you to commit mayhem to “Disco Inferno?” – and sparkly rainbow menus and HUD, The Ballad of Gay Tony isn’t as centered around the gay scene as its presentation might have you believe. In fact, it features roughly 100 percent less onscreen penis than the unquestionably butch Lost and Damned.
Above: ‘Ha haa! Dangly parts!’
Homosexuality is a minor point of controversy in the story, sure – the game’s more oafish criminals routinely refer to Tony with a slur that should be familiar by now to all Xbox Live users– but for the most part, it’s treated as normal. Luis, who’s aggressively heterosexual and frequently gets it on with random women, simply respects Tony as his boss and friend, and doesn’t get angry when people try to insinuate that there’s something more between them. And Tony himself, while a little bitchy, is a fascinating character and a huge improvement, stereotype-wise, over GTA IV’s rubber-wristed Bernie Crane.
In fact, there’s only one person whose sexuality is ever really played for laughs, and that’s GTA IV fan-favorite Brucie. And if we told you how, we'd ruin one of the game's better tragicomic moments.
Above: Oh, Brucie. Will you ever win?
Gang up online
Unlike The Lost and Damned, The Ballad of Gay Tony doesn’t really bring any new modes to GTA IV’s 16-player online action. Instead, it simply overhauls what’s already there, littering the playing field with its new weapons and vehicles and introducing new, tighter deathmatch arenas and new features like kill streaks and assisted kills. (And believe us when we say that those kill streaks are a lot easier to maintain with explosive shotgun rounds.) It also adds parachutes, which can make Free Mode particularly interesting; even though you can’t shoot while gliding to earth, there’s something undeniably fun about skydiving with friends.
Is it better than…?
Grand Theft Auto IV? Yes and no. GTA IV is a much bigger game, with a more nuanced story and more three-dimensional characters – this is just the expansion. On the other hand, Gay Tony’s better cars, better weapons, tighter focus and replayable, checkpoint-filled missions with multiple bonus objectives make it, in many ways, a much more enjoyable experience.
GTA IV: The Lost and Damned? Yes. Gay Tony’s upbeat theme, kickass weaponry and goofy side activities make it a hell of a lot more fun than Lost and Damned’s bleak biker odyssey. And while some of TLaD’s innovations are left out – such as gang members you can level up, bikes you won’t fall off of easily and new multiplayer modes – they pale in comparison to being able to leap out of helicopters and survive.
Saints Row 2? Yes – but! While even mentioning it in the same breath as Gay Tony will probably make Rockstar seethe, it’s worth pointing out that Saints Row 2’s main selling point was that it said “yes” to players almost every time GTA IV said “no.” And while Gay Tony features lots of new activities, a fun atmosphere and a partial return to the ridiculous spectacle of San Andreas, it still feels more like a conditional compromise between Rockstar’s original vision for GTA IV and what unhappier fans wanted out of it. Don’t expect any car-surfing, barn-storming or gratuitous nudity here, although you will find plenty of stuff to keep you busy, along with a better story and an overall more interesting experience.
Just for you, Metacritic!
A top-notch expansion that nearly surpasses GTA IV itself for sheer fun and replayability, The Ballad of Gay Tony puts a fittingly explosive, over-the-top coda on the story that Niko Bellic started.
Oct 28, 2009