Luis Fernando Lopez has escaped from a life of drug-dealing to gain respectable work as a bar manager for Anthony 'Gay Tony' Prince, one of the most famous club-owners in Liberty City. However, Gay Tony's business is not going to plan and he has been forced into some shady deals to keep things afloat. Lopez's skills are called into use to help Tony survive a brewing crime war...and resolve the mystery of some missing diamonds.
The Ballad of Gay Tony is the second of two self-contained expansions to Grand Theft Auto IV and - as of this time of writing - is the most recent entry in the Grand Theft Auto franchise. As with The Lost and the Damned before it, The Ballad of Gay Tony pursues its own storyline whilst also being a supporting part of the storyline of GTA4. Several missions cross-over with the events of both GTA4 and The Lost of the Damned, so players will finally get the full story to what's been going on in all three titles.
As is standard in the GTA franchise, the game casts you in the role of a guy of dubious morality who must fulfil a series of missions to complete the game. These missions are given to you by various characters, some of whom you help willingly and others more reluctantly. Between missions you can chill out, drive around the city, watch a bit of TV or engage in social activities such as playing golf. Later in the game other activities are unlocked, such as base-jumping from buildings or engaging in multi-vehicle races. You also interact with other characters through your mobile phone, from being able to call in favours (such as having cars or weapons dropped off at your location) to socialising with them in bars or clubs. However, unlike GTA4 where it famously got rather annoying after a while, characters rarely call you to ask you to hang out.
The meat of the game, as always, lies in the missions. Tony has gotten himself into debt with several gangsters, and to help pay them off Luis has to do various jobs with them. In several cases this backfires badly, but Luis does make one genuine friend in the form of the ludicrously OTT Yusuf Amir (voiced with ridiculous enthusiasm by comedian Omid Djalili), the son of a multi-billionaire with a curious predilection for stealing unobtainable vehicles (a tank, a combat helicopter and a subway car, which he plans to turn into a submarine). As the game continues, the self-contained narrative with Luis trying to save Tony's business entwines with the story of the previous games, with the fate of the famous diamonds finally being revealed.
The Ballad of Gay Tony is great fun. After the previous two games were criticised for being, by normal GTA standards, po-faced and restrained, The Ballad of Gay Tony brings back the crazy. The game features missions involving shooting up the harbour with a helicopter and throwing a nasty blogger out of an aircraft and then base-jumping to rescue him before he hits the ground (I guess some of those critical GTA4 reviews hurt Rockstar's feelings). Those who've missed the series' more demented sense of humour will likely welcome the lighter, funnier approach to this game.
Unfortunately, despite being a bit lighter than previous entries to the series, the game is not as successful as The Lost and the Damned in integrating the optional between-missions stuff with the main game storyline. In The Lost and the Damned the gang wars and bike races linked in with the central narrative, but in The Ballad of Gay Tony there is a bit of a disconnect between the base-jumping and multi-vehicle races and the main storyline. More connected are optional sequences where Luis has to manage the club overnight, but these get rather dull and repetitive quite quickly.
As a result, The Ballad of Gay Tony is dependent on its missions to succeed and they are pretty decent, with some great voice acting. The game's biggest success is developing a genuinely warm relationship between Luis - a heterosexual Dominican-American - and the gay Anthony Prince without descending into the cliches the Grand Theft Auto franchise gleefully normally employs. This relationship is explored in some depth and is surprisingly effective. This is in stark contrast to the game's failure to employ any female characters of note in the game, which is a bit more inexplicable.
The Ballad of Gay Tony (***½) is a fun game with some unexpectedly good development of character and relationships. The missions are entertaining, although the optional game elements are a bit less successful this time around. Overall, however, it sees out the Grand Theft Auto IV era in style. The game is available now in a collected package with GTA4 and The Lost and the Damned on PC (UK, USA), X-Box 360 (UK, USA) and PlayStation 3 (UK, USA). Grand Theft Auto V will be released in mid-2013.