Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Toronto
Release Date: March 3, 2008
Rockstar's controversial Bully for the PS2 continues to endure the hand-wringing and verbal indictments delivered against it by the press and moral avengers who are convinced that it sprung from the studio's assumed lack of ethics. As much attention as it has drummed up, Bully actually surprised many who sat down with the title and realized that it wasn't about bullying so much as it was about a troubled kid who simply wanted to survive a school that was taken too seriously. Ported over to the X360 just in time for Rockstar's magnum opus, GTA4, Bully: Scholarship Edition was fortified with additional material to make life at Bullworth Academy even more interesting for players who haven't had a chance to experience it yet.
Bully stars the player as Jimmy Hopkins, a kid who has been kicked out of numerous schools in the past for mischief. His mother and her new husband are heading out to celebrate with a year-long honeymoon, leaving him at Bullworth Academy. As troubling as that sounds, Jimmy simply wants to survive and look out for himself, and he'll eventually be forced to take the battle to the real bullies of the school, who make life hell for him and anyone else who stands in their way. Mixing together elements from films such as "A Christmas Story," "The Breakfast Club," and "Revenge of the Nerds" while playing up plenty of tongue-in-cheek clichés, the rest of the story plays out as a surprisingly mature tale of survival and redemption.
Bully shares plenty of similarities with Rockstar's flagship series, Grand Theft Auto. Anyone familiar with life on those streets will find that the deceptively tame world of Bullworth Academy hides its own share of rules and regulations. Jimmy's still a kid, albeit one with plenty of options thanks to the free-roaming world in which Rockstar has dropped him. Detention minigames await if he's sent to see the principal, and he'll be doing a lot of running to stay out of trouble.
If the prefects don't bust Jimmy for picking lockers or fending off bullies, other students will deal with him in their own ways as they vie for power in the school's social network, which you also need to help him climb. You won't be expelled, thus ending the game, for being too much of a troublemaker, but don't expect it to give you a free ride if you fling an egg at a cop. If Jimmy stays up too late, he'll pass out and run the risk of getting robbed while lying on the ground, so you'd better get him to bed on time.
Getting around the prison-like atmosphere of Bullworth Academy is as easy as running, and getting into trouble occurs just as quickly as it does at the start of the game, when everyone smells new blood. Jimmy will quickly learn that the academy is divided into several cliques. You've got the jocks, who hang around the gym; the nerds, who live at the library; the greasers, who hang out at the auto shop and act like leather-clad clones of Joe Cool, and the preppies, whose faux accents and "better than thou" rich kid attitudes will smother anyone who comes near them. Getting to know each group will be important and at the start, not everyone will greet Jimmy with open arms — unless it's with a wrestling move.
There is a main story to follow as you guide Jimmy through the terror of living at a school that produced some of the scum that fans may have fought in any one of the Grand Theft Auto titles. Much of his story takes place in the social roller coaster ride of simply trying to fit in, and thanks to Rockstar, it's done in a big way. Students will ask for Jimmy to run a few errands to help them out, or they'll cause some trouble to push forward a particular cause. As much as Jimmy is the star of this title, the students that he meets are as much a part of the narrative as he is.
Many of the jobs that you'll undertake provide a variety of challenges, whether it's to protect a nerd on his way to the restroom before he leaves a puddle behind him, or to sneak into the girls' locker room to retrieve a stolen diary. Jimmy will also be able to woo the ladies with flowers and chocolates to earn kisses, which not only make him look good but grant a boost to your life gauge. This will help keep your chin up during the fights that you can't evade.
The academy's social structure is loaded with plenty of little details that turn it into a trip filled with unexpected surprises. Kiss a girl in front of another one of your squeezes, and don't be surprised to get a knee to the crotch or a slap to the face. Watch as the two fight for your attention, which will get both of them in hot water with the prefects. You might even aid a student trapped in one of the restroom stalls by bringing back a roll of TP, or help a secret admirer plant some chocolates in a locker. The game is filled with fun things to do, and the tasks provide a variety of entertaining challenges that display plenty of Bullworth-bred spirit.
