Yesterday I told you wot I thought of the first half of the GTA IV: Episodes From Liberty City, The Lost And Damned. Today it's the other half, The Ballad Of Gay Tony. Having played it from beginning to end, I feel rather equipped to let you know Wot I Think.
When introducing yesterday’s The Lost And Damned WIT, I mentioned that I think a possible mistake made in these two excellent additional episodes for the GTA IV world was to repeat the downbeat, reluctant central character both times. The Ballad Of Gay Tony is by far the better of the two, but it’s here that this attempt to create other Niko Bellic-alike feels most conflicted.
Luis Fernando Lopez is a business partner, bodyguard and muscle for Tony Prince, owner of two of Liberty City’s biggest nightclubs. Or at least, they were in the eighties. Gay Tony, nicknamed for not exactly complicated reasons, is in a lot of trouble. He’s sold his business to two different unsavoury groups, and has no idea how he’s going to get out of this mess. That his current boyfriend is keeping him well supplied in drugs isn’t helping, either.
Luis’s story sees him struggle to help Tony out of his mess, both by keeping back those who wish to claim their money, and by getting himself involved in even more murky areas of the city’s underworld. But despite these apparently dark themes, it’s the most colourful and plain daft game since Vice City.
Unlike Vice City, this continues Rockstar’s recent theme of avoiding the rather tedious “Hey, look at us! We’re committing crimes and banging hookers!” tone that undermined the previous games for me. Luis is a calm guy, smart – too smart – and aware that he could be living a better life. Tony is pissing his life and career away, his childhood friends are losers, his mother is a fool, and his job has become picking up the pieces after all of them. He’s a glum fellow, stuck with idiots.
However, this is contrasted by the circumstances he finds himself in, and the absolute lunatics he ends up working for. An early mission has Luis at a multi-storey driving range, aiming golf balls at a man strapped to a golf buggy on the grass below. Later he’s leaping out of helicopters to grab people mid-air, taking part in land, sea and air races (all at once), and helping the ridiculous Dubaian, Yusuf Amir (voiced brilliantly by stand-up Omid Djalili), to steal a variety of unlikely (and sometimes massive) vehicles. One particularly excellent shoot-out takes place in a funfair. This isn’t the grey, washed-out world of Niko or Johnny.
Similarly to the original GTA IV, TBOGT has multiple mission paths open throughout. There’s a brief (but peculiarly abandoned) story about Luis’s mother early on, alongside tales of the murderous Russian Ray Bulgarin, short-arse cretin Mori Kibbutz, and the previously mentioned loony, Yusuf Amir. These feature alongside Tony’s main mission thread, as well as other standalones here and there.
Once again these missions are extremely well checkpointed, meaning the lengthy sequences need not be completely repeated to progress. However, this time there’s a possible penalty for not completing them in one attempt. You are scored after each completed mission, graded against a series of targets of which you are not aware before you begin. Perhaps there will be an expected number of headshots, a time limit to finish within, and a maximum speed to have reached in a speedboat. There’s no hindrance in not scoring well, but once the game is complete missions can be replayed via your mobile phone, letting you attempt to improve upon your previous score. Should you need to restart a mission at a checkpoint, it won’t let you upload your score to the Social Club online features, just in case you care about such a thing.
Unlike The Lost And Damned, you’re encouraged to have more of a social life with Luis. While of course bowling alleys and the like are available in both games, you’re not being nagged by friends to hang out in TLAD. The Ballad reintroduces this, along with internet dating, emails from chums, and adds in a Perez Hilton spoof celebrity blog. And for further socialising (read: getting laid) you can head to one of Tony’s clubs and show off your dancing skills. This involves getting on the dance floor, sidling up to a single lady, and then impressing her with your ability to hit keys in time with the music. It’s about the simplest rhythm-action minigame in existence, and results in a quickie in the toilets. (Unless you’re in a gay club, where it brilliantly ends in a big group dance.)
Also available around the map are twenty-five parachute challenges. Introducing the chute to GTA IV, it plays a vital role in a number of missions, but also can be accessed in your inventory for your own fun, or in the marked areas for attempting to land on extremely small targets after a long fall.
