While I appreciated the different aim for The Lost and Damned, the grimy overlay failed to appeal to me. I didn't care for the biker theme, the music that blared over the safe house, or the personalities behind the characters. The world was masterfully reinterpreted for the new take on Liberty City, but it just didn't connect with my tastes. The Ballad of Gay Tony, on the other hand, grabbed me right from the start and never let go.
Gay Tony opens with Luis Lopez pressed firmly to the floor of the bank being robbed by Niko and the McCreary's, and then segues into a scene of him walking down the street, casually shaking off being at a robbery, and slipping into a dance club to party his ass off. You can dance, take shots at a bar, and play a drinking game -- all under an assault of fast music and waves of neon lights. Even the user interface, from the pause menu to the armor gauge, is draped in bright colors. The veritable rainbow of activity was welcomed refreshment, especially after being stuck in the colorless grain of Lost and Damned.
It’s always sunny in Liberty City
Luis is a recently acquired business partner and occasional bodyguard of Tony Prince, aka the titular Gay Tony. Tony is a long standing owner of some of the hottest gay and straight night clubs in the city, but lately he's seemed to lose a bit of control courtesy a new drug habit. Money starts flying out the window, and somehow it's up to Luis to find a new source of funds to keep Tony's clubs afloat. While Luis has a fair amount of back story regarding his ex-girlfriend, his mother and siblings, and his friends, Gay Tony is really about, well, Gay Tony. You view his story through Luis' eyes, which works out since Tony enables Luis to do just about everything.
With a sprawling narrative and a mostly new cast of characters, the story reaches outside of the self repeating box that seemed to trap Lost and Damned. You'll meet Yusef, a profanity spewing Arab with a heart of gold and outrageous delusions of grandeur. Then there's Mori, an intense asshole and brother to Niko's friend Brucie (and boy do we ever see why Brucie is so messed up). Other characters, like Rocco and some Russian mobsters have more subdued quirks as well, but the whole cast generally makes for a lively assemblage of outrageous personalities.
The cast also contributes to a fresh set of missions. I faulted Lost and Damned for defaulting to uninspired gun fights too often, but Gay Tony opts to drop the "kill all these guys" frequency in favor of a bunch of new stuff. A handful of helicopter combat missions appear, and while manipulating that thing in complete 3D space can be a little unwieldy, the blessing of infinite ammo helps to balance out any misgivings. You'll also whack golf balls at a guy strapped to the front of a golf cart (and then get into a car chase in said golf cart with the guy still strapped to it), follow a guy around town based on his Bleater (twitter) updates, and a host of activities with some new sticky bombs. I had the most fun with Yusef's missions, which typically involve Luis stealing stuff you'd never, ever consider actually stealing.
Perhaps the most welcomed addition; parachutes make a return from San Andreas. It's pushed to full effect too; you'll be dropping out of helicopters and tasked to land on moving objects or buildings, throw a guy of a copter and dive after him, or follow a car around the city. It also does well to augment the typical "enter a building a kill these guys" staple by tasking you to land on a building and infiltrate from the roof. A whole lot of BASE jumping side missions also pop up all over the city, and those are a boat load of fun too.
The usual side stuff is there to break the pace of the story. With Luis' childhood friends, Armando and Henrique, you'll get to Drug Wars, which entail driving to a drug exchange, killing everyone there, and speeding off with the package. It's mostly combat based, but busting up a party by ramming half the people there with a giant SUV never failed to impress. You can also manage Tony's nightclubs, which is sort of lame, but they usually conclude with Luis getting dispatched to go do a smaller mission. Cage fighting tries to take advantage of GTA's hand to hand combat aspects, but I couldn't get into it. Races have taken a turn for the extreme, with each race consisting of a vehicular triathlon involving cars, boats, and the occasional sky dive. Lastly, just like Lost and Damned, fifty more pigeons for you to destroy are scattered across the city, if that's your thing.
GTA IV's multiplier was fun, but it didn't seem to stand the test of time. Many, myself included, fooled around with it for a few weeks, but it fell by the wayside along with everything else not named Call of Duty. Gay Tony doesn't introduce any new modes, instead choosing to refine or add new limitations to existing modes. It's unexpected for Rockstar to not come up with something new but, then again, throwing nitrous and parachutes into the mix may up the ante of ridiculous crap you and a few buddies can accomplish.
Gay Tony brings wealth of flourishes to GTA IV's sandbox. New weapons and cars are a given, but a couple of the more subtle changes are felt through the city. The radio stations not only have a ton of new songs, but they also come with some modern commentary. You'll hear references to swine flu, the current recession, and an iPhone app (that involves peeing on your phone, a classic). For Gay Tony, check points also seem to be a bit friendlier and the end of missions almost always stick a good car at your location. You'll also be graded at the end of missions, with criteria like headshots, car damage, and time measured against a goal. If you don't hit your marks then you're free to retry them after you've beaten the game. The goals aren't particularly inspired, but more stuff to aim for, not to mention being able to replay the missions, adds a bit of value to Gay Tony.
One of the more subtle but undoubtedly appreciated facets of Gay Tony lies with its treatment of its titular character. Tony's homosexuality isn't overly exaggerated, or, unless it's by an antagonistic character, poked fun at. He's a guy with problems who happens to be gay, with the focus firmly on the former. Luis always treats him with respect and leaves the jokes to the typical casual banter between friends. Rockstar's critics typically lambast the publisher for exploiting the usual trio of sex, drugs, and violence, but, as usual, Rockstar pulls a fast one on your expectations. And, while the salty language can come off as gratuitous, it's usually presented in a fashion where it's hard to interpret it as anything other than a satire of American pop culture. It's brilliant, honestly, and it lays other single minded games to waste with its grace and candor.
End of the Line
You’ll also see a few familiar faces along the way. Both Niko and Lost and Damned Johnny Klebitz make multiple cameos, the most important of which coming with the failed museum heist. The diamonds changes hands a bunch of times, but Gay Tony provides the definitive answer for how it all turns out. That also seems to signal that Rockstar might be finished with Liberty City, which, despite dropped well over a hundred hours into the entire package, feels like saying goodbye too soon. It seems like there is a vast amount of architecture yet to explore, but if Gay Tony really is the send off, it goes out with a bang.