Two years after making a splash on the PS2, Rockstar has finally brought their high school hooligan to the PC. Bully: Scholarship Edition puts players in the shoes of Jimmy Hopkins, the titular bully. Having been kicked out of a number of other schools, he finds himself deposited at the gates of Bullworth Academy. As he starts a new school year here, he'll have to compete and cooperate with the various cliques around the school as he tries to rise to the top of the pyramid. And what's the best way to gain power and prestige at a new school? Pranks and violence, of course!
In keeping with the successful Grand Theft Auto approach, Bully is largely a one-note affair, focusing on the standard cliches and stereotypes that have been used in countless shows, movies, books and video games. From the very beginning, you see the jocks, the greasers, the nerds and the preps and you pretty much know where it's all going to go. Throw in a wino in a Santa suit, a nauseating cafeteria lady, and the obligatory tyrannical principal, and you've got a game that tries to thwart convention so hard that it just winds up conforming to it. In the end, you get the sense that Jimmy's crusade on behalf on the nerds of Bullworth Academy is really nothing more than an excuse to run around kicking people in the nuts.
Now, some may see this criticism as an unfair attack on the tone of the game. The game, after all, is called "Bully" so we shouldn't be surprised if there's not much virtue among its characters or situations. That's a perfectly reasonable suggestion, to a point. But while the cliches and slightly sleazy nature of the world don't really allow for much surprise or contrast in the game world, the real issue is that Jimmy's own motivation isn't ever really explored, so the player is left on their own to fill in the huge vacuum of his character. There's no clear reason why he's being good or bad beyond the fact that he's a teenager in a new, unfamiliar environment. In the end, it's just too hard to reconcile his desire to rescue stolen comic books for a group of nerds with his instant and unquestioning complicity in the perverse lives of his teachers.
You may claim that none of that matters to you as a player, and it's perfectly possible to enjoy the game in spite of those issues, playing it for the content and not the commentary. It's just a shame that, with all the effort put into making such a coherent and engaging story, that Rockstar went with such predictable high school stereotypes and a thoroughly indifferent protagonist.
The good news is that the content is generally very well designed. The missions are consistently enjoyable from the first to the last, letting the player explore not only the grounds of Bullworth Academy and the surrounding town but also the private lives of the students, faculty and townies. Whether it's poisoning a prized plant at the frat house, busting up dwarf statues at the carnival, or running a bicycle race to win the affection of a girl in a particularly tight sweater, there's a lot of stuff to do in Bully and it all comes with a healthy dose of fun gameplay with just enough story to tie it in with the rest of the week's events. Even better, the missions are all reasonably short, so you can feel like you're making solid progress the whole time you're playing.
As the title suggests, Bully involves lots and lots of fighting, so it's a good thing that the combat system is so well designed. Many games that have fighting systems with just a single attack and one grab move come across feeling somewhat shallow but, though there aren't a lot of possible actions, Bully allows you to chain moves together to create a number of impressive and tactically significant combos. Combine that with the charge and humiliation options and you can really feel like you have a wide range of options even though you're only ever really pushing just a few buttons. Your gym teacher and the hobo that lives behind the shop class teach you new moves throughout the game, so you have a chance to learn how to use each move to its greatest effect. Fortunately, the way the combos are structured, you can even get away with some reckless button mashing and still feel somewhat effective.
There are also plenty of weapons you can use in the course of the game, from the oh-so-satisfying spud gun and fireworks launcher to the why-even-bother lameness of the rotten eggs and bag of marbles. Still, nothing compares to the trusty duo of slingshot and baseball bat when it comes time to take on enemies of any kind. Even with the most vicious of beat downs, it's worth pointing out that Bully doesn't go for gore or death. The worst you can do to your opponents, even when bludgeoning them with a bat, is to leave them writhing on the ground.
