Reviewed: April 2, 2008
Released: March 3, 2008
Embarrassingly, I must admit that I totally missed out on the Bully train when the game released on the PS2 during the 2006 holiday season. As a long time fan of the Grand Theft Auto games, I was no doubt drawn to Bully’s sandbox gameplay and Rockstar pedigree – but with the labors of being a game reviewer for a site like GCM, I was too overwhelmed with holiday reviews to even think about playing a game for personal satisfaction. Plus – I, like many, spent any free time I had focusing my attention on my newfangled high-definition, motion sensing, next-gen hardware to want to play some fugly old PS2 game – regardless of who made it.
Thankfully, Rockstar has gone out of its way to bring Bully to the current generation of consoles with Bully: Scholarship Edition. Because if they hadn’t, all the gamers like myself who overlooked Bully because of its last-generation accommodations, stood to miss out on one hell of a game.
First things first – to all the parents out there, we’re not going to pull any strings; Bully: Scholarship Edition earns every bit of its “T for Teen” rating. But before you go searching your teenagers’ bedrooms for contraband game discs, we would like to make it clear that Bully is not even a quarter as appalling as Jack Thompson would like you to believe.
Yes, the game is packed with its share of eyebrow raising content, mild violence, and questionable mischief – but to its defense, Bully’s story arc follows the path of a displaced youth, on a quest to find acceptance and compassion in a society that benefits from exploiting his aspirations to please.
Bully is basically your own teenagers’ own inner turmoil, all wrapped up in a dandy little video game. Now maybe breaking windows, stealing kissed, giving swirlies, and pummeling jocks is not the best way to deal with a teen’s inner turmoil – but the developers are very clear to imply that little-if-any of the mischief that protagonist Jimmy Hopkins performs has been done on his own accord, or without provoking from an outside source. Jimmy isn’t so much the bully as he is the bullied one.
And while Mr. Thompson would like you to think that Bully’s content is innately violent and without a shred of morality, it is quite the opposite really – while the game definitely has its share of black humor it slyly presents a message that addresses subjects like social consciousness, fairness, and acceptance.
Ok, enough preaching from me. Let’s get onto the gameplay.
Bully is a sandbox game played in the third person perspective – very much like Rockstar’s other groundbreaking series, Grand Theft Auto. This time around, most of the action takes place in and around the fictional Bullworth Academy Boarding School, where attention-seeking troublemaker Jimmy Hopkins has been unceremoniously dumped by his mother so that she may enjoy an extended and uninterrupted honeymoon abroad with her seamy new husband.
Within the first few moments of his introduction to the school, it becomes quite apparent to Jimmy that Bullworth is a completely dysfunctional environment. Whether we are talking about the various cliques – the nerds, the jocks, the greasers, the prefects, or the teachers – Jimmy just cannot seem to get a break at Bullworth. And in his search to fit in with – or rather to squeeze between – the various factions, Jimmy is goaded into stealing, fighting, trespassing, and loads of other mischievous actions.
Classes that must be attended, and curfews that must be met, to avoid the hard hand of the prefects monitoring campus. Don’t fret; it sounds more complicated than it really is.
Whereas the GTA series afforded a living city setting, Bullworth is a living, breathing campus with students milling about and congregating, school buildings and gymnasiums to explore, and dormitories to inhabit. Bullworth also adjoins a small town that becomes open later on in the game and hosts its own set of missions.
Bully’s in-game time clock runs at the same rapid pace as GTA’s does – with a full day cycle roughly lasting about two hours of real time. In it, there are certain event windows that open up to progress the story along. Once an even window is triggered, Jimmy can run, skate, or bike to the event location (as shown on the map) and take part in the proceedings. Events come in the form not only of the expected storyline missions, but also in classes that must be attended, and curfews that must be met. Don’t fret; it sounds more complicated than it really is.
