IGN Review of Bully: Scholarship Edition
When Bully arrived on PlayStation 2 a year-and-a-half ago, quite a number of people ignored it. After all, the next generation of gaming had begun. So it is likely that the majority of 360 owners never gave Rockstar's open-world angst-ridden game a shot. Good thing for second chances. Bully: Scholarship Edition polishes the graphics, adds a handful of new missions and delivers a unique and thoroughly charming experience on Xbox 360.
Though developed by Rockstar, makers of the Congressional-favorite Grand Theft Auto series, Bully is a T-rated game. There's no blood, no guns, no boosting of cars. Assault an officer of the law and you don't get a 6-star wanted rating -- you get busted. That doesn't mean there isn't plenty of mayhem (and violence) in Bully, just that it's not a GTA clone. Imagine if John Hughes made an open-world videogame starring John Bender, the thug from The Breakfast Club, and you should have a pretty good idea of the tone for Bully. This is an angst-filled game; a light-hearted simulation of the horrors of high school. And it's a lot of fun.
You play as Jimmy Hopkins, a 15-year-old delinquent who's been expelled from seven other schools. After his mother and latest step-father dump him in a corrupt boarding school just outside the town of Bullworth, Jimmy must find a way to go from social pariah to schoolyard hero. Bully takes us through Jimmy's first year at Bullworth Academy. It's a rough year as Jimmy must negotiate the social strata of the various cliques in school (bullies, nerds, jocks, preppies, greasers) and out of school (townies). There are classes to ditch, prefects and cops to avoid and an entire town to explore.
The first chapter of Bully is also the worst. If you pick up Scholarship Edition, don't be hasty to trade it back in after the first hour. The first chapter is your initiation into Bullworth Academy and as such, the gates of the school are locked. You're limited to school grounds, have almost not fighting combos, few weapons, and everyone hates your guts just because you're the new kid. Though befriended by the psychopathic Gary upon your arrival, the various cliques (including the nerds) would rather beat you senseless than give you the time of day. In fact, quite often you will be assaulted by bullies who start fights anytime they see you daring to walk down the halls towards class. This can interrupt and even ruin some missions, which becomes frustrating when just getting into the groove of a game. Be patient. Work through the first few hours and soon enough the gates of the Academy open up, the combat becomes more enjoyable and the bullies take your side.
Completing the main missions of Bully (which tally a considerable number) earn or lose the respect of certain cliques. This changes how they treat you on and off school grounds. Beyond this, each individual character also has a personal reaction to Jimmy. So while the nerds in general may love Jimmy, some will love him more than others. In fact, if you play your cards right, there's a mouth full of braces waiting to kiss you (whether you prefer girls or boys).
Interacting with other characters is as simple as choosing a positive or negative response. You can taunt people, even goad them into fighting, or you can praise them and attempt to win favor. If you play your cards right, you can even win the heart of a girl (or boy). Give them some flowers (the fat girl prefers chocolates) and they may even kiss you. This sloppy gift isn't just for show. A kiss boosts your health. So kiss early and kiss often. Just be sure your kissing buddy doesn't see you smooching with someone else or you could start a cat fight (or get kicked in the nards).
The dynamic relationships come off fairly shallow as the mission structure pre-determines how the general student body will feel about Jimmy through each chapter. Characters treat you differently depending on what you wear, but that tends to be one of two reactions: acting normal or laughing at you. Dress in the nerd outfit and instead of giving extra respect, the nerds actually mock you. And though there is some variance in how individual characters react to Jimmy, for the most part they fall in line with the viewpoint of their clique -- something controlled by your progression through the story, not through any specific choices you as a player make.
There is also a glitch where, on occasion, when you chat up a girl she won't react for a good 30-40 seconds. During that time, you are stuck as the world moves around you. It doesn't happen often enough to become a detriment, but if you play Bully for 20 hours, you'll certainly see this happen a few times.
Each day you will be expected to attend a morning and an afternoon class. You always have the option to ditch. Just know that the prefects patrol school grounds and will chase you for any and all violations of school policy (truancy, fighting, ignoring dress code, etc.). Being chased is a common theme in Bully. You will run away a lot. Fortunately, every adult in Bullworth chain smokes and eats red meat daily so they get winded quickly. And you always have the option of hiding in a trash can or locker until the authority figures give up the search.
