Where Rockstar treads, controversy seems to follow. They tackle mature themes with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer and their popularity with the mainstream gamer makes them an easy target for mass media criticism.
So, when Bully was announced several years ago, it was met with broad confusion, crossed wires and a general belief that maybe, just maybe they had pushed their hand a little too far. Then news of the game went all quiet - screens showing a mysterious skin-head punk schoolkid kicking butts all but dried up.
Suddenly, mid-2006, Bully emerged from cryosleep and, just months later, it's sitting on Australian shelves under a new moniker - Canis Canem Edit, Latin for 'Dog Eat Dog'. A name change, necessitated by various PAL-territory outcries, can't disguise the core game, which is identical. So Canis Canem Edit it is, and Jimmy Hopkins is lad whose shoes you fill. He's not a nice kid - in fact, he's pretty messed up and looks a little like a neo-Nazi skinhead. His mother has dumped him in a new school and gone on an extended honeymoon. That's all well and good for her, but Jimmy is immediately set upon by teenage thugs and teachers with warped sensibilities.
Bullworth Academy and surrounding township are the fictional locations for the ensuing tale; one that proves to be easily as grand in scope and scale as the GTA heritage would suggest. Strictly speaking, the sandbox nature of the GTA games still applies; however, the introduction of a day/night schedule with time-dependent activities and a heavy emphasis on character development set Canis Canem Edit apart from the series.
As a matter of fact, the daily schedule provides much more structure to the gameplay due to mastery of time management and routine. That is, Jimmy is supposed to attend classes at certain points of the day, and complete 'missions' in between, or at the expense of these. Prefects, teachers and later, police patrol the blocks of the school and township, ready to haul you back into line due to truancy or misdemeanours - measured on a shifting scale on the right of the mini-map.
Back to the sandbox gameplay, and should you choose to neglect your education, so be it. You can act like a vandal and tag walls, break into lockers, terrorise schoolgoers and the wider public with cartons of eggs, stinkbombs and even a high-powered slingshot with a scope and reticule. Thanks to an incredibly deep stat-tracker, your percentages and numbers for just about every action or activity you can perform is tracked, so there's no escaping from your choices. Dodge too many classes, and your attendance record will plummet on the stats screen, like a blotch on your permanent record.
Should you stick to the required schedule and attend most of your classes, you'll be asked to complete your 'class work' - minigames with an educational theme. For instance, English class asks you to form as many words as possible out of a jumble of letters. If you pass, you'll unlock advanced excuse-making and smooth talking. Art class sees you uncovering a lurid painting of your painfully hot art teacher by drawing intersecting lines from one edge of the canvas to the other without colliding with various objects. The reward is a health bonus rewarded through kissing. Nice.
Through issuing relevant skill upgrades and passing classes, Jimmy progresses through his high school education. It's all more-or-less voluntary, but well worth exploring.
In true Rockstar fashion, factions and stereotypes are preyed upon without mercy. Nerds, Preppies, Greasers, Jocks, Townies, Prefects and even the teaching faculty all offer their own quest lines. Interestingly, your reputation within each clique is affected by the way you deal with their rivals.
Spend too much time pandering to the Nerds and any Jock you see in the yard will lay into you. But at the same time, dividing your time equally between as many groups as possible seems to irritate all parties equally, to the point where a full-on fistfight is just an accidental nudge away.
Much has been made of the combat in Canis Canem Edit. It was always going to be a touchy area, and we feel that Rockstar has made the best of a bad situation. Jimmy Hopkins isn't one to shirk away from an encounter, and with unlockable moves provided by a crazed, homeless Korean War veteran, as well as the school wrestling team, you know things aren't going to be pretty.
In fact, if there is one aspect where some of the controversy holds water, it is with the very physical nature of the game. There are some wince-inducing combos to perform - tap square to throw a punch, hold it to do an uppercut. Grapple with triangle. Combine with circle to toss them to the ground, jump on and commence the beating. Knees to the nuts, repeated kicking while your hapless victim is lying on the ground - it's kind of confronting to watch teens doing this stuff.
Of course, the reasonable flipside is, there are consequences to being a violent thug - and that is, if you're spotted by anyone in a position of authority while you're pounding flesh, you'd better high-tail it. Fighting isn't trivialised, but it is often something that is foisted upon the player without any alternative. That's all well and good - this is Rockstar, after all - but if that sounds like too much to bear, then this might not be the game for you. For all others, press onwards towards glory.
The standard of presentation is universally excellent - the voice-acting, provided by a cast of unknowns is right up there with Rockstar's best. The script is wonderfully dry and funny, full of character and individuality. In a time where writing seems a distant second when compared to production values, Canis Canem Edit's dialogue is deliciously mature.
The mock-New England is lovingly modelled, with a seaside, carnival and host of alleys, suburbs and sights to explore at your leisure. Built-in mini-arcade games, stores, hang-outs and collectible items litter the expanse, providing countless distractions and self-paced progression. Towards the latter half of the game, the pacing becomes a little slow - the key story-specific missions tend to get overshadowed by the dozens of side-story options available. There is just so much to see and do that, like the GTA series, it's sometimes a little daunting.
It's hard to be critical of a game that aims so high and does so much with the arguably limited power of the PlayStation 2. The sandbox nature of the game, with large environments means that moving between interior and exterior areas triggers loading that can very from snappy to knuckle-dragging. While the animation of key characters is spot-on and very expressive, the textures applied to faces and clothing is decidedly low-resolution and looks a little rough even compared with San Andreas.
Skateboarding is available as a mode of transport from early in the game - unfortunately the controls are a tad touchy and running into walls or corners doesn't throw you from your deck - it just makes it hard to turn around.
We also came across a couple strange glitches - the worst occurring when we stood in front of a locker we were about to hide inside when we tripped on some marbles and fell into the locker. Poor Jimmy then proceeded to rotate uncontrollably for 10 minutes through walls, floors, characters and into a dark void, requiring a reset.
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