It's rare for a game publisher to have an immediately identifiable style, but there's no mistaking Bully for anything other than a Rockstar game. The mechanical comparisons to Grand Theft Auto are fairly apt, though the tone isn't quite as nasty, and your transgressions not as deplorable--if Grand Theft Auto were a felony, Bully would be a misdemeanor. Like GTA, Bully is an engrossing experience that showcases what Rockstar does best: create an evocative caricature of the real world with dark wit, then put you in the role of a thuggish anti-hero who's unafraid of trouble. There's something thoroughly satisfying about getting to play out your prankish schoolboy fantasies, though it's the game's excellence that makes the technical shortcomings specific to Bully: Scholarship Edition on the Xbox 360 so heartbreaking.
Bully takes place primarily at Bullworth Academy, which unmistakably evokes the brick-and-ivy feel of an upscale private New England school. Just beneath its picturesque surface, though, seethes a merciless clique system that has everyone bullying whomever they can. The faculty is no better than the students, consisting of perverts, drunks, bullies, and corrupt megalomaniacs. You get dropped into the middle of this ruthless sociopolitical microcosm as 15-year-old Jimmy Hopkins, a freckled fireplug of a kid who has a keen disrespect for authority, as well as a general distaste for being bullied. Based on his propensity for violence, as well as the ease with which other characters are able to lead him into doing their bidding for them, Jimmy could easily be a descendant of Vice City protagonist Tommy Vercetti. While Tommy favored automatic weapons and vehicular manslaughter, Jimmy tends to trade in schoolyard brawls and slingshots.
Though the story ostensibly revolves around your dealings with a conniving classmate named Gary, a medicated sociopath with designs on running the whole school, you'll spend most of your time infiltrating and overthrowing the various cliques at Bullworth, one at a time. As grim as the setting and story might sound, Bully manages to maintain a cheeky sense of humor throughout, often evoking the slobs-versus-snobs tone of an 80s teen comedy. You'll leave a flaming surprise in front of the door of the teacher's lounge on Halloween, egg the rich kid's house, go on a late-night panty raid in the girl's dorm, sabotage the big football game, and eventually become the big man on campus. The storytelling itself can be a little clunky at times--you have virtually no contact with your nemesis for most of the game, and certain subplots are abruptly left to whither and die--but the tone is much more consistent.
Part of what really sets Bully apart from your typical open-world game is the greater sense of structure inherent to going to school. You've got classes twice a day, which play out as thematically appropriate minigames that can be fun, and which confer various bonuses when completed successfully. Of course, juvenile delinquent that you are, you can also choose to skip class, though if you do you'll have to keep a keen eye out for school prefects and other authority figures keen on dragging you back to class. The same goes for if you're caught outside your dorm after curfew. Unlike the apparently meth-addicted GTA protagonists for whom day and night are a single, uninterrupted blur, Jimmy needs a good six hours of sleep a night, and if he's not in a bed by 2AM, he'll pass out on the spot. While all this might sound restrictive, it's loose enough that you have plenty of time to take on missions and get up to all types of no good.
You do plenty of scrapping in Bully, though what's most interesting about the combat is the way it's influenced by your current social standing. The cliques in Bully are much like the gangs in GTA--taking on missions for one clique will invariably affect your standing with another, which will affect how aggressive certain students are towards you. Jimmy's good with his fists and can handle most one-on-one brawls with ease, though if you get overwhelmed it's not hard to run away, hide in a trash can, or duck into a nearby locker. You can use diplomacy and bribes to keep antagonistic students and prefects off your case, and this same system allows you to court the ladies (and a few of the fellas) around campus, plying them with chocolates and flowers for a quick, health-replenishing make-out session.
As you progress through the story, you'll start to explore the nearby city of Bullworth, which provides a cutting portrayal of a sleepy little town stratified by class, and you'll also gain access to a skateboard, and later on, a bike that make travel easier. A well-realized open world is only really meaningful if there's lots of fun stuff to do, and in this regard, Bully is a veritable playground of mischief. A quick look at the in-game stats screen gives you a good sense of what you can do, including, but not limited to, starting food fights, egging cars, throwing firecrackers into toilets, giving wedgies, competing in go-kart and bike races, hitting people with stink bombs, water balloons, and itching powder, take on a paper route, mowing lawns, shoveling snow, entering boxing matches, taking photos for the school yearbook, spraying graffiti, breaking into lockers, playing arcade games, and more. The individual activities aren't always terribly engaging on their own, but the sheer volume more than makes up for it.
Bully: Scholarship Edition sports a few new bells and whistles not found in the original PlayStation 2 version, including eight new missions, four new classes, and four new characters. Based on the few hours of Bully that I played when it originally hit the PS2, their impact on the single-player game seem subtle. There are also a handful of two-player minigames that have been adapted from some of the carnival and classroom minigames found in the single-player game, but without the greater context they're forgettable. The visual fidelity of Bully has been improved considerably in bringing it to the 360, with cleaner textures, better lighting, and HD support, though it's still blocky enough that you can tell this is a slightly gussied up PS2 game. The music is absolutely fantastic, with an overall sound that I can only describe as sounding like a 1960s spy movie scored by Danny Elfman, before he completely ran out of ideas. I rarely care for video game soundtracks outside the context of the game, but the music in Bully is just so unique and catchy that it's still compelling entirely on its own.
Sadly, a good deal of the goodwill that Bully: Scholarship Edition rightfully deserves is undercut by persistent frame-rate issues, long load times, weird draw-distance issues, and a general instability that caused the game to lock up a good half-dozen times on me. Rockstar has since released a downloadable update for the game that purports to address this stuff, though on the two relatively new Xbox 360s that I've tested the game on, it actually makes things worse, adding flickery textures and skipping audio to the existing problems. I've heard scattered anecdotes claiming that the patch does in fact smooth out the game's technical wrinkles for some people, so it might be a bit of a crap shoot as to whether the patch will do anything for you or not.
As much of a bummer as the bugginess of Bully: Scholarship Edition for the Xbox 360 is, the underlying game is still extremely well-crafted, and I was happy to sink a good 20 hours into the game, though a good portion of that time was admittedly spent chasing after achievement points. Whether you'll want to do the same will hinge on your tolerance for technical issues, and your desire to act out your misanthropic high-school fantasies.