You should consider attending class each day, because completing classes earns you worthwhile bonuses. The 10 classes have corresponding mini-games that can be completed five times, each one earning a different reward. Art class is a simple puzzle game where you must guide a pencil on a board, creating boxes to reveal a painting -- all the while avoiding patrolling erasers and scissors. Complete a session and you earn bonus health every time you're kissed. Shop class unlocks better bikes; English improves your ability to appease or taunt others; Gym unlocks better slingshot accuracy thanks to skills learned from dodgeball. And on and on. The original Bully had six classes with four new classes added for the Scholarship Edition making for a more robust curriculum.
When you're not attending class, you'll likely be undertaking a mission either for a teacher or a fellow student. The story in Bully is absolutely top-notch. The writing is witty, the situations often hilarious. This is the funniest teen movie in a decade. This is helped by the fact that somehow Rockstar managed to create well dozens of characters that come alive on screen and have memorable personalities.
The missions themselves are often fetch quests or slug-a-thons. Most are easy to comprehend and complete. But they are also fun. Many aspects of Bully are bite-sized moments of entertainment -- nothing more than tiny experiences that last about as long as a Snickers bar. What makes it work is that there are hundreds of these small moments that compile to make for a great gaming experience (oh so many delicious Snickers bars!). At times the simple nature of Bully can wear a little thin, but it's possible the game wouldn't have worked as well if the missions were structured with greater complexity.
Combat is a central point for many of these missions. The bulk of combat is hand-to-hand fighting, though there are some useful ranged weapons as well. Melee combat is built on an easy-to-grasp system where left trigger locks on an enemy, X attacks, Y grabs and B adds a few flare moves when in a grapple. As you progress, new combos open up for more devastating moves, but it remains a manageable system. It never overcomplicates itself. Supplementing melee combat is a handful of fun weapons. Firecrackers explode in an opponent's face, itching powder distracts an enemy, stink bombs damages their pride and marbles make pursuers tumble to the ground.
The real fun of combat is getting an enemy's health down to a sliver and performing a humiliation move. There are a variety of ways to humiliate an enemy. Some are as plain as pushing them to the ground and giving a demonstrative taunt, while others are more involved, such as the "why are you hitting yourself" gag. The game is called Bully for a reason, so have at it.
If you want to blow through Bully, beat the main missions, get through the story and then have a smoke -- you can do so in 12-14 hours. But if you want to enjoy Bully, then you will attend some classes, build a harem of adolescent girlfriends, accept the endless number of errands offered randomly as you wander Bullworth, and explore every nook and cranny of the world Rockstar has carefully crafted. Doing this will likely make it 17-20 hours to beat the game. But there's a lot more to do than survive the school year. And it's these extras -- which are plentiful -- that should boost your playtime considerably.
There are loads of distractions in the town of Bullworth. You can play Consumo, a sumo-eats-food-and-gets-fatter arcade game worthy of XBLA or check out the rides at the carnival or compete in a variety of BMX and go-kart races or hunt down collectible rubber bands and Grottos & Gremlins cards hidden throughout the world or hunt for and antagonize a ship-wrecked peg-legged pirate or tag insults across the walls of the entire city or get a tattoo or collect more than 250 pieces or clothing to wear or break into every locker in school or kick around a soccer ball for the hell of it or sneak into the girls' dorm and snap some steamy shower pics or assemble a Yearbook documenting every kid at school. There's a lot to do in Bully.
In fact, there's already so much extra motivation to keep playing that the handful of new missions are almost negligible. They add a spot of humor, but don't do much else to enhance the game. It's more or less just filler. Consider it a bonus Twinkie to go along with all those Snickers bars.
While much of Bully's gameplay has a timeless feel to it, the visuals seem stuck in the previous generation. Granted, this was once a PS2 game, but it still must be judged against 360 standards. A new engine was built from the ground up by developer Mad Doc, just for the Scholarship Edition. In some areas this has brought visual oomph. There are locations, such as the Academy, with great texture work, but other spots that seem to have received little attention -- big green blocks of hedges, a mush of gray colors for the muck and grime of the seedy part of town. It's the repeated framerate drops and texture pop-in that earn the most grievances. The framerate never drops to such a low rate that you can't play Bully, but it often dips in small degrees.
Now, if for some reason you get tired of playing alone, Scholarship Edition adds offline two-player adversarial multiplayer. The ten multiplayer games pit Jimmy against Gary in a 3-, 4-, or 9-round tournament. The fact that the multiplayer is offline only and without leaderboards is probably going to turn off the majority of 360 owners. This is the "online console" after all. The standard is for Xbox Live play. If that doesn't bother you, then you should have some fun with all ten of the mini-games. They provide a minor distraction, though it's the single-player game that remains the star.
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