Review: You can play this after you get done with your homework.
Back when Grand Theft Auto 3 was the big sandbox game to hit the streets, many teenagers were upset because their parents wouldn't let them touch the M rated game. Soon after that, rumors began flying that a Teen rated version of the game would be coming out. Of course, there was absolutely no way that would ever happen due to the completely adult nature of the entire game. The very environment would have needed a complete overhaul. Either way, the idea of a GTA type game made for Teens must have sparked some interest in GTA production group Rockstar Games. Now, several years after releasing GTA3, Rockstar has just released their newest sandbox game, Bully.
Bully is a story about a teen, James ?Jimmy? Hopkins, who has definitely been through the school of hard-knocks. His mom can't keep a stable relationship with anyone, and Jimmy can't seem to stay in any one school for very long before being kicked out. Now, with his mom going off on her fifth honeymoon, Jimmy has just been left at the doorstep of Bullworth Academy. A prestigious school known for its ability to reform even the hardest students, even though many of its students went on to become thieves, murders, and lawyers. After seeing the violence between the cliques on campus, Jimmy decides to take matters into his own hands and stop the bullying. Okay, so Bully has more than a few contradictions in it, such as why a kid who gets kicked out of school all the time wants to stop school bullying? by bulling people, but don't think too hard about those details. As the game moves on, Jimmy will fight against Nerds, Jocks, Preppies, Greasers, and even Dropouts to ultimately lead the school into an era of peace between the factions. The whole time I played Bully, the story actually reminded me a lot of GTA Vice City. I was surprised how well the story developed as the game continued, and it definitely goes to show that the folks at Rockstar Vancouver can really put together a good narrative regardless of the subject matter.
The game plays an awful lot like Grand Theft Auto. Players will take on several missions all with free-roaming gameplay in-between. Missions range from fetch quests to multiple enemy brawls. I never found the missions to get old. In fact where in Grand Theft Auto I'd hardly ever play any of the missions, I actually found myself attracted to the developing story and missions in this game, often breezing through chapters in a matter of a few hours. This leads to one of the problems of the game and that is its length. The game can easily be bested in about a weekend, which is something you don't often see these days. That can be good for folks with limited play time, but considering this game is made for high-school students, you'd expect a little more out of the playtime of the game. In comparison with GTA, Bully also suffers from the curse of horribly long load times. The initial load time of the game can last upwards of 20 seconds. After that, the opening of each mission can run anywhere from 2 to 5 seconds. It may not sound like much, but all that loading adds up quickly. I would have expected Rockstar Vancouver to have taken a lesson from the folks that made GTA San Andreas with its amazingly short initial load.
During the periods between missions, players can choose to go to class, go to a local fair ground, or just mull around the town of Bullworth and see what sort of trouble they can find. Classes are fairly interesting offering minigames with five levels of difficulty per class. The classes range from Chemistry which is a timed button pressing game, similar to the dancing segments in Grand Theft Auto San Andreas and English which is a timed word jumble in the vein of the popular game Boggle, to the more action based Photography class that involves going out into the world with a camera and taking certain pictures under a time limit. Each time a class is passed, Jimmy will gain some sort of boost to his abilities, such as better aim or better health boosts from kissing girls. Unfortunately once the five levels are beaten for every class, there is very little reason to go back to class. It's a yin and yang effect because while Jimmy still has classes to pass, if he does not go, he runs the risk of being caught by any one of the many school prefects or police officers in the game. However, if Jimmy has no classes to finish, there is suddenly a lot of time to waste.
Aside from classes, Jimmy can partake in a few jobs. He can deliver papers a-la Paper Boy, or mow lawns, all for extra money. Jimmy can also make money by helping out random schoolmates and towns people. The odd thing I found was that as the game progressed, I found I really didn't need any of the money anyway. I suppose this is because most of the items in the game can easily be found for free. The only reason to go to any of the shops is to buy clothes or new haircuts. The clothing options are very limited as Jimmy can only roam around school in his uniform. There also aren't many haircuts available, and to be honest a lot of them looked similar. Still, the game does throw enough minigames into the works to keep players from ever getting bored.
