A year and a half might not seem like much in the grand scheme of things, but in the tech-driven world of video games, it's enough to make a once-innovative game feel tired and clunky. Such is the case with The Ballad of Gay Tony, the second episode Rockstar North has released on the Xbox 360 for Grand Theft Auto IV, which continues to rely on that game's rapidly aging framework. But time isn't the only thing working against Gay Tony, as there's also an issue of quality. It's got all of the parts you'd need for the kind of hyperbolic criminal action experience GTA fans have come to expect, but there's a certain carelessness to the execution.
Like The Lost and Damned before it, The Ballad of Gay Tony takes place concurrently with the events of GTAIV, this time focusing on Luis Lopez and his business partner Tony Prince, known better within the criminal community as Gay Tony, though that's far and away the kindest name he's given. Together Lopez and Prince run a pair of high-end nightclubs in Liberty City, but a slumping economy and the maturation of LC's gay community are putting a cramp on Tony's non-stop bacchanalia of coke and pills, and the pair end up owing money to the wrong people. Despite being an ex-con and an unrepentant murderer, Luis is definitely the more reasonable and responsible of the two, and playing as Luis, it's your job to sort things out--and of course, by “sort things out,” I mean rob, blow shit up, and kill a whole mess of dudes.
This has emerged as one of the bothersome incongruities of the Grand Theft Auto protagonist. Like Niko Bellic and Johnny Klebitz before him, Luis Lopez is portrayed as a criminal who is a bit more insightful and self-aware than his peers, and postures as though he operates by some kind of moral code. Yet virtually every mission involves you doing the savage bidding of crazy and/or stupid characters that Luis ought to know better than to associate with. Even in comparison to Niko and Johnny, Luis comes off as kind of flat, without the thirst for revenge or the importance of brotherhood that, respectively, drove those characters. GTA protagonists are never the most interesting characters in their own games, but the fact that this isn't called The Ballad of Luis Lopez should be telling.
While the story is ostensibly about the dynamic between Tony and Luis, it also weaves in and out of the events of Grand Theft Auto IV, and the game is packed with callbacks and cameos, moreso than Lost and Damned. There are a few gems in there, but there's also a lot of forced coincidence, and at a point, it can be difficult to keep track of the extended cast of GTAIV. The Ballad of Gay Tony loosely revolves around Liberty City's nightclub lifestyle, but there's no specificity to the criminal experience being portrayed here, and it ends up feeling like a weak caricature of a good Grand Theft Auto game. Story threads about Luis' past, his relationship with his mother, and his dodgy reputation as a ladies' man are hinted at but go nowhere, and many of the colorful supporting characters are overly reminiscent of existing GTAIV characters, to the point that they actually introduce Brucie's older (but not bigger) brother Mori, whose amped-up alpha behavior simply doesn't pay the same dividends it did the first time around.
The gameplay in The Ballad of Gay Tony is, well, typical Grand Theft Auto stuff. If you played Grand Theft Auto IV, which is kind of a necessity before you get into Gay Tony, you're already familiar with the peculiarities of how the driving and character movement handle. The firefights tend to necessitate more judicious use of the game's cover mechanics, which feel clunkier than ever, largely because of the progress that has been made with cover mechanics by games like Uncharted 2 since the release of GTAIV. There are a few new activities you can engage in, most notably the addition of a parachute that you can use for BASE jumping, though you can also hit the driving range, engage in drug war firefights with Luis' hood friends, and go dancing in Tony and Luis' nightclubs.
Alongside the digital release of The Ballad of Gay Tony, Rockstar is putting out Grand Theft Auto: Episodes From Liberty City, which bundles both Gay Tony and The Lost and Damned onto one disc. This seems intended for players wary of or unconvinced by downloadable content, but the real value here is that you can expect market forces to push down the price of the disc much more quickly than its Microsoft-controlled digital counterparts. Considering the standalone nature of both episodes, I suppose it makes as much sense to load up that disc as the GTAIV disc to access the content.
Time and expectations have taken a certain toll on Grand Theft Auto IV, but all that aside, the bottom line for The Ballad of Gay Tony is that it's just not as good as the GTAIV experiences that preceded it. It feels like Rockstar has run out of tricks, and it has got its work cut out for it with whatever comes next for Grand Theft Auto.