Veterans from the PS2 version of the game who come back to school will find that four new classes have been added, and the minigames for these classes are just as fun as the others. For example, math class has a series of timed, multiple-choice questions such as what runs the fastest. Music comes off as "Cowbell Hero," as you match trigger presses in tune to a number of increasingly difficult songs. You'll even dissect animals in biology or mash more buttons in chemistry as you mix together compounds. Attending class isn't just for the nerds, as for each level that you manage to pass, you'll unlock bonuses that Jimmy can use, such as a chemistry set or an impeccable grasp of English, which can even help you talk down a prefect from dragging you into detention. Classes are pretty much held everyday, but there's no schedule to keep track of, and you can skip classes if you wish. It's up to you.
After attending a few classes and pursuing a few jobs around campus, you'll be able to explore the surrounding towns to find more things to do, such as attending a carnival filled with rides and minigames. Paper routes and lawn mowing will put some green in Jimmy's pocket to buy a new haircut, some new threads or supplies, such as marbles to trip up unsuspecting foes who are giving chase. There are special jobs that will only appear at night. There are even races that you can unlock, and although Jimmy is too young to drive, you can still bike, skitch or swim wherever you need to go. You might even get your own go-kart if you manage to prove yourself on the streets. Many of the challenges aren't too harrowing, and veterans of Rockstar's other offerings might find them to be something on the easy side, but the creative missions make up for this with plenty of style.
Bullworth Academy and the surrounding town are fleshed out with red brick walls, cracked pavement, and an attention to the little things, such as graffiti in the boy's restroom. Colorful storefronts, collapsing tenements, and a social gradient divide the poor from the rich, which gives the area a bit of a 1950s feel. Rockstar also took the extra step in making every student stand out as individuals, although that also means that you might see the same student appear whenever you turn around. It can be a little eerie when you swear you just saw him or her on the other side of town just a few minutes ago. As for the townspeople, they're fresh from the clone vats but are varied enough that it's not so obvious.
Jimmy isn't shy when it comes to taunting his foes or sneaking in a sly insult or two, and the witty dialogue guarantees that everyone has something to say. The fantastic voice acting is joined by a solid soundtrack replete with custom themes for each of the cliques. From the clumsy sounding, techno pop beat of nerds fighting to the understated scholastic feel of the notes as you wander in and out of Bullworth, it's all here to create an effective atmosphere.
It's a telling display of Rockstar's ability to deliver on the experience that Bully is as fun as it is despite the number of bugs and glitches on its report card. A patch update was needed, which was intended to address some of the more serious issues that had been reported, such as the occasional lock-up. Despite having the patch installed, I still encountered occasional animation gaffes, such as Jimmy getting stuck on an obstacle while trying to get on a bike, or in students "jittering" when they appeared to be stuck on trying to go somewhere. Dropped sound effects, cut speech, texture clipping, and near-freezes in simply trying to save the game, were random occurrences that made some of the experience feel surprisingly unpolished. Even worse were some of the achievements failing to unlock until much later, such as ones for Chapters 2 and 3 unlocking when I was already deep into the fourth chapter.
Multiplayer has also been added, but while it would have been nice to populate Bullworth with everyone on your friends list, you'll only get to play two-player versions of the class minigames with another controller. Aside from the achievements, along with one in particular that is sure to shake the social cage of more than one player, most of the other extras are found within the main game. Even if you finish the story, there is a huge number of collectibles and activities that you can pursue, which will provide plenty of things for completionists to do.
Bully: Scholarship Edition manages to rise to the head of the class, warts and all, in delivering another wedgie to the childish categorization against which games continue to struggle. Bully lets you take part in the life of one student going against the odds with a slingshot in one hand and a stink bomb in the other as he tries to clean up a school that is a lot more troubled than he is. Xbox 360 owners and newcomers who have never experienced any of Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto titles might find Bully's introductory course to be a good manner of getting their feet wet, while Rockstar loyalists will enjoy the kind of free-roaming gameplay that they've come to expect from the studio.
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