In general, downloadable content isn't going to make a game new again. It might extend the experience but it won't reinvent it. Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony sure does try, though. It has mixed success at refurbishing GTA IV's gameplay formula but regardless, it's one of the most ambitious pieces of DLC ever released and is recommended for anyone looking to extend their stay in Liberty City.
Ballad's protaganist is Luis Lopez, the Dominican right-hand man of nightclub mogul Tony Prince (the titular "Gay Tony"). Prince owns two of the hottest clubs in Liberty City but unfortunately he's become an irresponsible druggie and is now deeply endebted to various criminals. In order to save his friend and the business he owns a stake in, Luis is forced to whatever illegal task Tony's creditors ask of him.
Luis' story is much different than the rags-to-riches tales that characterize most GTA games. However, I found the overall plot to be less compelling than that of GTA IV or previous DLC The Lost And The Damned. The motivation of the main character to be lured into a life of crime just seemed stronger in those campaigns. I believed that Niko's quest for revenge and family obligation and Johnny's loyalty to his gang would lead each to commit terrible deeds, but Luis' friendship with Tony just didn't seem worth the effort. I guess the problem is that we only see Tony as the drug-addled, irresponsible prick that he is in current times. He's a nicer guy than his present behavior suggests (he gave Luis, an ex-con, his first legitimate job) but that side of him is mostly hidden to the player so I often wondered, "Why the hell doesn't Luis just ditch this prick?" As far as material incentives go: whatever stake Luis owns in the business must be worthless with all the debt that Tony's incurred. Nevertheless, Luis agrees to perform a series of illegal and sometimes insane jobs for the gangsters threatening Tony. It's a bit farfetched but freelancing for criminals is the core mechanic for these games so a little suspension of disbelief is required.
Tony and Luis' friendship isn't the only unbelievable part of the campaign. Ballad is a shift back to the Hollywood blockbuster feel of GTA: San Andreas. There are no fighter jets, rocket packs, or Area 51 here but Ballad certainly delights in being over-the-top. To show you what I mean, I'll list a few of the items and vehicles introduced to Liberty City by this game: explosive shotgun, sticky bombs, gold-plated SMG, parachutes, attack helicopters, and tanks. These aren't the sort of props you'd use for a gritty, character-driven crime drama - they're better suited for a Michael Bay movie. While Ballad's story might not be as tight as Lost or GTA IV, it's definitely a lot more upbeat and fun. After wallowing in misery with Johnny and Niko, it was nice to cut loose with Luis.
The new vehicles and items are introduced throughout the campaign. Some of them are more effective than others at spicing up the vanilla GTA IV missions you might be tired of by now, such as chases and shootouts. The new SMG and machine gun, for example, simply allow the developers to throw more enemies at you at once. Similarly, the explosive shotgun (a sort of semi-automatic rocket launcher) lets them toss droves of enemy cars and vehicles at you. The hordes of enemies create that whole "over the top" feel and they definitely make for some challenging jobs (even with the spiffy new weapons) but they fail to really alter the gameplay routine. At times it felt like I was just playing flashy remakes of old missions.
The introduction of parachutes is a real game-changer, though. When you jump from a building or helicopter while wearing a parachute, you'll go into a steerable dive as you plummet to the ground. Your vision begins to blur and the wind buffets you, causing the controller to vibrate. Tap the A button and your parachute will open up, allowing you to glide to the ground. The basic mechanics here are entertaining and it's incorporated into the campaign in clever ways. In one mission, someone falls from a helicopter and you have to dive out, catch them, and open your chute before you both hit the ground. There are 15 different BASE jump challenges throughout the city to allow you to get your fix at any time. To keep things fresh, some of these challenges will ask you to land on a moving target (a ship or boat), fly through rings in your descent, or begin your jump by riding off a ramp with a motorcycle.
