Life sure does suck for Jimmy Hopkins, the 15 year old protagonist in Bully. Poor Jimmy has been kicked out of a half dozen schools, he can't get along with his jerk step-dad, and it appears as though he may have some sort of anger management issues to get under control. Now that his parents are shipping him off to Bullworth Academy, Jimmy's luck has gone from bad to horrible. Will the strict school environment keep Jimmy in check? Will it be easy for him to make new friends and turn his life around? Will anybody give this hothead some medicine to control his rage issues?
These are just some of the questions you will no doubt ask yourself as you enter Bullworth Academy for the first time. This is Bully, the new adventure game from Rockstar Games, the people that brought us Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt and The Warriors. It's easy to write off Bully as nothing but another mindless action game, but if you look deeper you'll see one of the most original game experiences of the year. This is one PlayStation 2 game that will dazzle you with its creativity, impress you with its scope and remind you of all the good (and bad) times you had growing up. Bully is the real deal, it's one of those rare games you can't put down until you've done and seen it all.
Bully tells the story of a young troublemaker who gets shipped off to Bullworth Academy, a school full of bullies and jerks. It's bad enough that you're in a new school where you don't fit in, but it feels like everybody is going out of their way to make your life miserable. Early on you meet up with Gary, a kid suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder who is more than happy to show you the lay of the land and introduce you to all of the major players at the school. But when Gary backstabs you and makes you fight the biggest, toughest kid in school, you know that it's up to you to get all of kids on your side and exact revenge on your one-time friend.
In order to get back at Gary you are going to have to convince all of the school cliques that you are on their side. This means that you are going to help the nerds, team up with the jocks, hang out with the greasers, roll with the preps and even figure out what the townies (the Bullworth drop outs) are all about. In its simplest form Bully is all about becoming the most popular kid in school … even if that means you have to go about it in dirty, mean and often despicable ways. But becoming the most respected kid in school isn't an easy task; it's going to take you a couple dozen hours and tons of missions before all of the various cliques look up to you.
Bully's game play is set up similar to that of the Grand Theft Auto series, in that you have the ability to go wherever you want and take on the missions whenever you want. You are free to explore the city of Bullworth, just hang out with the kids at school, play arcade games all day, and even perform after school jobs (paper route, lawn mowing) for extra spending money.
But true to its school environment, Bully has a lot of structure that Grand Theft Auto didn't offer. Instead of simply being one huge adventure, Bully is split up into five different chapters (each with a good amount of missions to undertake). By splitting the chapters up it gives Rockstar Games more freedom with the narrative, allowing them to tell smaller stories that eventually piece together to form one epic high school adventure. These chapters will deal with finding your way around a new school, learning to love, and coming to grips with your own limitations.
Speaking of structure, since this is a school you're going to actually have to study from time to time. Every day you are required to attend two classes, one at 9 AM and the other at 1 PM. There are six courses offered at Bullworth Academy, each represented by a small mini-game. Chemistry, for example, involves you pushing the buttons that they call out (similar to your average music game). English, on the other hand, gives you a bunch of letters and then makes you unscramble them to create as many different words as possible. The Art class has you playing a mini-game that is clearly based on the Taito classic, Qix. Auto Shop has you rebuilding a bicycle by rotating the analog sticks. Gym class offers both wrestling and dodge ball. And the Photography class has you going out on the campus and taking pictures.
Each of these six classes features five levels of difficulty, so you will end up having to go back to them until you've done everything that has been asked of you. Complete all five levels and you will have no reason to return to that classroom, ultimately freeing up a lot of your time to focus on the main (and side) missions. And best of all, when you complete one of the classes you earn upgrades for your character that you can use for the rest of the game. Complete enough English classes and you'll be able to talk your way out of any situation and sweet talk all of the pretty girls (and the ugly ones, too), do well in auto shop and unlock faster bicycles, etc.
As I started Bully I wondered if 30 classes were going to be enough for the entire game, when you're going through two a day it seems like you would bust through them long before the story ended. Come to find out 30 classes was really the right amount for this game; I finished my final class test just before doing the final missions. As cool as the six classes are, though, I found myself disappointed that other subjects were avoided. Where's Math? Or what about band class? Certainly Bullworth Academy teaches some sort of History course, right? These are all staples of a well-rounded school curriculum, yet none of these subjects are available in this game.
While it's easy to compare Bully's game play to that of Grand Theft Auto, the tone and maturity level could not be more different. This is not the type of game where you kill gangers, run down pedestrians and deliver drugs. This is not Grand Theft Auto in a school or a "Columbine Simulator," like some parents groups (and a certain Florida lawyer) would like you to believe. This is a rather innocent story about a tough kid who fights to the top, while also falling in love, attending class and figuring out a way to bring the jocks and nerds together. Although there is fighting, it's nowhere near the level of Grand Theft Auto and its clones. The violence in Bully isn't extreme at all, there's no blood and nobody gets killed. It's no worse than a lot of movies and TV shows based around teenagers (it is rated T for Teen, after all).
What sets Bully apart from the rest of the crowd is all of the crazy stuff you get to do. Jimmy is about more than just beating up bullies and going to class, you also have to perform a whole bunch of school-centric activities, many of which prove to be both humorous and satisfying. In one mission you'll be egging your least favorite teacher's house, while in the next mission you have to steal the school's mascot costume without the jocks realizing it. And the missions don't take a break during holidays, on Halloween Jimmy gets to dress up as a skeleton and pull a whole lot of spooky pranks on both the students and faculty of Bullworth Academy.
