Bully: Scholarship Edition for Xbox 360
I really, really wanted to like this game. I love Rockstar and their approach to making games, how they can create so many products built around the same structure and yet still feel so distinct. It’s become pretty clear to me lately however that Rockstar games fit into two distinct phases, the ‘GTA3’ phase encompassing GTA3, San Andreas, Manhunt and Bully and the ‘GTA4’ phase encompassing GTA4, Red Dead Redemption and LA Noire. Although there is significant criticism levelled by long term fans at the sobering effect GTA4 had upon Rockstar games, after playing Bully it’s hard not to think that things have really only got better, and that this love for ‘old style’ Rockstar games is simply nostalgia.
Bully tells the tale of Jimmy Hopkins, a juvenile delinquent enrolled in the prestigious Bullworth Academy by his mother to get rid of him whilst she goes on a world cruise with her new husband. Bully, I’m sure intentionally, mimics the GTA structure of slowly rising to power in a microcosmic school setting. Acting in a similar way to gangs in GTA, Bullworth is ruled by different factions whose support Jimmy must gain, the jocks, the nerds, the greasers, the preps and the townies. Behind it all is Gary, a sociopathic genius who at first takes Jimmy under his wing before turning on him, manipulating the school to bring about Jimmy’s downfall. The story hits a lot of familiar notes, but I suspect that that was sort of the point. Jimmy is a surprisingly likeable protagonist; he sort of reminds me of those people who seemed scary in school but actually turned out at heart to be decent guys. While sympathetic figures, Niko in GTA4 and John Marston in Red Dead Redemption are doubtless hardened criminals, so it is interesting playing a character who still has the potential to turn out alright. The supporting cast are entertaining caricatures, and they all feel distinct and memorable, with some really great character designs. The voice acting is top notch; it is Rockstar after all. Bullworth is an enjoyable location to explore, with plenty of entertaining places of interest. There’s no real nuance or subtlety to the plot, and after the complexity of GTA4 and Red Dead Redemption I missed it here, but perhaps it’s unfair to judge the game on what it’s not. There’s potential here that’s untapped, and whilst I may have liked a slightly more complex narrative, what we’re left with is still a relatively enjoyable yarn.
So, to the gameplay itself. It’s…it’s really really bad. Almost without exception. Jimmy handles horribly, the player is in a constant struggle with the camera and everything feels really…loose. There’s not really a word for it. It all just feels wrong. The game is filled with mechanics which don’t quite work. The terrible, inappropriate stealth section in a game built around mechanics which don’t fit stealth pops up a lot in gaming, and in the long and storied history of this mechanic, I cannot truly think of a worse implementation of stealth than in this game. Every stealth section is agonising to go through, with the lack of a cover system and enemies which seem able to spot you through walls or out of the back of their head. The stealth sections are the worst of the bunch, but there are plenty of others which don’t quite work. There’s an underused photography mechanic, and the bike handling is really weird and to keep any kind of speed requires constant tapping of the ‘A’ button. The classes which Jimmy attends at Bullworth take the form of little mini games; most are basic Quick Time Events, and the only ones which provided me with any enjoyment where the arithmetic, geography and literacy classes in which the player simply selects the correct answer to what the teacher asks. When the most enjoyable aspect of your game is, essentially, a round of trivial pursuit, you know that something must have gone wrong. I’m pleased to report that the combat isn’t nearly as bad as many of the other mechanics, but it’s hardly engaging, relying on simple combos and grapples. The game attempts to be a jack of all trades, yet compared to other games which take this approach such as Darksiders, the disparate elements never come together into a coherent whole. The brawling is better in GTA4, the skateboarding in the Tony Hawk games, the photography in Beyond Good and Evil and the stealth in Thief. Is there anything which redeems this game then? Yes, actually quite a lot.
You see, whilst this game is a technical and mechanical mess, there really is nothing else like it. The whole game is based around a schedule, with classes taking place between certain times and missions only activating at particular times of the day. This lends Bullworth an organic feeling which feels thoroughly ahead of its time. Although other great open world environments had already been created when this game was first released in 2006, such as Morrowind or San Andreas, there were none which felt quite as vivid and real, in the way of Skyrim or Red Dead Redemption. Bullworth is an incredibly engaging setting, and it’s truly a shame that such a fun and interesting environment is so squandered with gameplay as mediocre as this. The whole vibe of the game is pretty cool, and it definitely offers something which I have never seen before. Graphically the game looks like…well, a PS2 game. Some games can simply receive a nice HD upgrade and still look great, such as Okami or Resident Evil 4, but Bully looks incredibly dated. The game is from that difficult period in gaming which lacks retro charm, yet cannot technically support realism. Games with distinct visual styles, such as The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, have aged much better, but any game which attempted a ‘realistic’ style in this period almost invariably looks terrible.
Perhaps I’m being too hard on Bully. I suspect that upon its initial release on the PS2 in 2006 it was a sensation, and it’s almost unanimously positive reviews elsewhere testify to this. However, I’m not reviewing this game in 2006. The purpose of this review is to suggest whether you should buy this game now, in 2012, and I’m genuinely saddened to say that you shouldn’t. Don’t get me wrong, Rockstar should be applauded for having made this game, and I sincerely hope that they create a sequel after GTA5. It’s just aged so incredibly badly, that unless you’ve played it before and want a nice little HD update for 360 to feed your nostalgia, there’s no reason to play this game.