Developer: Rockstar Games
Publisher: Rockstar Vancouver
There's a myth that suggests adolescence is a wondrous transitional period filled with the kind of charmingly mawkish scenes painted on sets of infomercially-sold commemorative plates. As far as I'm concerned, anyone found perpetuating that flim-flam should be punched in the neck.
We all know adolescence is mostly an ongoing opportunity for public mortification and high school in particular is an arena for a relentless, hormone-fueled game of Survival of the Fittest. There was only one honest teacher at my high school. The first day of 10th grade English class she cackled and said, "These are the BEST years of your life right? Ha! I'M an adult – I can drive, smoke, drink, go where I like, stay out as late as I want – and YOU CAN'T!" Yep, she was a heartless old bat but unlike most adults, she told it like it was. Rockstar's new 3rd person action/adventure title "Bully", does the same, offering us an equally honest and amusingly fresh context for a familiar brand of gameplay.
At the start of the game you, 15 year old Jimmy Hopkins, have been dumped by a pair of self-involved parents at snooty Bullworth High. This sucks. It sucks even more than you might expect because aside from the non-co-ed dorms and the mandatory dorky school uniforms, the second you set foot on campus, everyone is out to get you: the jocks, the greasers, the preppies, heck, even the nerds want to kick your ass. Your only friends are a couple of outcast dorm mates, a timid bookworm and a scheming psychotic. Smart kid that you are, you quickly realize that everyone else you’ll have to win over either by errand-running or ass-whuppin'. If a classmate digs you or wants to avoid a beating, he'll reward you or bribe you with cash, weapons or access to new hangouts. If that classmate happens to be female, she might reward you by being more…ahem…cordial.
As in Rockstar’s GTA games, you have the freedom to follow the main storyline or diverge from it to perform non-critical side missions. Some players may feel following the story pre-determines their factional alignment a bit too much but the reward for this linearity is a riotous offering of creative objectives that can't help but entertain. Who wouldn't have fun going on a panty raid, attacking a geek stronghold or insulting Bullworth's jerk mascot? Not only is the critical path a total hoot, there's even more to do outside of it in the way of free play fun.
It's hard to believe, but unlike in real life, attending classes at Bullworth is actually interesting. There are only two classes per day and passing them requires the successful completion of various rhythm, word or arcade-style minigames. Example: to pass Shop class you fix a bike, rotating the pedals by rotating the analog stick or turning a wrench by pressing the X button when prompted. One rhythmic slip and you're in the Dunce's corner. If this kind of gameplay isn't your cup 'o tea, I assure you it's still worthwhile to attend and pass these classes since doing so gives you access to additional items and enhanced abilities. If, however, you think school is for squares and decide to ditch, the town of Bullworth has plenty to offer a budding juvenile delinquent.
In a campus back alley lives a Unibomberish ex-Green Beret-turned-hobo who in exchange for stolen radio transistors will make you an expert at hand-to-hand combat. Outside of town there's a carnival where you can jump on rides or play carnival games to win cool non-dress code approved gear. Or if the carnival sounds like a drag, you can hang out at your private beach house, play old school arcade games, challenge local greasers to a bike race, pound some preppies at the gym or kiss every girl in school. Mallrats and fashion victims – hit the shops in Bullworth Vale and reinvent yourself as a punk complete with fauxhawk and tattoo or a preppy in sidepart and sweatervest. Still looking for something to do? Well you didn't hear this from me, but an ambitious vandal might try egging every window and tagging every wall in town.
Sound wanton, mischievous, maybe even antisocial? Well…yeah. But more often you as Bully's hero are a defender of the meek and the malfeasance you engage in is of a more benign sort than your GTA predecessors. You're like Tommy Vercetti's scrappy little brother whose weapons are of the PG-13 rather than the R-rated variety. Handy baseball bats litter the campus lawns and by breaking into your classmates' lockers, you can score slingshots, marbles, spray paint, stinkbombs and other such Dennis-the-Menace-brand gear. And at 15, your only means of getting around town are by hoofin' it, riding your trusty skateboard, or earning enough cabbage doing odd jobs to afford a sweet racing bike.
The controls in Bully will be familiar and comfortable for GTA fans (and fans of almost any platform action-adventure title). Left analog stick to move, right analog stick to look around. Combat is fun and easy, consisting mainly of basic grapples and melee attacks and a handful of easily performed combos. Weapons and inventory items are easily accessible by pressing the right and left triggers which not only swaps items out, but auto-equips them (extremely useful when you're being chased by a bunch of pissed off jocks). Camera angles and mission objectives can be viewed using the directional buttons, ranged weapons can be fired using the right trigger, and the X button can be used either to sprint or to pedal your bike like a bat out of hell.
We've come to expect Rockstar to proffer an atmosphere that's real and alive and the world of Bully is no exception. The AI in the game augments the immersion while providing a great deal of incidental entertainment. Students pick on each other; townspeople chat, shop, or wait for buses; police walk their beats while bums nap in alleyways. People yell if you run into them and laugh at you if you wear dunce caps or ugly sweaters. Most people can be interacted with to some degree, even if it's just a short exchange. In fact, some of the most memorable dialog can be heard just by eavesdropping on NPCs. Maybe it's just me but when NPCs mutter lines like "My butt itches" or "The cheese is IN the hot dog!” I giggle like a 13 year old girl.
Bully's sound design is subtler than the GTA games but lives up to the unique character and polish of the title's art direction. All the characters from alcoholic teachers to bitchy cheerleaders to mannish lunch-ladies are acted believably and well. Music and sound effects are appropriate, and do a lot to augment the large, seamless environments, the distinctive art style, and the evocative lighting.
The game's final grade? Bully gets high marks for audio/visuals and fun gameplay but probably needs a summer makeup course in camera placement and load times. During combat in close quarters against multiple enemies (which happens inside buildings), the camera often rapidly and repeatedly changes point of view making it very difficult to target your enemies and very easy to get your ass kicked. Not fun. And while Rockstar's achievement in providing us with a big seamless sandbox to play in is admirable, the load times endured when going into classes, in and out of buildings or reloading missions seem longer than they should be and often kill the pacing of the game. Cross your fingers that Rockstar's next gen offerings solve this load time issue.
Many of us have enjoyed the GTA games but for my money, Bully's better than those. It could be merely because of the new spin on familiar material. Or it could be because it nostalgically reminds us of both the hilarity and the anguish of our high school days without being sentimental or schmaltzy. In addition to this, with its PG-13 brand of violence, it's a kinder, gentler game than many another 3rd person action adventure, hearkening back to the days when kids carried slingshots instead of handguns. In spite of that, no doubt as with other Rockstar games, some parents will ignorantly censure the game assuming it teaches kids to be violent. The important thing to remember is it's just a game; and in games as in life, everyone has the freedom to choose whether or not to play by the rules.