It's the fact that these missions are so engaging that makes Bully so much fun. This is much more than just another Grand Theft Auto-style game with a different setting and paintjob, the differences run much deeper than that. It's this high school setting that allows Rockstar Vancouver the opportunity to try out things they would never have been able to do in another game. And best of all, the missions don't have the repetition you are used to in this kind of game; there's always something new and interesting to do next. Sometimes that means you have to steal panties in the girl's dorm, sometimes it means you'll be keeping the bottles of alcohol away from your teacher, and sometimes that means that you will be climbing to the very highest point in the city of Bullworth and writing your own message with spray paint. There are still a few missions that will remind you of other Rockstar Games titles, but most of the stuff you get to do in Bully is fresh and original.
Speaking of things that are fresh and original, the entire cast of Bully makes the whole game worth playing through. All of the various cliques have their own unique personalities, all of which are the epitome of stereotypes. The jocks, for example, are big and tough, but don't expect them to solve any puzzles or do anything that involves using their brains. The nerds, on the other hand, are as smart as they can be, but you can take one of them down in a single punch. Thankfully there's more to Bully than just stereotypical cliques, there are also a bunch of teachers that are worth paying attention to. While most of the adults are cruel and evil (much more so than the students), there are a few teachers that really stand out. I especially love hanging out with the alcoholic English teacher, who just happens to be dating the art teacher. All of these characters (and countless others) keep Bully's story moving in interesting directions, they go a long way to giving the game personality.
Along with more than fifty different missions, Bully also features a number of interesting mini-games to waste your time with. Like Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row before it, Bully offers you a chance to take part in a bunch of exciting bike races. There is also a soccer mini game, dodge ball, and several different addictive arcade machines found around town. Some of the mini-games actually resemble classic video games from the 1980s, such as the boxing mini-game that plays exactly like Mike Tyson's Punch Out and the paper route which feels a lot like Paperboy (complete with dogs chasing you and cars pulling out at all the wrong times). With so much to do in Bullworth it's easy to completely forget about the essentials, like going to class and helping out your fellow students.
Throughout his time at Bullworth Academy, Jimmy is constantly being introduced to new items, weapons and accessories. Sometimes it's as simple as marbles or a slingshot, other times it's a high powered potato gun (which is the closest you get to guns in this game). Along the way you will be able to pick up all sorts of odds and ends laying on the ground, including bats, Frisbees, soccer balls, and garbage can lids. You will also be able to use a couple of different modes of transportation to get you from point A to point B faster. Early on you are given a skateboard, which gives you a slight speed advantage when running from angry jocks, hall monitors or the police. You will also be able to peddle your way across Bullworth in a few different bicycles, all of which control almost exactly like the bikes in San Andreas. If the bikes and skateboards aren't fast enough for you, then why not steal a moped? This small, motorized scooter is about the closest thing Bully has to drivable cars (there are other vehicles driving around the streets, but you can't jack them).
Thankfully you won't need any high speed race cars since the city of Bullworth is fairly small. That's not to say that Bully's location is tiny and crowded, it's about half the size of Liberty City. What Bully manages to do is successfully model itself after a small town in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains and forests. You have the school's large campus to explore, as well as a downtown area, residential housing, an industrial area, a trailer park, an insane asylum and even a large carnival (full of silly mini-games and rides). The city of Bullworth is full realized, every inch of land is unique with no duplicate houses, buildings or factories. The city is full of detail; it's a genuine joy to run around all of the areas looking for every last hidden item. With Bully Rockstar continues to prove that they are the masters at crafting open landscapes that are realistic and fun to search.
The city of Bullworth is merely one part of what makes Bully such an attractive game. The entire game is filled with great looking character models and architecture. The game does have some problems when it comes to displaying the landscape at great distances, but with so much detail you can almost forgive some of the engine's shortcomings. None of the characters in Bully are very realistic, but that doesn't matter when you're watching the great animation found in each and every cinema scene. Every part of this game has personality, it all has its place and feels like it was meant to be there. Bully doesn't try to bite off more than it can chew, instead it creates a great looking world that is as much fun to look at as it is to explore.
The sound in Bully is also top-notch; in fact, I would go as far as to say that the audio department may just be the best part of this game. The voice acting is incredible; everybody plays their roles with conviction. There aren't any big name voice actors in Bully, but you really don't need them when you can get people who are so good at delivering drama and, dare I say it, full on comedy. Bully is a game that is played for laughs; it is easily the funniest game Rockstar Games has ever released. Comedy is not easy to do, especially when you're dealing with voice acting work. Yet no matter how difficult it is, Bully's cast manages to hit all of the right notes and understands comic timing. I found myself spending long stretches of the game just wandering around the school listening to the various conversations that have been written into the game. There's no shortage of funny jokes about school clichés, stupid jocks making stupid comments and insecurity.
Also great is the music. Unlike most Rockstar Games titles, Bully doesn't feature licensed music. Instead it offers a full score that reminded me of the brilliant work rocker-turned-composer Mark Mothersbaugh did for The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore. The music fits perfectly with the mood of Bully; it's one of the few game soundtracks I would actually buy on CD (if it were made available).
Bully is an extremely easy game to recommend, it's a lengthy adventure (clocking in at over 30 hours) full of memorable characters and exciting missions. It's the type of game that will no doubt remind you of everything you loved and hated about high school, all while keeping you engrossed in one of the best stories of the year. With all of these next generation consoles hitting the market it's easy to forget about some of the PlayStation 2 games, but Bully is not something you should pass over. Rockstar's newest game is easily one of the best games I have played all year, an adventure game that will stick with you long after you've finished your final class and graduated from Bullworth Academy.