The classes pop up at the same time windows each day and being tardy is acceptable (as long as you are not caught by the hall monitors). Each class consists of an increasingly difficult ladder of minigame-exercises. Whether it is English class’ Perquacky® like word scrambles, Chemistry class’ motion-based formulations, Biology’s Trauma Center-like dissection, or Music class’ Rayman like rhythm-based drumming – each class is unique and highly enjoyable, even more than the actual missions (at least in my opinion).
Curfews happen after 11:00 each night, and basically mean that Jimmy must go into stealth mode to avoid the flashlight-toting night watchmen. As a nice touch, it is possible for missions to be initiated near or after curfew hours, adding a time constraint as Jimmy will begin to drag and become disoriented (with a cool motion blur effect) as the night wears on and he growns more and more tired – until ultimately passing out.
Missions are doled out at a fairly constant clip, and basically task Jimmy with either fetching items or protecting and defending people or property. Not so different than the missions of the GTA series and every bit as enjoyable. True, escort missions are a drag, especially when the escorted wanders into Jimmy’s line of fire and takes on friendly damage (which happens a bit too often) – but for every dumb escort mission, there is a cool fetch quest that has Jimmy sneaking into all sorts of places in Bullworth’s living world.
The controls have been tailored for the Wii’s motion-sensing abilities that allow players to throw punches and toss items as they would if they were really in the game. While this is a neat little novelty at first, eventually the swinging and punching gets a bit tiresome – especially on the elbows. It does not help matters that the game’s response to the controls is a tad off – often lagging by a full second or more. While this doesn’t make much difference in the wild flailing and button-mashing portions of the fighting sequences, it makes it all but impossible to successfully pull off special moves and reversals.
Rockstar’s games always lack a bit on the visual front – which has always been a conscious tradeoff to free up some of the immense processing power needed to render the worlds that they have created. So it is no surprise that Bully suffers from many of the same issues that the last three GTA titles have seen; popup, clipping, jaggies, and tearing are all pretty commonplace throughout Bully.
Still, Bully delivers a fairly impressive cast of characters, solid character animations, and an environment that feels right to the eye. Particularly impressive are the Biology class’ dissection specimens which are so creepily real that I’m sure a few weak stomached gamers are bound to hork their lunches over.
The colors are definitely more muted that what we have seen in GTA’s San Andreas and Vice City titles, but they do deliver a believable boarding school vibe that is just as creepy as it is cool.
Bully might look good, but it sounds even better. With a fully realized cast of characters, each cutscene is superbly written, and the quality of the voiceovers is impeccable. It is no secret that gamers usually skip 90% of the cutscenes that are included in games, but Bully’s cast makes the story bits so entertaining that you will want to play them out in their entirety.
Unlike the GTA titles, radio doesn’t play much of a role in Bully and the musical score is almost unnoticeable. But unlike GTA’s protagonists, Jimmy does not spend as much time traversing the countryside in a Cheetah, so there isn’t a need for hours of Chatterbox or Jan Hammer tunes.
Bully ranks right up there with the best of the best on the Wii. It has all of the excitement of Super Mario Galaxy, all of the pummelicious fighting of Brawl, and all of the high speed hijinx of the upcoming Mario Kart. The game is incredibly long and features the best mix of storyline, gameplay, and minigames yet seen on the console – and does so with an educated purpose.
The storyline lasts at least a dozen or more hours, but it is difficult to judge because there are so many side quests and minigames that most gamers can idle away entire evenings without the thought of an actual mission.
Finally, I do strongly suggest that parents keep Bully away from their younger teens and adolescents, simply because the game does feature some risqué language and rough content. However, I do think that Bully contains a good message, and has lessons to be learned by the older gamers.
I couldn’t be more pleased with Bully for the Wii. Or the first time since Galaxy, there is a reason to play my Wii for more than a half hour. The motion controls might be a bit gimmicky, and just about gave me a case of tennis elbow – but the storyline and characters make Bully one of the best games on the market.