Reviewed: November 5, 2006
Released: October 17, 2006
Even before a Rockstar game hits the shelves it is already surrounding in controversy thanks to the legacy that is Grand Theft Auto. So what happens when Rockstar decides to actually make a game for kids, or rather teens? It gets even more unfair hype and media misrepresentation. After all, when you make a game called Bully during a time when schools are already in turmoil over that exact subject matter, then rate it Teen so it is accessible to those very same high school teenagers, its only logical to assume that Rockstar has created some evil training tool to usher in the rise of a whole new generation of playground terrorist.
Bully opens with 15-year-old Jimmy Hopkins getting dumped off at boarding school by his recently remarried mom. As bad as Bullworth Academy appears to be, it must be better than life with the new step dad. Jimmy will quickly learn his place in the social hierarchy at Bullworth, which is pretty much at the bottom of the food chain. You’ll then spend the next 30-40 hours rising through the ranks from new kid on campus to big man on campus.
Truth be told, there is very little “bullying” going on in Bully and when it does occur it usually isn’t from our main character. Jimmy is often the sole voice of reason, defender of nerds, and aspiring ladies man. Sure, the game deals with traditional high school clicks; the nerds, the jocks, the greasers, the preppies, etc. but there is nothing in this game that excels beyond the content of a movie like Mean Girls or Revenge of the Nerds.
Bully is an open-world game, much like GTA, but with rules and a schedule to follow, so while you are free to play the game the way you see fit, you still have to stay within the parameters of Bullworth school policy. To enforce those rules are teachers, a dean with delusions of grandeur, and dozens of wandering prefects (campus security) who are basically seniors on a power trip.
After meeting the dean, getting some appropriate attire, and settling into your impressively large dorm room, complete with chemistry set (more on that later) you are introduced to several new characters and even more rules to follow. The core element of Bully is “time” and an accelerated clock in the corner of the screen will often determine what you’ll be doing and when. There is a day and night cycle as well as morning and afternoon classes that begin at a certain time each day with the ring of a bell.
You have the freedom to attend classes and play the associated mini-game that goes with each subject, or you can skip class to perform other non-school missions. Naturally the prefects will be on the lookout for truant students adding a bit of a stealth factor to these parts of the game. The clock also dictates areas that are off limits. You don’t want to get caught in the school buildings after dark and you especially don’t want to get caught in the girls’ dorm after dark. Eventually you’ll hit curfew where you can’t even be outside your dorm without getting in trouble and if it gets too late you’ll simply pass out and wake up the next day – usually with some of your cash stolen.
There is a lot of social interaction in Bully. Jimmy will need to talk to almost everyone – there are more than 100 NPC’s to interact with in school and the surrounding area. Sometimes these conversations trigger a personal mission like delivering an item to another person or getting something from their locker. Other times you’ll trigger lengthier story missions that advance the overall plot of the game. Some events, like a certain Halloween prank, can only be done on a specific night (obviously) and if you go to bed before doing it the opportunity is lost.
As you get further into the school year more of the campus and the city outside the campus becomes available to you. You’ll quickly find the use for a bike or skateboard to travel these distances more quickly, and there is even a school bus to get you back to school instantly. There is a theme park with rides and an arcade with actual playable mini-games. There are stores to buy bikes, new clothes, and a barber to change your style.
There are some benefits to actually going to class. Doing well in chemistry will allow you to make your own stink bombs and other prank devices back in your dorm room. Other classes will help you score with the ladies. Yes, there is the whole social interaction thing going on at Bullworth. You’ll need to sweet-talk the ladies and give gifts like flowers and chocolate and if you are lucky you can score a kiss. What’s great fun is once you kiss a girl, if she ever catches you kissing another girl a catfight will break out. It’s a nice ego boost.
Bully is a massive game, and much like a freight train takes some time to get up to speed, but once you get past the painfully long and sometimes boring opening (tutorial) level it’s hard to stop playing. There is just so much to do, both in story-based missions and secondary objectives, not to mention mini-games. Money still makes the world go round so Jimmy will need to earn cash working a paper route, flipping burgers, cutting grass, or just doing errand boy missions for his classmates. Of course, you have to work all these activities into your class schedule and that ever-ticking clock in the corner.