The fighting system in Bully works pretty well. Jimmy is given a number of melee based combinations to defend himself (or terrorize others) with. There are many different types of punches, kicks, and ground based hits that can be performed. Also, when a targeted enemy has been weakened to a point, Jimmy can then perform some sort of special finishing move. This could be any number of things such as ?Indian Rug Burns? or headlocks. The fights definitely come off much better than they have in any Grand Theft Auto, but at the same time, other games have had better battle systems. The only real flaw I can point out is the ever annoying lock-on system. That thing hasn't worked since GTA 3, and I question if it ever will.
Of course, Jimmy isn't just stuck using his fists to take care of business. Players can use numerous environmental items to inflict damage. Players can pick up and use rulers, dry-erase markers, baseball bats, 2 x 4s, lead pipes, and even a sledgehammer to help take out enemies. Some of that makes me question just how harmless the game is supposed to be. While there is no blood to be spoken of in the game, the fact you can take a baseball bat to one of your classmates does seem a little more violent than I had been expecting, especially considering that the bat is one of the weapons used in all of the GTAs. While there aren't any guns per-se, there are several projectile weapons. Jimmy will gain the use of a special scoped slingshot, firecrackers, and hot potato launchers. Nothing too fatal, but it'll definitely leave a bruise. The very environment itself can also lend to some interesting battle strategies. For instance, having enemies run over banana peels will cause them to fall, giving Jimmy a few free hits off of them. Also, if Jimmy instigates a hold, he can then push his enemy into a trashcan for laughs. Bully definitely gives its players plenty options when it comes to fighting.
Weapons aren't just for hurting enemies, though. Take a firecracker to the restroom and flush it to see what happens. Also there are plenty of places around town that Jimmy can tag as long as he has a spray can. Tagging walls with graffiti works quite similar to the classic Dreamcast game Jet Grind Radio. When Jimmy starts to tag a wall, a small outline will show up, and the player must maneuver the control stick around the outline in order to successfully make a mark.
There are a few modes of transportation throughout the game. Early on Jimmy will receive a skateboard, which makes jetting around campus much quicker. Also, as Jimmy finishes shop classes, he will unlock a number of new bikes. There are also a few stray mopeds around town that Jimmy can ride (though if he isn't wearing a helmet, he will get the police angry). Riding around town wasn't quite as fun as I had hoped it would be. There is a skate part located in town much like in San Andreas, but for some reason the controls of the vehicles in Bully just feel much more restrictive than those of GTA. I found it hard to ever really accelerate fast enough to perform any tricks off of ramps. There are also several bus stops stationed around town that will quickly bring Jimmy back to the Bullworth campus- perfect for getting Jimmy to bed before he passes out from exhaustion.
Bully shares a lot in common with Grand Theft Auto San Andreas when it comes to visuals. The facial animations are slightly more complex in Bully, but all of the characters have slightly more exaggerated features, also. The overall look of the game is pretty good. There weren't any spots where I noticed horrible slowdown, which is something considering that the school is often busy with students. One problem I had, though, is the fact that people would often be duplicated too frequently. For instance, I could run past one of Jimmy's girlfriends, turn a corner, and not two seconds later see that same girlfriend walking past him again. It would appear that everyone at Bullworth has the same super power as the Nightcrawler. This happened a lot in the game. You'd think they would have made a few more students to populate the world with. Either way, it was a little distracting. As far as the technical stuff is concerned, Bully features widescreen support but no progressive scan support. A shame for those who have progressive or HD sets out there. Also, playing the game on an HD set, I noticed a bit of that infamous HD lag with the game. It was very obvious during the Chemistry and Shop classes, so keep that in mind if you are using an HD TV. It isn't game destroying, but it can get a little frustrating.
Audio is very nice in Bully. All of the voice acting is spot on from the teachers to the students. I was surprised that child voice actors could do as good a job as they did, though a few did stand out as being a little rough around the edges here and there. The music was very well done, also. A constant theme tends to play in the background of the game, and depending on what is going on, the song will change to keep pace. Whoever did the music deserves a pat on the back, and a nice reference for future projects. I didn't notice any problems with audio quality, either.