A class act.
High School was a long time ago for me, but Bully
brought a lot of memories flooding back, forcing me to face the truth: I was a juvenile delinquent
. The game is certainly causing controversy
because the main character, Jimmy Hopkins, does plenty of things that teachers and parents don’t approve of, and they feel it might incite teenagers to do the same.
I nearly fell into that old man trap myself, until I realized I did pretty much all the same things when I was in school. Ditch class? Yep. Get in fights? Sometimes. Petty theft? Sure. Smash pumpkins on Halloween? Of course. Egging someone’s house? Duh. Pranks? You better believe it. I even got myself expelled once, just like Jimmy.
But it was when I took a break from playing to go get some fish tacos that I finally understood it wasn’t just me, and that High School really did suck. At an outside table that they had clearly chosen because restaurant employees couldn’t see them, were four fourteen or fifteen year old boys. They were making stupid boasts, punching each other in the arm, using their water cups to steal sodas from the self-serve fountain, and raiding the salsa bar for handfuls of jalepeno peppers they were hurling at each other. At least until a cranky adult chased them off.
I realized that Rockstar had gotten it exactly right. They nailed it. Bully is a reflection of how annoying it really is to be a teenager, not a troublemaker’s manual. The surly attitude, the lack of respect, the supreme confidence that you already know everything; it’s all there. Every generation has its own version of the story – The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Rebel Without a Cause. In The Wild Ones, a young Marlon Brando puts it best: “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” a lady asks him. With a small sneer and a cocked eyebrow he replies, “What’ve you got?”
Well, what Rockstar’s got is its own bold rebellion against the self righteous, and it’s a good game to boot. Our protagonist Jimmy has been expelled from school again, and ends up at the boarding school Bullworth Academy. Unfortunately, the school is a haven for bullies, and a sink-or-swim environment. There are four main cliques that should sound familiar: the Nerds, the Preppies, the Greasers, and the Jocks.
All Jimmy really wants is to be left alone, and for some of the bullies to just lay off. Sometimes that requires stealth and trickery, other times it requires fists. Most of the gameplay is a lot like Rockstar’s other big franchise, Grand Theft Auto
, only with no guns and no autos. Jimmy has a slingshot, firecrackers, and a skateboard among other youthful implements of destruction.
Jimmy also has several classes, each with their own mini-game. In a brilliant bit of design, you actually want to go to class, because passing makes you better. Follow the button presses to pass a level of chemistry, and now you can make stink bombs. Passing shop classes unlocks new BMX bikes for you to ride. Play word games in English, and you can talk yourself out of trouble. Or play a version of Qix in art class and learn how to woo the girls. If only my own school had been so motivating.
In fact, there are tons of games-within-games in Bully. Every arcade machine you run across is playable. Go to the carnival and every booth is another game of skill, from throwing a baseball at the dunk tank, to the shooting gallery, where you can win tickets for prizes. You can even ride all the rides, although there’s no game involved. It’s great attention to detail.
Bullworth Academy and surrounding Bullworth Town is also dotted with missions. Some will move the main story forward as Jimmy negotiates through the school cliques, some will unlock other bonuses, and tons of side missions will earn you cash. You can even pick up a job delivering papers or mowing lawns. Unfortunately, as a fifteen year old, you don’t really need much money, so there’s little reason to do the side missions.
There is, however, a reason to kiss the girls, as you get a health bonus, although I wish it were a little harder than just handing them flowers. Some more depth to the dating and then finding yourself a girlfriend would have been great. Never backing down
in the face of political bullies, Rockstar also lets you kiss the boys
if you can figure out which ones are gay, or at least experimental
. Rock on, guys.
They do pull some punches though with language, alcohol and drugs. Bullworth is remarkably free of these vices, and although that wasn’t my thing in school, I certainly knew several people whose sports bottles were half full of vodka, or who smoked joints in the library bathrooms. Forget about the parties on the weekends.
Powering it all is the now well-honed GTA engine, and it looks good. School is bustling with students, the framerate is smooth, and you can skate from one end of town to the other with no loading times at all. When you get in a fight, it looks especially good. The hit detection works well and the punches and kicks look visceral and real.
Bully sounds even better than it looks, with good voice acting, be it the quivering plea of the Nerd, the aggressive bluster of a Jock, or the fake British accent of the snobby Preppies. You can almost hear the sneer in Jimmy’s “Whatever.” And the terrific, Elfman-esque original music is worth an award all on its own.
While the game closely follows Jimmy’s expertly penned story, I still would have liked to see more free-form, choose-your-own-adventure gameplay. It would have been awesome to do well in class, wear a pocket protector, and punk bullies as the Nerd Knight
. Or buy yourself a leather jacket, slick back your hair and help the Greasers beat up on those pompous Preppies. But instead of allowing you to pick a faction and stick with it, you’re in for a fairly linear ride as Jimmy’s status rises and falls with the different groups after each mission.
But that’s a minor blemish on an otherwise star pupil. Smart, stylish, and original, Bully deserves a spot in your class. And concerned soccer-moms can at least be thankful that it wasn’t based on that horrifying, violent story of thirteen year old gangsters who ran around terrorizing the city and stabbing each other to death. What was that one called again? Oh yeah, Romeo and Juliet.