Rockstar's child friendly effort deserves your attention
Going into Bully: Scholarship Edition I was definitely excited to try a completely different experience from one of my favorite publishers, Rockstar Games. Being a huge fan of Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt and Max Payne I wanted to see whether the usually adult company could create a world and story not involving murders, drugs and the usual Rockstar conventions. What I got was a fantastic concept with likeable characters and varied gameplay. Bully stands alone as a completely different experience to the rest of the open world market and makes egging cars and panty raiding just as fun as performing drug deals and killing prostitutes. Let me explain why Bully should be played by all genre fans.
The story of Bully sees problem child Jimmy Hopkins being dropped off at his new school by his mother and step father ready to start the next year. As Jimmy soon finds out the school consists of many cliques and he must take control of all these groups if he is to survive his time at Bullworth academy. What starts as a pretty interesting foundation for a compelling story unfortunately never takes off and never really expands beyond the opening cinematic. I found the story to be disappointing and incredibly boring compared to other Rockstar titles which showed a lot of promise but ultimately didn't go anywhere. Jimmy is a unique protagonist and a breath of fresh air to play as in a market flooded with alpha males and very different to others in previous Rockstar games but I would have liked to have seen him fleshed out more and developed as the story progressed more than just a problem child that fights to survive.
The main story missions involve Jimmy doing various tasks for or against the various cliques such as helping the geeks stand up to the bullies by protecting them as they go to class or angering the jocks by sabotaging a big game of football, in the disguise of the team's mascot of course. The missions are pretty varied and do a good job of making sure you see all of the locations while you are partaking in them. The game does suffer from repetition like most games of this genre do where you will find yourself going to one place, collecting an item and then traveling back to where you started. Typical fetch quests that people will bound to get sick of quickly are unfortunately prevalent and the game could have had less of these filler missions and probably have been a better, shorter experience for it.
One of the main restrictions in this game is time. A clock is always on screen which shows time translating one real life minute to one in game hour and Jimmy must partake in two classes a day until he has passed every class before he can explore Bullworth in peace. Skip class and you will be hounded by the prefects and dragged back to class if they catch you. Perform truancy frequently and you could see yourself in detention, performing tasks such as mowing lawns for free as punishment. I like this mechanic as it makes the game very realistic but these restrictions on an open world game will surely frustrate a majority of its audience. If you've played similar games with these time mechanics such as Pikmin or Dead Rising like myself, this won't be a problem at all.
The classes which you should partake in during your school days consist of many different mini games such as making as many words as you can from a set of letters in English, to learning new fighting moves by wrestling in P.E. I enjoyed these mini games as it really broke up the gameplay nicely and was a good change of pace for an open world game to do something entirely different each day. Dodge ball is great fun albeit slightly easy and the benefits you unlock in class such as an ungraded bicycle in Shop class definitely make turning up to class worth your time.
The graphics are pretty nice and better than I was expecting for this game. Although it is a remake, the game originally only came out in 2006 so graphically the game is pretty much a HD version of a nice looking title in the first place . Aesthetically the game looks quite cartoony which fits great with the setting and humor of the game and is a very nice change to the darker adult Rockstar titles. To have a upbeat lighter more child friendly atmosphere although doesn't sound appealing at first, really is a delight.
The controls work well with a simple but nice combat system and good use of weapons such as the slingshot and faster traveling available at all times with the skateboard which again handles better than you would assume. Aiming with the slingshot is quite odd and takes some getting used to if you are trying to line up a specific shot. However when fighting enemies the lock on feature works just fine.
Probably the worst part about the entire game is the appalling almost non existent soundtrack. Rockstar titles pride themselves on having some of the best soundtracks in all of Video games but it's like they forgot to add one to this game. It contains no commercial music whatsoever and the music in this game is used to create atmosphere, such as getting more dramatic when a prefect is chasing you. However, in a large game like this it becomes tedious very quickly and I'm glad they never bought this idea over to their bigger franchises.
A part that really surprised me whilst playing Bully was how well the open world has been created considering the game is pretty linear. Of course Rockstar specialize in this but this title really didn't need such a vibrant and realistic town in the background but really adds to the realism of the game. The carnival in particular is fantastic with working rides and attractions, something that isn't even prevalent in the GTA games. (Previous GTA games have had non working rides and Vice City Stories had a working Ferris wheel but not a whole carnival. GTA IV originally had working rides but was removed from the final game).
The game has a ton of extra features that accompany the main story throughout your experience including side missions (errands), races (bicycle and go kart), jobs such as paper route and lawn mowing and tons of mini games throughout. These include boxing, penalty shoot outs and the tons of different games and attractions at the carnival which I mentioned earlier. Overall the game took me about 16 hours finish the main story but that was with doing tons of exploring in-between the missions such as doing every race and job. To get the full 100% including every collectible took another 6 hours after the story was finished so overall you definitely get a lot of value with this game and have plenty of reasons to continue playing after story completion.
One of the main problems I had with this game was unfortunately the amount of glitches I ran into. Other than a few small ones here and there that you would expect from an open world game the biggest problems came when glitches prevented me from continuing a mission. For example, one mission you have to go through the fun house at the carnival which was very cool, or would have been had I not had to do it three times due to encountering horrible glitches. First time I tried I couldn't exit a room as the button prompt to leave never came up. The second time I tried to go down a ladder and just got stuck hovering in mid air and I couldn't do anything to move the player. This is incredibly frustrating when you have to reload the game up, potentially losing some of your progress if you don't save frequently and ruins the momentum and immersion of the game.
The thing I enjoyed the most about Bully was definitely the setting as I loved playing as a teenager and doing less adult violent actions in a Rockstar title. Instead of going on murderous rampages I took part in classes, gave wedgies to the bullies and even earned tickets at the carnival games in exchange for a cuddly toy for whatever girl I happened to bring along. Make no mistake this definitely has the Rockstar charm we all know and love but seeing it used in a different way was incredibly refreshing. Their childish humor actually works better with younger characters and as we see franchises like Grand Theft Auto seemingly steering more and more away from this, perhaps Bully is where this humor belongs.
This game takes me back to when I first played Red Dead Revolver. A fantastic setting with a completely different take on the open world that had huge potential but something just didn't click. The undertaking was probably too big at the time and the developers didn't fully understand what they were trying to achieve. Then Red Dead Redemption came out and blew everyone away. Rockstar have never shied away from talking about potential sequels to Bully and it wouldn't surprise if we see them revisit the franchise on the next generation. It really makes you wonder what Rockstar could achieve if they gave Bully 2 the same amount of time and love that Redemption received, we really could see something special.
Until then enjoy this fine underrated, charming game which for some reason seems to have flown under the radar for most which is a massive shame. Bully deserves to be played whether you are a fan of Rockstar Games, or even if you are not. With a fine setting, bags of charm and personality and some pretty solid mechanics, you could do far worse than picking up this game and getting lost in the trials and tribulations of a typical teenage school boy. Typical by Rockstar standards anyway.