Whether played as an appendage to Grand Theft Auto IV or as half of a standalone disc, the latest GTA installment offers a full game's worth of a series at its most intriguing and sexual, wild in ways not advertised.
Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony arrives this week as the final planned release of the GTA IV saga that began in the spring of 2008. It follows the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC GTA IV and the 360-only GTA: The Lost and Damned, two releases that only avid franchise gamers would recognize as restrained. The trailers and talk issued by Rockstar Games prior to the release of Gay Tony implied that this third installment, this new adventure starring bodyguard Luis Lopez committing crimes for Liberty City's most warped and wealthy citizens, would return GTA to the dam-detonating, beach-partying gameplay eccentricities of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
That wildness appears during some glorious moment but never quite takes over Gay Tony, which proves to be closer in tone and style to GTA IV than San Andreas. The new episode introduces some strong new ideas to the series, demonstrates Rockstar's medium-leading sophistication in character creation and makes a case for no GTA ever having a single lead character again.
I Know These People: I don't think I know any cold-blooded killers or pill-popping gay nightclub owners who have crossed the mob, but I know suave players who get all the girls and I know people who are crushed with stress about money. I don't know anyone who has encased their phone in gold nor done the same for their Uzi. But that quality of just not knowing when to stop buying and flashing fancy things is a familiar and sometimes hilarious human quality. Rockstar's characters in Gay Tony — like so many of their GTA heroes, villains and passers-by — feel fascinatingly unreal both because they are colorful and because they stand out from most video game characters by exhibiting recognizable human traits. The Gay Tony cast is distinct and fun to be around. I cared what happened to these folks.
I Know This Place: GTA IV and its expansions may play differently in your world, but for me they bring a city I know well to virtual life with sometimes shocking specificity. In Gay Tony I was assigned in just one mission to parachute onto a building — one that was a replica of a skyscraper I used to work in. In another mission I was brought to a nearly perfect recreation of Manhattan's Chelsea Piers driving range and made to stand in almost the same spot where I witnessed Tiger Woods drive trick shots, except that in Gay Tony, I was doing the golfing and the goal was more brutal than promoting an EA golf game.
Even if you're not someone who would recognize the hundreds of New York City landmarks recreated in Liberty City — not just the signature skyscrapers but the slopes of certain streets and style of certain signs — you will hopefully feel the ways Rockstar uses Gay Tony to once again exploit the emotion of real geography. A leap from the equivalent of the Empire State Building — or a nervous wait to see whether the car that escaped your helicopter by driving into a tunnel under the Hudson River emerges on the other side in New Jersey — still has the texture and tension of something that feels realer than what so many other games offer, without feeling any less fun.
In The Sky: Of the two most commendable gameplay enhancements that Gay Tony offers to the GTA IV structure, the affairs in the air are the more likely crowd-pleaser. Luis can buy single-use parachutes to jump off any building or access 15 pre-determined locations that enter him into challenges to parachute from buildings, helicopters or even off a motorcycle that is driven off a skyscraper roof. In multiplayer, players can release smoke, the better to show their trails and attract gunfire from their so-called friends (A parachutist can't fire back).
Gay Tony also puts the player in control of more and deadlier helicopters than what the series has had before, allowing for the mayhem some players found missing from parts of the earlier GTA IV releases. Of course, the peanut butter and chocolate here is leaping from a chopper with a parachute, landing wherever you want.
In The Club: Not since Shenmue asked players to enjoy driving a forklift has it been so hard to believe a video game's implication that menial labor would be fun, but Rockstar somehow figured out how to make nightclub management a joy. You can try this task almost any night at Tony Prince's straight club, the Maisonette 9, and indulge in what feels like a laboratory experiment of GTA style and gameplay. You've got the soft-scripted gameplay of having to walk from lookout-point to lookout-point in the cramped club searching for trouble and then tossing said trouble out the front door. You've got the edginess of occasional sexual interludes while you go about this task.
And, best of all, you've got the winning twist: The seemingly random call from a co-worker that assigns you an emergency tougher management task that might have you racing to Tony's gay nightclub to rescue a rapper from being outed by the paparazzi or to the Bronx (aka Bohan) to get a sandwich for the do-nothing starlet whose assistant calls you for an update every minute. The collision of pop culture, crazy people and intermittently bawdy and violent content is GTA in a capsule — or in this case, in a club.
The Right Zaniness: The hyped return of a usable military tank may have thrilled the GTA fans looking for San Andreas wildness, but Gay Tony's armed vehicle feels like an obligatory throwback rather than a joyous reintroduction. The choppers are more fun to use. But even better than seeing Rockstar mine from their past — and sometimes they do it splendidly as is the case with the group dance-numbers in the clubs that briefly turn Gay Tony into a Bollywood flick — are the new attempts at colorful chaos. I welcome the missions that riff about Twitter or that threaten the life of — gulp — a blogger.
Johnny And Niko: Few moments in The Ballad of Gay Tony are as powerful as the appearances of Niko Bellic, this man who, GTA IV players know well, has a history, a life that sawed deeply through the streets of Liberty City. To see Niko just standing in a scene — on the side of a Gay Tony enemy — hints at the power of a GTA game that encompasses multiple playable lives. The Lost and Damned's Johnny Klebitz makes his own return as do other side-characters from the other games. In many cases, these appearances help flesh out the character of the characters or offer a new vantage from which to view a familiar event, rewarding returning consumers. But it is the appearance of those who I once played as that had the strongest impact on me and made me yearn for a GTA city in which I could be a part of more crisscrossed lives.
One Magic Moment: The randomness of the series' gameplay system has provided any of us GTA gamers a moment that felt magically unique, when a traffic pattern converged or an exploding car ricocheted in just this one way that created an unforgettable spectacle. Here is my magic moment in Gay Tony, one of my favorite random GTA experiences ever: A mission that I won't spoil left me accused of a murder I did not commit. Chased by a crowd of civilians, I stole a car and sped off, police in pursuit. The radio was tuned to the game's new Self-Actualization station a thematically peculiar offering of relaxing new-age songs. As I peeled away and sirens blared behind me, the zen chill-out sounds of that station suddenly seemed perfect as I tasted something I'd never experienced in a GTA before: Innocence amid the fury and chase of wrongful accusation. I had to relax. Everything was going to be all right and those sirens, if I just gained enough speed on the highway, would fade away.
Double Delivery: You've been reading a review mostly of $20 The Ballad Of Gay Tony, which you can download to an Xbox 360 and play in conjunction with the base disc. But for just twice the price you could play this game off of the Grand Theft Auto: Episodes From Liberty City disc, get the equally-meaty and interesting Lost and Damned GTA episode (we reviewed it too) and not even need the full game. Given how much we also liked that other episode, that's an unusually helpful way to experience a load of single-player bonus content that would normally have required the purchase of the base game. (Note that, however you play, you access GTA IV and either of the episodes separately from a menu screen — you can't hop from one to the other while inhabiting the digital city.)