It’s interesting how much harm Just Cause 2 has done to my psyche. I died twice because I forgot infinite parachutes wasn’t a normal part of skydiving. In fact, once you’ve been given access to parachuting it’s hard to shake the desire to grapple onto a distant building, launch yourself, then grab hold of a passing plane. It’s interesting that while JC2 cannot hold a candle to GTA’s mission structure and writing, it has made its epic city feel very restrictive.
The other frequent theme here, and one where it falls down horribly, is the prevalence of helicopters. These have not been improved in any way, and controlling them with the mouse/keyboard is absolutely hideous. Again, especially after growing used to the ease and fun of a Just Cause 2 chopper, fighting against the awful controls is a fairly miserable experience. I’ve never flown a helicopter, but I’m fairly sure going forward shouldn’t be quite such an ordeal. This falls apart completely when you’re asked to fire weapons at the same time as flying. Due to the muddled controls (and a weird bug refusing to let you assign better keyboard commands to the helicopter if they’ve been assigned to anything else elsewhere in the game). One mission in particular is far from fun thanks to a need to wrestle with these controls.
Since I’m complaining, I’ll repeat the horrible volume of visual bugs that appear in both episodes. Huge chunks of scenery can be replaced by grey sheets, and more weirdly here, rooftop sequences can find you stood waist-deep in a grey soup of nothingness. Extremely off-putting when you’re trying to take out snipers. Occasional AI glitches can leave enemies standing motionless as you saunter up to them and shoot them in the face, along with other choppy glitches that make the PC version feel under-tested.
However, these are blips. The Ballad Of Gay Tony is a huge, elaborate, and hilarious story. The mixture of mission types, the variety in the cast, and the understanding of what’s fun for the player to focus on, makes this possibly Rockstar’s finest GTA release. The cutscenes are absolutely stunning, with a broad range from extremely funny to disturbing, and most of all, smartly written. Any fears of a homophobic tone from the title can be forgotten – while it’s packed with homophobic characters (along with racist, and just plain ignorant folk), the game itself is not. It does mean there’s frequent use of language you don’t often hear in gaming, but again, context context context.
There's also the rather lovely idea to have all three games converge at various points. A diamond heist forms a focal point that brings Johnny, Niko and Luis together, seen from different angles. There's also plenty of other cross-over moments, one appearing right at the start of this episode during the awesome opening sequence. Luis is in a bank being robbed by Niko, then almost run over by Johnny on his bike. It gives the impression that Liberty City has dozens of stories to tell - Rockstar could absolutely keep creating smaller stories within their remarkable city, and it would only let the world feel more real, more rounded.
So back to Luis. Due to the tone of the game, the cheerful nature of the massacre within, I found myself a little disappointed that our own character couldn’t be a little more enthused himself. I’m surprised by my own reaction – GTA IV was the first in the series I really adored, because at last I could feel sympathetic to my character, something I’d never been able to do previously. But while Luis was smart, and clearly above the nonsense in which he was involved, that left me feeling a bit detached as well. He’s unquestionably well written, but if he’d only be up for having a little bit of fun. His harrumphing at every turn becomes a little draining. “Hey, Luis, look – I’m controlling you, and I’m having fun. How about you join in?”
Although I’ll forgive about anything for the inclusion of Yusuf, the dangerously rich man-child, desperate to own one of everything in existence. He’s one of the few people in the world who doesn’t want you dead, which is immediately endearing. More endearing is seeing the sad fool prancing in his pants, being scorned by the hooker he’s hired, dancing around the drug-strewn table containing a scale model of his idiotic construction plans, with a machine gun in his hand, as his father walks in. The following scene is the best in the game.
There’s all manner of other little details. There’s a fighting club you can participate in, or just bet on. There’s options to manage one of Tony’s clubs for an evening, which leads to other small missions. You can head to the driving range to compete at some golfing. And my favourite, there’s sticky bombs. Set an area up, and then hit the down arrow when you want them to explode. Tremendous fun.
The Ballad Of Gay Tony is a fantastic mix of all that’s made the GTA series so astonishingly successful. It combines the honesty of GTA IV with the playground silliness of Vice City and San Andreas, along with some of the finest writing the series has seen. And there’s Yusuf.