Bully: Scholarship Edition Review
Bully first charged onto the gaming playground in late 2006 as a PS2 exclusive; it enjoyed great critical success, moderate sales and, like most Rockstar titles, waves of unwarranted controversy. Those unfamiliar with Bully, and games in general (see Jack Thompson) pegged it as Grand Theft Auto aimed at children. Of course, this meant any impressionable young tyke exposed to it would go on to become a serial killer, rapist, drug dealer or all of the above. Big surprise, none of this turned out to be true and here we are, just over a year later, revisiting the adolescent antics in Bully: Scholarship Edition for the Xbox 360 (reviewed here) and Nintendo Wii. This revamped version includes the entire original game but also adds updated visuals, extra missions and new classroom mini-games. So, does it make the grade or earn a day in detention?
Even without the next-gen bells and whistles Bully is a must-play experience for anyone who enjoys a great sandbox style game. Playing as tough teen Jimmy Hopkins, gamers are dropped into an open-world environment offering seemingly endless gameplay possibilities. The story begins at the gates of Bullworth Academy, a New England boarding school priding itself in breaking the mischief makers other schools can't control. Bullworth soon discovers it's got its hands full when Jimmy arrives, but young Mr. Hopkins is also in for a rude awakening as the campus is crawling with new-kid-hating cliques. In fact, much of the game involves Jimmy helping, conning or beating the bejesus out of various members of these stereotypical factions--jocks, preps, greasers and nerds--in a variety of story-based missions, mini-games and side quests.
Despite the game's menacing title and frequent fisticuffs, Jimmy is more a man of the people, a schoolyard Robin Hood of sorts, generally helping those in need and sticking up for the little guys. That said, he's certainly no angel either; he pulls his share of weasely pranks, gives a good wedgie and is often looking out for number one as most missions earn him money or raise his standing among a specific group. Disrupt the jocks' football practice, for example, and the nerds will love you, but try sneaking into their beloved observatory, and you'll have to get past the brainiac brigade. Jimmy's actions and the game in general actually have more in common with Dennis the Menace than Grand Theft Auto; you won't find any guns or grenades, here. Jimmy's more innocent arsenal includes a sling shot, itching powder, stink bombs and firecrackers. And far from the hooker-beating and gangsta-capping action of GTA, Jimmy's missions include tasks such as retrieving stolen comic books, running errands for the lunch lady and convincing the popular girls to kiss him. These challenges and countless others support an equally astounding amount of gameplay variety, ensuring you'll constantly discover new things to do, and will never suffer from boredom or the grind of repetitive tasks.
Head to biology class for a cool Trauma Center-like mini-game or see if you make the grade in math class where quick-thinking challenges will be instantly familiar to Brain Age fans. Not feeling studious? No problem--skip class (carefully making sure the corridor patrolling prefects don't catch you) and grab a bike to enter one of many races, or earn some extra coin delivering newspapers or mowing lawns. You could also walk a protection-needing nerd to the library, hit the campus store for some slick new school crest-emblazoned digs, or maybe just crash the cafeteria and instigate a food fight. There's no end to what you can do and, like the GTA titles, you can set your own pace. Move along quickly, sticking to specific story-driving missions or take your time with diverting side quests. Either way, you'll have a blast as nearly all activities are simple yet fun, and supported by side-splitting comedic writing. Whether you're leading a panty raid for the perv gym teacher or learning new fighting combos from the local hobo, Bully consistently offers laugh-out-loud moments delivered by engaging, well-developed characters. One skewering bit, following Jimmy's beat-down of a preppy in the boxing ring, sees an elitist trust-fund kid describing the true traits of a champion as "breeding, nepotism and snobbery."
This killer combination of sharp writing and variety-filled gameplay is buoyed by a truly original presentation. Bully is broken into five chapters, unfolding over a school year and incorporating day/night cycles and seasonal changes. The former moves pretty quickly--one actual minute equals one in-game hour--and staying out too late or carousing when you should be in class or bed will get the attention of prefects, cops and teachers. The latter generally changes with the game's chapters, and is wonderfully given life by small touches like Halloween and Christmas decorations, falling snow and autumn leaves. Skateboard through campus in the winter, for example, and your board will leave tracks in the snow as you pass students decked in ear muffs, scarfs and hats--great stuff!
Bully is a good size game, especially when you open up Bullworth Academy's surrounding areas; good and bad neighborhoods, downtown areas with stores and barber shops and even a creepy carnival, complete with rides and games, are open for exploration. But for those like myself, slightly overwhelmed by the sheer size of other sandbox games, it offers a far more accessible entry into the genre that never feels unmanageable. A helpful map ensures you'll never get lost and multiple bus stops and save points will get you to class and bed on time.
In terms of content the SE material exceeds the original with new missions, classes and multi-player modes. Highlights include Christmas-set missions where you help a drunken Santa and get to beat up some elves--who hasn't wanted to slap around Santa's little helpers--and a music class that plays like a mini Guitar Hero game. The added multi-player takes some of the in-game challenges and allows you to go head-to-head with a local opponent. Seeing who can dissect a frog the fastest provides some modest amusement, but in the age of Rock Band and Super Smash Bros. Brawl I can't imagine anyone sticking with these two-player challenges for very long. Visually, Bully has received a noticeable upgrade that'll be especially apparent to anyone who played the PS2 version on their HD display--not pretty. Unfortunately, the sharper visuals also come with some pop-in, frame-rate hitches and the occasional show-stopping crash. While these tech glitches would kill most titles, Bully's addictive play and endless charm generally elevate it beyond any fun-halting flaws. Plus, Rockstar has promised a fix-all patch.
If you've already graduated through the PS2 version, then I'd recommend this edition not so much for its added content, but for the brilliant way it's incorporated Xbox 360 Achievement Points. If you're even remotely addicted to the satisfying "clink" that emits from your speakers every time you complete one of these point-accumulating tasks, then Bully's got your back. There was no real incentive to administer 50 wedgies or convince 25 chicks to lock lips with me in the PS2 version, but on the 360 these goals had me addicted all over again. Forget about ruling the school, I was more concerned with running just one more errand so I could unlock the all important "Mama's Boy" achievement.
If you missed this one on the PS2, then now's the time to enroll in this deeply entertaining open-world romp. Just don't expect the violence-fueled formula of GTA; in fact, Bully will more likely have you recalling the adolescent fun featured in films like Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Breakfast Club and even A Christmas Story. Whether you're a gamerscore hog that's already played Bully, or completely new to this school, I can't recommend this one enough. Next to the countless genre clones in the 360 library, Bully: Scholarship Edition stands at the head of the class, easily earning an A for originality.