When Rockstar Games, the enfant terrible of the console world, announced the release of a game called Bully for the PS2 in 2006, the press was up in arms! How dare they, when school bullying is such an horrific thing and Rockstar are reknowned for making super-violent, irreverent, tasteless games?! They’ve crossed the line this time!
So imagine the collective embarrassment and indifference when it finally got released (under the less inflammatory name Canis Canem Edit in the UK) and turned out to be, well, fairly innocuous. No more offensive than the old ZX Spectrum games Skool Daze and Back 2 Skool, both of which dealt with similar subject matter. Hardly Grand Theft Playground.
As a result of this deflated reaction, Rockstar now feels it’s time to reintroduce its least successful effort via the next generation consoles, hence the 360/Wii release of its Scholarship Edition. This means better graphics, a few extra missions and a couple of barely noticeable tweaks. It also means that Xbox users finally get a crack at the game (as the original Xbox release was cancelled for reasons unknown).
When you stick the game in, you’re quickly introduced to Bully‘s protagonist, Jimmy Hopkins, who gets sent to the worst boarding school in the country, Bullworth Academy, when his mother marries a millionaire and buggers off on a year-long honeymoon. Surviving such a school means gaining the respect of as many cliques as possible (Jocks, Nerds, Greasers, etc) whilst avoiding the wrath of the prefects, something that’s achieved through mission-based gameplay (the game does resemble GTA in this respect, at least).
The storyline and characters in Bully are above average and the dialogue frequently funny. The graphics are quite pleasing, although a little glitchy at times. It’s just the gameplay that lets it down. You’re never really allowed to experience the full fun of Bullworth’s sandbox environment as there are so many rules that prevent it (like a real school, I suppose). Places you can’t go at certain times, people you can’t afford to see, etc. It’s guaranteed that if you free-roam for more than a minute or two, someone will come along to fuck your shit up which is, frankly, just frustrating. The idea of having a free-roaming environment that’s so restrictive seems counterproductive. I was bored of hiding in dustbins after about, ooh, ten seconds of it (and that’s coming from a big stealth games fan!).
What’s also annoying is the load time whenever you move between places. Sometimes it feels as though you’re spending most of your game waiting for the next bit to load (something I thought might’ve been cut down for a special, improved version).
The mini-games you play – whether they be missions other characters send you on, or the rather retro-style “classes” (ie: art class involves playing Qix) – are fun enough but get repetetive and unchallenging when there’s so little to intersperse with them. Also, the rewards are variable. Sometimes the most irritating missions are repaid with a $5 bill which’ll barely stretch to buying you a few cans of soda.
Overall, once the novelty of a school simulator wears off (and, don’t get me wrong – it is good puerile fun to go around throwing firecrackers at teachers and dropping stink bombs on cheerleaders), Bully‘s a fairly boring game, I’m afraid. There are far worse out there, admittedly, and I feel I’m being overtly critical but it’s really not all that special. After about two hours, I realised I was just going through the motions and waiting for the next cut scene, which I don’t think is how a game should be played.