A ballad is referred to as a narrative poem, usually of folk origin and put to song. While this makes sense in terms of romantic, lyrical minstrels of the medieval era, it's a little baffling to see 'ballad' describe a story of lewd acts and vulgarities, mass violence, illicit business practices, and big explosions. Nevertheless, despite perplexing title choices, Rockstar North's latest and last expansion to Grand Theft Auto IV continues to show off why the game is the best example of sandbox-style play. The Ballad of Gay Tony not only delivers a robust experience at a bargain bin price point, but Luis Lopez's misadventures also feature some entertaining gameplay additions to the franchise.
Two years ago, Niko Bellic was introduced to the corrupt underworld of Liberty City. His immigration was a means for escape from a past plagued with regret, but despite his quest for redemption and starting anew, his acquaintance to Liberty City turned out to be no better than the life he thought he left behind. As a small fish in a big pond, Niko's story played out as a violent satire of the American Dream; a story that in its execution was well-told, interesting, and compelling thanks to an attention to detail.
The same misfortune in a fully realized city can also be felt as you run errands in the streets of Liberty as Luis Lopez. While the episode's title carries Tony Prince's, the once-prosperous nightclub owner's, moniker, the story really revolves around Luis' exploited activities. As a former gang-banger, Luis owes his salvation to Tony, and thus feels indebted to him as an undying confident, business partner, driver and friend. For Luis' episode, the entire city is open to him from the start with little time waisted orienting you to it, weapons, or gameplay. This, thankfully, allows your time to be focused on all of Tony's debtors, his addictions, keeping him away from his enabling boyfriend, and helping run both of his clubs.
It's with the interplay between Luis and Tony, familiar and new characters, and the episode's exposition where you feel like you're playing a wholly new game. Realistically, as either a 20 dollar download, or part of a 40 dollar standalone bundled disc (with the first post-release episode, The Lost and the Damned), The Ballad of Gay Tony uses the same technology built in Grand Theft Auto IV and slaps a few features on here and there—but, it's the storytelling magic and a range of options which makes the entire package feel like a brand new game unto itself.
For the most part, missions usually entail escaping entrapment and a sleet of bullets, forcing you to use a weapons and targeting setup that remains frustrating at times, but each mission is usually accompanied by some novel transitory moment. This time around, missions are scored and ranked, and then uploaded to the Rockstar Social Club. Although you don't have to reach a requisite score to pass a directive, it's another reason to replay a scenario—a feature introduced to the series from Chinatown Wars—like slapping around a vindictive blogger just before you drop him from a high-altitude helicopter.
If you feel like being distracted from the sub-ten hour story, however, you have your choice of new cross-terrain races, parachuting challenges and Drug Wars side-missions. Out of these options, the races and skydiving offer entertaining and fresh escapes compared to mindless shootouts as you help Henrique and Armando, Luis' childhood friends, build their drug empire.
Other new additions amount to less substantial inclusions: dancing, drinking and Club Management mini-games and missions. These have little impact on gameplay and story, and seem to only serve a purpose to propel the front of the city's nightlife and Tony's businesses—though, feel free to partake if you're looking for Achievements.
Conversely, more new content on the multiplayer side of things offer exciting action with friends. Small tweaks in reward systems (bonuses for kill streaks and extra money earned for assisted kills) round out the addition of more than 10 new Deathmatch arenas, new weaponry, nitrous-powered racing, and, best of all, team-based BASE (Building. Antenna. Span. Earth.) jumping. Whereas when a buddy 'accidentally' blew up your helicopter while your group was atop a high building in GTAIV, resulting in a mass suicide, now you're able to preform high-speed free falling.
As more and more games look to offer post-release content via download services or otherwise, often times these efforts amount to little more than a new costume or at most an additional objective to complete. Like The Lost and the Damned and even GTAIV proper before it, The Ballad of Gay Tony provides for a satisfying experience at an extremely reasonable price. The open world is still subject to many of technical issues that plagued the original game (bouts of extreme pop-in, ridiculous city drivers, and slow down with a lot of on-screen action), but between another entertaining story, some new gameplay options, and the same believable atmosphere, there's more than enough to make you want more when it's all over.
It may not be a ballad in the classical sense, but you're likely to find yourself singing praises for The Ballad of Gay Tony.