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

XBox: The Official Magazine - - START - Pub­lisheR Rock­star Games / De­vel­oper Rock­star North / For­mat Xbox 360 / re­lease date Oc­to­ber 2009 Robert Zak

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.

Lib­er­ated city

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.

Go­ing west

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.

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