Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Toronto
Release Date: March 3, 2008
There comes a time in every game reviewer's life where, having played a game, he must quixotically tilt against the windmill of other game reviews and offer up his own opinion, even when it differs starkly from the views of the bulk of the game reviewing community. Bully: Scholarship Edition has received some rather favorable reviews from many other reviewers, most of whom cite the mission-based gameplay and the title's sense of humor as reasons to spend your hard-earned cash. I am here to tell you the awful, well-concealed truth, faithful reader: Bully stinks.
Let's begin with the story. Jimmy is a juvenile delinquent, a literal red-headed stepchild who is apparently guilty of vandalism, bullying, and other youthful indiscretions that have finally taxed the patience of his legal guardians. At the beginning of the game, he is driven by his mother and father (who we never see) to Bullworth Academy, a boarding school with a darker side hidden just beneath the poorly presented veneer of respectability. He quickly meets the incredibly cliché groups of students: nerds, jocks, greasers (apparently, this game takes place in 1955), and other various students who are little more than faceless drones. From there, the story rapidly disintegrates into a series of side missions, pseudo-optional content, and thinly veiled plot devices that fail to engage the mind for more than a moment and serve to annoy than to inform or entertain.
One of the big problems that immediately becomes apparent with Bully was the gameplay. While it is entirely possible that this title is much more playable on other systems, the Wii unfortunately makes use of both the Wiimote and the Nunchuk in the course of combat, and neither control is particularly responsive. Of particular annoyance is the failure of the lock-on feature to actually lock on to an opponent; while engaged in combat with multiple opponents, the game would frequently forget who I was fighting and have me take a swing at the nearest opponent if I was lucky, or the open air if I didn't happen to be facing anyone. If Jimmy's vision is really this impaired, it may be time for him to give up bullying and look into the acquisition of a sign, sunglasses, and cup full of pencils. Even last-generation titles were intelligent enough to assume that if you were attacking, you would be taking a swing at something.
Interspersed between the various plotlines are "classes," simple minigames you can play in order to improve your capabilities and thus your chances of survival, but they are mostly dull and serve to break up the action with irritating demands on your schedule. It wouldn't be so bad if it were immediately obvious when classes occurred, or if they were scattered throughout the campus so that you could plan your missions around them, but they are all centered around one particular building in the middle of the school. One would think that this central location would make it convenient enough to go about your business and still attend classes. One would be very, very wrong; almost every mission I attempted during my run was interrupted by a need to attend some kind of inane class, and while truancy is not automatically a problem, the scheduling of the classes and pace of the game's clock are not particularly complementary. This causes the player to be forced to choose between needed upgrades and actually accomplishing anything; micromanaging time simply is not this reviewer's idea of entertainment.
There has been much raving about the mission-based structure of Bully, but my experience was that this design structure served only to remove the player from the immersion that should come from a sandbox title. The ability to simply cause events to happen on demand without any particular concern for the time of day or your personal status really drives home the fact that this is a segmented game, drawn loosely together by a central "world" but otherwise having very little cohesiveness as a single title.
Even more disappointing is the fact that some of the missions are irritatingly unresponsive; I successfully completed a quest to lead one of the "nerds" to the bathroom, but despite being in the appropriate location, the nerd in question simply stood outside until he wet his pants. Bathroom humor is hilarious, and definitely befitting a quality game ... if you happen to be six years old. Most mature gamers will find themselves longing for something a little more amusing than somebody failing to reach the restroom in time.
Moreover, the simple, brutal truth is that Bully fails to break any ground in the audio/visual category. There are no particularly satisfying sound effects that can be had here. The voices used are faithful enough, but it's nothing that is particularly relevant for the Wii; everything that greets your ears from this title could easily have been accomplished on the GameCube. The same can be said of the graphics — very average, nothing particularly impressive. The character design is particularly blocky, and even Nintendo's purple lunchbox could have accomplished something more noteworthy; I know because I've seen it before in a variety of titles. Rockstar, it's 2008; please start designing your games accordingly.
It is unfortunate that the makers of Bully have decided to so severely limit the scope of the title. While some of the missions are entertaining enough for a quick diversion, the game's overall quality is lacking, with uncharismatic and unengaging characters everywhere you turn, tired clichés, and sloppy gameplay. If you're utterly devoted to the notion of a sandbox, keep in mind that this is more like kitty litter; you may be able to play as a bully, but if you pay more than $20 for this title, the real victim here is you.
More articles about Bully: Scholarship Edition