Now Playing: GTA IV: the ballad of gay tony
With the brilliant Tony Prince back for GTA Online’s After Hours update, we revisit Grand Theft Auto IV ‘s Ballad Of Gay Tony
Playing The Ballad Of Gay Tony again is a wistful experience. Everything about this standalone expansion for GTA IV is so celebratory and carefree. It’s funny, it’s filled with new toys, and it centres around an unlikely friendship between a hedonistic gay club owner and a Latino hoodlum. Yet it’s also the last time Rockstar created a storydriven ‘Expandalone’ for one of its games, before GTA became a moneyspinning online behemoth.
The Ballad Of Gay Tony casts you as Dominican hood Luis Lopez, who goes into an iffy-to-say-the-least business partnership with crestfallen and debt-ridden nightclub owner ‘Gay Tony’ Prince. True to the GTA IV mould, Ballad wasn’t a rags-to-riches tale, but a fight for survival, digging its antiheroes out of a whirlwind of violence and undesirables. Beyond that however, and the little matter of the same setting, Gay Tony was a break from GTA IV in every way, and (to a lesser extent) its other expansion The Lost And The Damned.
At 12 hours long, Ballad plays out like a wacky piece of pulp fiction, sleekly linking back into the GTA IV and Lost And The Damned stories. Its swift pacing is a perfect fit for a series that can sometimes feel overburdened with wacky characters providing comedic kicks at the expense of narrative focus. You still feel like a typical GTA dogsbody, as Luis bitches and moans about being pulled back into a life of crime while dutifully carrying out every transgression asked of him, but it all wraps up in good time before starting to feel sloggish.
In isolation, Gay Tony is a tasty vertical slice of GTA campaign, but it particularly shines as a counterweight to GTA IV. Niko Bellic’s tale was dark for a GTA game; a Shakespearean tragedy rather than the comic-book smorgasbord of crime-film tropes that defined the series up to that point. Whether you loved GTA IV or not, you’d have been justified in wanting a fresh perspective on Liberty City after it.
Gay Tony is a palette-cleanser to Niko’s harrowing story; a throwback to the more carefree days of the series’ previous generation. Its electric pink UI theming and ’80s-focused ‘Vice City FM’ radio station evoke the fondly remembered GTA: Vice City. You could be cruising along the belching grey streets of Liberty City, but with those fuscia tones creeping into your peripheral vision and ‘Shake Your Groove Thing’ blaring on the radio, a little bit of your soul would be in a sunnier (though no less sordid) place.
You do most of your dealings with Tony in and around his nightclubs, obnoxious little-man Mori Kibbutz, and hyperactive Arab oligarch’s son, Yusuf Amir, who tasks you with procuring helicopters and subway trains. Your violent interactions with the city and its denizens, meanwhile, are blown up thanks to a new arsenal of heavy weaponry that includes heavy machine guns, explosive-shell shotguns, and sticky C4 charges. With Luis being the biggest blank-slate
GTA protagonist since GTA 3’ s Silent Claude, you’re invited to embrace the cranked-up chaos with little narrative baggage; if only rampages had made a comeback...
Through these myriad tonal tweaks, Ballad feels a world away from Nico’s tribulations. Luis’ path actually
crosses with Nico’s a couple of times, and in those moments it’s like staring through a dark porthole into a past you want to forget. “Nico, I feel for you, but I’ve found new friends and your whole PTSD vibe is kind of bumming us all out. We’ll catch up later, okay?”
Perhaps Rockstar’s greatest achievement here was its handling of the titular character. Given how up to this point, gay characters in GTA hadn’t been spared a somewhat stereotypical treatment (from hairdressers and lechy San Fierro cops, to GTA IV’s effete Florian Cravic), we’d have been justified in expecting Gay Tony to be introduced in a shower of confetti, armed with a feather boa and a propensity to cup Luis’ cojones. Instead, we got one of the most grounded non-player characters in GTA’s history: neurotic, sardonic and decidedly human. The dynamic between him and Luis is one of genuine care and friendship, never reduced to odd-couple silliness and kept clear of Rockstar’s snickering sense of humour.
Replaying Ballad, I’m reminded of its endless barrage of racial and homophobic slurs – probably more so than any other game. The difference here is that the joke’s clearly on those delivering the lines, demarcating the idiots and villains of the game from the heroes. Tony and Luis never got drawn in, stoic and united in their status as two casually maligned minorities. At one point, when Luis says to Tony, “I never thought seeing you would make things feel more heterosexual,” Tony responds, “I’m just going to pretend I didn’t hear that, sweetheart.” Cool as you like.
The Ballad Of Gay Tony isn’t perfect; there are only so many helicopter missions you can do before the novelty wears off (though parachuting is endless fun), and its confinement of women characters to prostitutes and shrews feels outdated (which is perhaps more a sign of how far the industry’s gender politics have come in the last ten years than an indictment of the game). As an expansion to GTA IV however, it’s just about perfect – a refresher from its bold but morose base game, and a showcase of how the right tweaks and tonal changes can amount to a unique experience in a familiar setting. It demonstrates a frugality and confidence that you just don’t get in, say, the Far Cry 5 DLCs, whose wacky locations so far fail to mask their throwaway storytelling. Which leads us to Red Dead
Redemption 2, and our hopes for it getting story-led DLC – a Gay Tony in the West, as it were. Will Rockstar focus all its efforts on emulating
GTA Online’s success in RDR 2, or will they embellish their upcoming world with memorable stories? I’m not talking about a goofy twist like Undead Nightmare, but how about a DLC with a Spaghetti Western tone to the main game’s more austere take on the genre? Or getting the perspective of a Native American tribesperson amidst all the upheavals of the time? Rockstar’s rep is built on the backs of memorable characters and great side-stories like Gay Tony, so we’re expecting big things! ■
“Gay Tony is one of the most grounded NPCs in GTA’s history: neurotic, sardonic and human”
far left Plentiful helicopter rides and parachuting in this expansion were a liberating break from the grimy streets of Liberty City.Ab ove Catch Liberty City at the right moment with the right soundtrack, and it doesn’t seem like such an ugly place after all.