But combat and exploration is only part of the gameplay. This is school after all, so you'll be expected to attend class at least once in a while. There are two class sessions each day and the truant officers who patrol the campus will try to chase you down if you're found outside during class time. It's a fun sort of mechanic that limits your mobility and your options during the first half of the day, much like school in real life. And though it means you won't be out running missions, it's still worth going to class because successfully passing a day's class will open up new abilities for you, from more varied social interactions, to greater rewards when you kiss a girl (or boy), to better accuracy with your slingshot.
The only problem is that many of these classroom minigames are terrible. The cerebral puzzle games in Math and English are tolerable, and the Geography class would be alright as well if it wasn't for the terrible interface that penalizes you for not having pixel-perfect accuracy. There are similar problems with the frequent dissection exercises in Biology and here there's a clear sense that the game suffers from a bit of an imbalance in the porting process. Trying to accomplish the dissections with the gamepad leads to some pretty close calls, with the player usually finishing up with only seconds to spare. If you use the mouse and keyboard however, slicing away at your subjects is almost too easy. To help balance out the advantage of the mouse input, the developers have simply slowed down the cursor movement. It's a solution, but not much of one.
By far the worst offender is Music class, where the simplistic rhythm game is too unresponsive to score more than a (barely) passing grade. When the main campaign introduces a music challenge, you'll be tempted to give up entirely. This sequence is particularly troubling because the music that's playing behind you isn't synched up properly with the part you're playing.
Like Grand Theft Auto, Bully presents a full world to the player and invites them to find their own fun in it. There are plenty of opportunities for reckless and anti-social behavior in the game, from breaking in to lockers to tagging bridges, and loads of other content to explore, including a bike park and a wide range of games at the nearby carnival. Authority has a strong presence in Bully, so you'll often find yourself running from prefects and police officers who have caught you in the act. It's generally easy to get away from them, either by ducking into a nearby store, or by hiding in a trashcan or locker. Even if you do get caught, the punishment is usually just the loss of some time and a few items.
If you just follow the course of the main missions and ignore class and the various side quests you can get through Bully in just a couple of days. But when you add in all the class work, the races, and the odd jobs and errands, Bully will last a good long while. Even if you finish the school year, you'll have the chance to run through and explore the rest of the game's content at your leisure.
The only real hitch in this system is the game's tightly scripted reputation system. With so many competing social groups at school and so much opportunity for the player to help out one side or another, the game's story effectively gives the player no control over their standings with various factions. Nerds and jocks and preps and greasers will change their attitude towards you based solely on the changes that are scripted for them in the story. We'd love to have seen a more active role for the player here, giving them a chance to align themselves with a faction based on what appeals to them most, not based on what the mission designers tell them to do. Couple that with Jimmy's lack of any apparent motivation and it starts to feel like you're just going through the motions.
Given the tremendous span of time since the original and the subsequent Scholarship Editions were released, it's unfortunate that Bully for the PC has so many technical issues. Aside from the interface problems mentioned already, there are a few scripting problems with a couple of the missions, mostly as a result of unclear or misplaced triggers. There are also more than a few crash bugs here and there, including a few that locked up our PC so badly that we had to reboot the whole thing from scratch.
Bully certainly looks good, even for a two-year-old port. The character models aren't quite strong enough to support all the acting that's required of them, but it's easy to appreciate the level of detail that's gone into creating this world. The overall design of the school and the nearby town is amazing and it's on a scale that's easier to appreciate than the sprawling worlds of Vice City or San Andreas. Of course, the fact that you're seeing them on a bicycle instead of a sports car makes it easier to appreciate. Some of the textures and lighting elements don't always work, but overall the atmosphere of Bully is very strong and conveys a real sense of believability and weight. It's particularly nice to see the school and the town change with the seasons.
The sound design is excellent as well. The voice acting is consistently good, with excellent casting and direction all around. We particularly like the performance behind Jimmy. Even though the character itself is too flat for our tastes, the actor delivering the lines does a great job. Music and sound effects are also handled very well, which reinforces the mood and charm of the world.
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