Violence is limited to standard schoolyard combat. There is a strong fighting engine that mixes boxing and wrestling moves that you’ll learn, both in gym class and from the crazy homeless veteran who lives behind the abandoned school bus. There is a lot of punching and grabbing and kicking with the overall intent to subdue your victim then verbally or physically humiliate him with a finishing move. Even more interesting is that each faction member you fight has their own fighting style, forcing you to change up your game when you go from jock, to greaser, to townie.
While combat is pretty much weapons-free, Bully does incorporate the use of makeshift weapons like a bat, and even a slingshot with a scope for ranged attacks. You can also throw bricks, firecrackers, and stink bombs or toss marbles and watch your pursuers crash to the ground. Schoolyard violence is not glorified but rather punished if witnessed by anyone in authority, and there is zero tolerance for any acts of violence on the ladies, even an accidental stink bomb.
It’s sad that Bully is strictly a PS2 release. I would have loved to have seen this title on the Xbox or even the PSP. A game with this much substance and quality just deserves better graphics. That’s not to say the game looks bad on the PS2 – far from it. If anything, it’s probably the best looking Rockstar game seen to date on the system. Based on the GTA engine, but with a greatly reduced scale, the designers were able to add a lot more detail into the environments, especially the interiors.
Character design is impressive and with more than 100 NPC’s comes 100 distinct looks. Granted, the peripheral characters like wandering prefects and non-imperative students start to double up in looks, but they are mere window dressing to make the school look like a living world bustling with between-class activity. There are a few instances of awkward animations and troublesome camera angles, especially trying to keep up with Jimmy on a bike or skateboard.
Some of the cutscenes suffer from jerky framerates and shimmering textures, but once you get into the actual gameplay things look really good – a definite step up from GTA with all the quality of Manhunt minus the darkness. I loved the look of the arcade games and their old-school appeal and the in-class mini-games were also great fun and actually relevant to the study content.
We typically associate big-budget licensed soundtracks to Rockstar games, but Bully foregoes the opportunity to become the next “Breakfast Club” full of signature songs and instead, sticks with a totally original score composed by Shawn Lee that works on every level. It ranges from eerie to cheerful and suspenseful to mischievous always triggering the appropriate emotion out of the player.
Perhaps the best feature of the entire audio package is the dialogue – nearly 40,000 lines spoken by Jimmy and the rest of the cast of major and supporting characters. Admittedly, a lot of the dialogue gets repetitive, especially in the free roaming sections, but once you get into scripted story events you’ll think you are watching a movie.
Sound effects are believable and attached to just about every environmental and interactive object in the game creating a world that sounds as real as it looks. The entire game is presented in Dolby Pro Logic II for a very nice and immersive sound mix.
Bully is huge, at least from a gameplay standpoint, and while the scale of the map is only a fraction of what we’ve seen in the more recent GTA games, most gamers can expect a solid 30-40 hours of gameplay. You can spend hours and hours just doing the mini-games and not even advancing the story. And when you do start working on that story there are five chapters and each can take anywhere from 3-5 hours to complete.
Bully comes with a clever 20-page manual designed like a “Welcome to…” brochure and a nice foldout map that is usually reserved for strategy guides, although you’ll probably need a strategy guide if you ever want to fully complete Bully and unlock all its secrets.
Bully borrows a lot of concepts from its uncle, GTA, most in presentation and the wide-open nature of the gameplay. With the introduction of the clock and day and night cycles you have a bit more structure to the game and more rules to follow…or ignore. As for all the controversy, while politicians and certain activists groups would have you believing this game is a training tool for the next Columbine, that can’t be further from the truth. If anything, Bully is about standing up to bullies and actually being a somewhat respectable guy and even a schoolyard hero.
There are a lot more good lessons to be learned in Bully than bad ones, especially the importance of time management, actually attending classes, and even getting an after school job. Sure, there are opportunities to engage in mischief and disrespect authority, but much like real life, it’s up to you if you want to choose that path or take the high road. Bully is all about choices and making something out of a bad situation. It’s also a really great game full of humor and believable characters. I recommend it highly.