Parachutes and the new attack helicopter lead to a new emphasis on aerial gameplay, which were lacking in GTA IV and Lost. Hitting moving targets with your helicopter's guns and missiles is a bit awkward, as aiming is manual and must be done while simultaneously fidgeting with your altitude, speed, and direction. Most missions of this sort resulted in me crash-landing and swearing a lot. However, Ballad isn't just a bunch of helicopter and parachute-only missions. Instead, the game strings together air, land, and sea elements to create some truly epic gameplay moments. In one mission, Mori (older brother of GTA IV juice monkey Brucie) challenges you to a triathalon: a race consisting of sky-diving, boating, and driving. It's tough to give other examples without spoiling anything - rest assured that the campaign manages to reach the heights of the best moments from GTA IV such as the bank robbery.
Once you've finished the 10-hour campaign, Ballad allows you to easily replay your favorite missions. Like handheld GTA: Chinatown Wars, this game has a mission selection menu where you can jump right into the best jobs. Here, though, the GTA IV insistence on limiting the user interface to your character's cellphone gets annoying. The missions are simply listed by their titles, with no other identifying information. Considering how plentiful explosions and gunfire are, the title "Bang Bang" could refer to a lot of missions. They could've at least created separate lists based on which NPC gave the job (I believe Chinatown Wars did that). What adds to the frustration is that once you've jumped into an old mission and discovered it's the wrong one, you can't pull up the menu again. The only way out that I found was to reload my saved game. While mission replays are a welcome feature, it could've been implemented better.
GTA games always have a huge amount of side content and Ballad's no exception. The bulk of these side tasks fall under two categories: Club Management and Drug Wars. In Drug Wars, Luis helps two childhood friends create their own dope empire by killing competitors, stealing their drugs, or both. Club Management sees Luis supervising the operations at Tony's two clubs. After simple tasks like kicking out an unruly patron, you'll be called on to solve more complicated problems. For example, you might need to drive a rap star from the club and outrun a pack of paparazzi. Neither the club or drug missions have the grand scale of the campaign but they offer a few more hours of GTA for those really craving it. If that's not enough, there's also new minigames (nightclub dancing, golf, cage-fighting, etc.) and random NPC's throughout the streets looking for your help.
Ballad also sports five multiplayer modes, all of which appeared in GTA IV but have been slightly tweaked. Race and GTA Race (racing with guns) are the same except that the cars have nitrous boosts and you can use tanks to inflict pain on your opponents. Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch now take place in enclosed arenas such as the amusement park in FunLand. Previously these matches were set in the wider city, which meant players would spend a lot of time just trying to find other players, much less kill them. The looseness of GTA IV's multiplayer always made it hit-or-miss and it's good to see Rockstar addressing the problem. Still, there's plenty of games out there with close quarters deathmatches so I'm not sure you'll get much more play-time out of these modes. Other tweaks, such as money bonuses for kill assists and kill streaks are just bringing the multiplayer up to par with other games rather than offering something different.
The fifth and final multiplayer type is Free Mode. Free Mode allows you and other players to simply run amuck in the city. Ballad introduces a new wrinkle, tough: BASE jumping challenges. The game keeps track of how long it takes you to complete all the challenges throughout the city. A trailer from a couple weeks back shows a few players working together to finish the challenges together while others try to shoot them from the sky. While this certainly could happen in Free Mode, it usually doesn't. Given how massive the city is, you only periodically run into other players and upon encountering each other, you'll end up doing what you normally do: gun each other down in the street. A more structured multiplayer parachute mode would've been appreciated. What if each team took turns jumping off a building and attempting to land on a target while the other team tried to kill them, and the team with the most successful landings wins? Parachutes are easily the best part of Ballad and a multiplayer mode tightly designed around their use could've been great fun.
If you enjoyed Grand Theft Auto IV, you will in all likelihood get your kicks from Ballad of Gay Tony. Still, GTA IV is about a year and a half old now and the basic gameplay is starting to wear thin. Ballad gives us a hint of where the series might go next but we'll need to wait until GTA V to see something truly new. However, like Lost and the Damned, it's one of the few pieces of downloadable content that gives you more than what you pay for.
Players: 1-16 players
Platform(s): Xbox 360
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games