Rockstar really helped to define the PS2 with the release of Grand Theft Auto 3. While the series was always somewhat popular, GTA 3 really made it known. It also likely helped to sell many PS2s with people wanting to see just what this whole craze was about. Parents complained about the violence, advocacy groups complained and said it corrupted children (and still do, to this day, in regards to the sequels) and, in general, the game was surrounded by tons of hype.
Needless to say, many expected Rockstar’s future entries into the world of gaming to be just as violent and crude as the Grand Theft Auto series. Manhunt was no exception to this rule, being a pretty brutal action game in and of itself. Nor was the Warriors – fighting was pretty key there. However, as of late, Rockstar has shown a different side. Table Tennis on the 360, for example, is about as non-violent as you can get.
Forgetting this recent game, many expected Rockstar’s Bully to be a horribly violent game and to train the next generation of kids to shoot up their schools for fun and profit or some sort of mess like that. However, now that the game is out, it is easy to see that Bully is far more than Grand Theft Auto in school – it is a pretty down-to-earth simulation of what things may really be like in a boarding school -- with some Rockstar flavor, of course.
Bully places you in the role of Jimmy Hopkins, a troublemaker that has been expelled from more than his fair share of schools. Now, you get sent to Bullworth Academy, in hopes of being straightened out. Or, maybe the rest of the schools are tired of dealing with you and this is the last possible choice. Who really knows. However you got here, you’re now a student at Bullworth Academy and you need to make the best of it.
The game is, as expected, a long string of missions. A ton of non-story side missions are tossed in and can be quite fun. They’ll introduce you to some pretty colorful characters – my favorite being the homeless guy that was a former member of the army. Bring him hidden parts of his transistor radio and he’ll teach you some super secret army moves. Most of the other characters you’ll meet will fall into typical high school social groups – preps, jocks, nerds, bullies or greasers. You’ll also have prefects, students who will stop you from being a bad bad boy and take you to the principal’s office. When you get a chance to leave the school, you’ll also run into police officers who, like prefects, don’t like it when you cause trouble.
However, you can’t leave the school for the game’s first chapter – you will, however, be able to roam over most of the school’s grounds and get your feet under you. You’ll get a taste of some of the classes and get to try some missions out. At first, it makes the game feel a bit limited – who wants to only have the school to roam around, anyways? After you get through the chapter, though, the game really opens up and you can do so much more.
Yes, as mentioned in the last paragraph, you have to attend class. Well, have to may be too strong of a word – you’re highly encouraged to attend class. It isn’t useless, either, as class isn’t much more than a minigame. English, for example, jumbles up some letters and asks you to make words out of them. Chemistry is played like a rhythm game. You’ll hit certain buttons as they pass through a box on the screen. “Beating” one of these minigames will unlock new moves, let you kiss girls to get health back (after you get them to like you, of course) or give you the ability to make certain weapons in your room. I really liked this idea of class not being a meaningless element of gameplay and being vital to it instead – you are in school, after all.
Outside of class, you’ll have a lot you can do. Missions make up the bulk of the game and they’re pretty damn entertaining right from the start. Each mission starts in normal Grand Theft Auto fashion – you’ll get some story (that you can skip) and then go into the mission. Your map on the top of the screen makes finding the mission areas pretty easy and, well, I like that. Some may argue that it makes the game a bit too easy, but it really makes it so you don’t have to spend tons of time finding the library. You’ll eventually learn the way around, anyways, but this way you aren’t forced into it early on while learning the game.
Doing these missions isn’t always easy, though. Your early part of the day is pretty rigidly structured. You go to class in the morning and the afternoon. Skipping class to do a mission will mean that you’ll have to avoid the prefects somehow so they don’t take you to class after busting you for truancy. Getting away from them isn’t that hard, though, so it isn’t much more than a minor annoyance. Also, the school closes at 7 PM – that leaves you all of a few in game hours to do any mission involving the actual school. Curfew is 11 PM, so you have to be in bed by then or, you guessed it, the prefects will bust you. Pretty much, you’ll have to pay very close attention to the time and make sure you don’t miss anything you have to do and that you get certain missions done at the right time of the day. It actually makes sense in a twisted sort of way, though – and hey, you don’t have to sit down and do homework too.
Outside of the school, there’s still a lot to do. You can go to a carnival, you can play arcade games or you can just ride a bike around. You can even take on some jobs to make money, be it flipping burgers, mowing lawns, doing a paper route or running various errands for people around town. Each of these activities are entertaining in their own way (save for some of the delivery stuff, it can get boring) and give you a chance to make cash to buy new clothes. What is so cool about them, though, is that they’re jobs a kid of Jimmy’s age would likely have. I still remember mowing lawns for money and doing a paper route myself.
Of course, Rockstar didn’t totally leave combat out of the question. While it is far from the main focus of the game, it is a pretty well done system with only one real fault. You’ll be able to punch, kick and headbutt your way to victory in fights with various people around the school and out in town. Simply lock on with the L1 button and you’ll be able to start a brawl (or even try to apologize to end one). As the game progresses, you’ll learn moves from various sources, expanding your somewhat limited starting repertoire. Pressing buttons harder or softer and holding them will allow for different moves as will grabbing an opponent before swinging. You can even humiliate them when their health gets low – Indian burns, face slapping and more! Each of the factions may be weaker or tougher, too – nerds go down without much of a fight while many of the jocks are pretty good fighters. The only real fault I’ve found in the combat system involves the lock-on. Sometimes, it can take a few tries to get the target you really want and, if they’re close to someone else, you’ll still throw punches that could harm multiple people. Good when you’re fighting two jocks but bad when you’re trying to defend a nerd from a bully.
Of course, doing something wrong will obviously piss off authority figures. Take the prefects, for example. They’re represented by red dots on your minimap. They all have certain paths they walk and, if you’re in trouble, you’ll see their vision cone. If you can hide in a locker or trash can before they see you, you’ll be safe. Otherwise, you either have to apologize to them (a skill you learn in class) or try to run from them. Getting away from them is admittedly easy, though they will occasionally catch you. Getting caught isn’t that big of a deal, though – you’ll lose some items from your inventory and then have to do detention. The only time I’ve been caught and had to do detention, I had to mow part of the lawn outside of the school – yet another minigame.
I really can’t forget to mention the game’s music and graphics either. The music, composed by Shawn Lee (website at http://www.shawnlee.net/) is catchy and very appropriate to the situation. Prefects will chase you to a certain beat while nerds have a very expected song of their own. Each of these musical bits add to the overall atmosphere of the game and make for a fun experience. The graphics are also top-notch, particularly for a PS2 game. Running on the Grand Theft Auto engine, Bully looks better due to having less stuff to draw on the screen at any given time. There’s also no real pop up in the graphics nor is there much noticeable graphical lag. Rockstar did a great job with the graphics and sound here.
Bully, overall, is yet another reason that I wish console generations lasted longer than 5 years. Rockstar has really pulled out all the stops here to make Bully an entertaining game that truly showcases the power of the PS2. With the system finally hitting its stride, I only can imagine what potentially may have been released if the PS3 weren’t launching in a month. Bully is truly a game that is at the top of its class.