Usually when a game gets ported to a superior platform, all of the flaws from the original game pop up and ruin the experience. However, when Rockstar and Mad Doc software took Bully (originally a Playstation 2 game) and brought it to the Xbox 360, they took significant steps to enhance the game to make it worthy of the next-gen platform. They optimized the controls for the Xbox 360, updated the graphics and physics and added a ton of new content to the game in the form of new missions, classes and other goodies. These enhancements don’t change the core gameplay but rather make the game palpable for those who want to play it on the Xbox 360.
The storyline of Bully: Scholarship Edition (Bully: SE) is centered on 15 year-old Jimmy Hopkins, who is dumped at Bullworth Academy by his mom and told to fend for himself. He must be navigated through minefields of mini-games designed to test your patience and gaming skills. The storyline is fairly liner as you cannot advance through the chapters until certain missions and errands have been completed. While the main plot is highly structured, the open world nature of the game allows you to move about at your own pace so you can stop and smell the virtual roses if you care to.
The gameplay is focued on the missions, mini-games and activities that are littered throughout the grounds of Bullworth Academy and the surrounding town. It seems as if there is always something to do, someone to see or someone that needs their butt kicked. Despite what the title suggests, Jimmy Hopkins is not a bully, but rather a kid is constantly forced to defend himself.
Most people will find themselves jumping into the campaign mode as this is where the meat of the game lies. After meeting the principal and his assistant (who looks somewhat like Paige Davis of Trading Spaces), the storyline is set and players can immediately start feeling there way around the campus in the first mission, which is finding Jimmy’s dorm room.
Unfortunately, not more than 20 minutes into the game, I started to experience serious issues with the framerate and the game locked up on me a couple of times. The next day, Rockstar acknowledged the issue and went about producing a patch to correct the issue. I decided to wait for the patch before continuing with my review. This really wasn’t a necessity, as I could have just saved more frequently to thwart the freezing. It took a couple of weeks, but finally an auto-update came when I logged in, which definitely corrected the freezing issues, and appears to have made the game run much smoother. While it is never a good thing for a new release to have such issues out of the box, Rockstar and Mad Doc need to be commended for confronting the issue head-on and getting a patch readied quickly. That is a lot better than the majority of publishers/developers have done over the years.
Once I was back on track with a patched game, I proceeded to continue down the storyline, trying to complete the classes and side missions as I worked my way through the Chapters. For those that played Bully on the Playstation 2, it will be hard not to notice all the new additions to the game. No less than eight new missions, four new classes and several new characters have been salted in across the board. These additions, along with what appears to be a new physics engine and updated graphics, take Bully: Scholarship Edition to a level above and beyond the original Bully.
The game controls are pretty straight forward and use most of the buttons on the Xbox 360’s controller. When not in a specific side mission or mini game, every button and control are available to move Jimmy around, select his options and interact with the environment. However, the minigame controls are almost always unique throughout the game. Fortunately, there is a mini tutorial prior to each one, so you always know what to do. Some of these controls can be somewhat frustrating, with the music class mini games leading the list. In that class (simulating hitting a bass drum) the triggers are used to beat on the drum. The problem is that the Left and Right triggers are probably two of the worst performing buttons on the Xbox 360 controller and it was an absolute struggle to come close to passing the third music class. Hitting them both at the same time in rapid succession sounds easy, but the game flat out didn’t register them more times than not.
The game AI is pretty intelligent, as prefects, students, townsfolk and police will all react according to the situation at hand. Bumping into people will often earn you a return shove (or a beat down depending on the person) and people will jump out of the way when you come barreling through on a bike or skateboard. There are some instances where the AI gets a bit wonky (guy trying to hit Jimmy while he is making out), but all the little innuendos (like girls starting a cat fight with each other when one watches you kiss another) make it very solid experience.
There are some nice touches in the game that add to the overall feel of the game. The most obvious is the decorating of the dorms and the campus area with pumpkins and Halloween paraphernalia. This is important on two levels, as it gives you some sense of a timeline (there are not any “weekends” without school at Bullworth) and it helps prepare you to look for The Big Prank. This is one of those one-time-only missions and is only available on Halloween night. Other examples are throwing snowballs or food and encouraging other students to follow suit, or the ability to grab the back of a car for a free ride while on your skateboard are fun features.
One of the modifications that found there way into Bully: SE some basic multiplayer action. Unfortunately, it wasn’t created as a full in-depth online setup, but rather relegated to local two-player local minigames. While these are fun and take on the various newly installed classes, they really don’t add much to the game play or even the achievements.
Rockstar and Mad Doc have included a very robust stat page, which is your lifeline when trying to figure what you have done in the game. Almost every action you take is recorded somewhere in these stats. It doesn’t matter if it is how many kisses, how far you have driven the lawnmower or how many times students have told on you. It is all there. This is extremely helpful when trying to figure out just how close you are to getting certain achievements that require a specific amount of something to unlock it.
Bully: SE won’t win any awards for graphics of the year, but overall Mad Doc did a solid job of porting the game from the PS2. The limitations of developing originally for the older platform do show up from time to time, mainly in the cut scenes. However, the game physics are surprisingly good, as the characters and objects in the game seem to react accordingly when action and action is applied, such as being hit, kicked, bumped or knocked down. Some of the animations get old pretty quick (such as every chick at Bullworth apparently learning how to kiss from the same guy, probably the vagrant that lives behind the School Bus), what doesn’t get old is giving knees to the groin and kicking bullies when they are down.
The audio soundtrack is extremely good, and is anchored by the background music which complements the pace and activity on screen. If it kicks up to a fast pace, you know its time to run like the wind or swivel your head around to figure out where the danger is. Fortunately the radar tips you off to the closest prefect, cop or bully. Where the audio really shines is in the verbal interactions with the characters in the game. There are over 100 voiced characters located in the academy and the surrounding town, which really adds to the gaming experience. After playing through the game, it is easy to see that not only is Jimmy Hopkins back, but he is looking and sounding better than ever.
The Achievements in Bully: Scholarship Edition range from easy to hilarious and can be picked up primarily by letting the storyline run its course. Two real creative ones are “Over the Rainbow” for getting 20 kisses from the Gents and “Dual Nebula” for setting a high score on all the mini-game Arcade machines in the game. The great thing about the grinders (such as traveling distance on bike, foot, skateboard, etc) is that they should still be accomplished during the normal course of the game. Toss in the fact that there is an extremely comprehensive stats page, so it should be easy to know exactly how close you are to getting that next achievement. Overall, it is a very well balanced list with even the ones you have to work at being fun to get.
Bully: Scholarship Edition is all about keeping yourself busy all of the time. No matter where you are at in the storyline, what section of the bully universe you are exploring or what people you are interacting with, there will always be something to grab your attention, place to explore or an object to just screw around with. Very few games I have played combine mission completions with general sandbox play as well as Bully: SE has done. The main thing to keep in mind is that you simply won’t want to put it down because the game just becomes increasingly more fun to play the deeper you get into it. When the town opens up after Chapter one, it feels like an expansion pack has been added to the base game, as there are so many new things to explore, errands to run and missions to complete.
Fortunately, I took the opportunity to put this review together after experiencing both the pre and post-patch releases of the game. As a result, I have discussed the pre-patch issues, but have rated the post-patch version with all of the significant performance upgrades that were implemented. I would rather provide an accurate review of the game, than be the first to rush a review to publication. The reasoning is that if you rent or buy the game after reading this review, the patch will have been applied as soon as the game is connected to live. There should not be any additional framerate and freezing issues once the patch is implemented.