Yet another excellent open-ended action title by Rockstar
Rockstar is the king of the hill when it comes to the open-ended action game, and Bully is yet another jewel in that crown. It is an excellent game, and one of the few great third party games on the Wii. It isn't quite as ambitious or addictive as Rockstar's flagship Grand Theft Auto series, but it is every bit as inventive and funny. Bully deserves to be mentioned in the same vein as the PS2 era GTA games, but perhaps one notch below. Some issues such as subpar graphics, minor control issues, and a few lackluster gameplay elements keep Bully out of Game of the Year type territory. Nonetheless, if you missed the Playstation 2 version of the game and you are looking for a great Wii action title, Bully is a very easy game to recommend.
Bully can only vaguely be described as an "action/adventure" game, because is a large amalgamation of gameplay elements. About a third to a half of it is fist fighting. It also has a little bit of sneaking, some racing, item collection, and a lot of minigames. It is a classic example of a game whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. All of the gameplay ranges from passable to enjoyable. What ties everything together so beautifully is Bully's terrific and unique setting, huge cast of entertaining characters, and memorable story. Bully succeeds tremendously at providing a tongue-in-cheek, amusing simulation of teenage life. It is always fun interacting with the world and completing missions, just to see what happens next. Traditional action/adventure gameplay has been adapted perfectly to the setting. Every mission and every minigame draw you into the fictional world as a boy at Bullworth Academy.
Bully is a funny game, because it is full of the quality writing and American cultural satire that Rockstar has also become famous for. The academy is populated by stereotypical cliques of nerds, jocks, cheerleaders, rich snots, all of them portrayed in amusing over-the-top fashion and brought to life by terrific voice acting. The obnoxious faculty has all kinds of rivalries and romance. Sound bites abound everywhere, so that if you do nothing but stand in a hallway and listen to random lines from the students, you can still get a chuckle. You play as Jimmy Hopkins, a classic antihero and one of the more interesting protagonists in a recent video game. Jimmy is somewhat of a free-spirit with a penchant for troublemaking. He stands up to bullies, but it is more out of self-preservation than principle. He is not sadistic or violent, but he has a mean streak and he can pull out his fists when he has to.
The fist fighting is the highlight of the gameplay, having made a solid transition from the PS2 to the Wii. Punch motions with the nunchuk and Wii-mote throw left and right punches on screen. It is often clumsy and unresponsive compared to button pressing, but punching through motion control has a satisfying feel that button pressing can't replicate. At the end of the day, this game probably controlled better on the PS2, but the Wii controls definitely work.
You will need to learn the controls well, because the fighting isn't just a button-mashing beat-em-up. It is a deep system, full of combos and different tactical approaches, which work depending upon who you are fighting and what tactics they are using. A fight against one big boss in a small arena requires vastly different tactics from fighting five enemies in an open space. You can grapple opponents and throw short punches or knees to the gut. You can throw them on the ground and punch them or knee them in the groin. You can also use some basic weapons for ranged attacks. In addition, you can unleash brutal punches and kicks with precise timing of punching gestures. These combos are a lot harder to throw than it might sound. The controls favor short, jab-like gestures, but while you are playing, you will be tempted to make large, flailing, haymaker-like motions with your arms. These motions often don't register cleanly with the game, and that leads to occasional frustration with the controls. On top of that problem, a long, drawn-out fist fight can see you sweating and breathing heavy at the end, kind of like Wii Boxing.
Outstanding mission design is one of the defining traits of the Grand Theft Auto games, and Bully shares that same strength. The missions are fun to play, totally unpredictable, and they sport a huge variety that makes one unlike any other. In these missions, you might find yourself chasing someone down in a bike, protecting somebody from bullies with your slingshot, vandalizing a teacher's house, using your camera to gather evidence, sneaking around the girls' dorm collecting panties, and assaulting an enemy stronghold to beat up the boss. Many missions take a twist halfway through that will have you finishing it totally different from how you started it. The fact that you can play through 50 or 60 missions without ever getting sick of them is a testament to how well they are designed. Rockstar should write a textbook on how to fill an open-ended game with variety. Then they should use it to teach the designers of other open-ended games how not to fill it via copy-and-paste *cough* *cough* Assassins Creed *cough*.
When you are not going through missions or just picking random fights, you might find yourself street racing, either in a go-kart or a bicycle. The racing is acceptable, but it does not excel. The bike racing is somewhat annoying, actually, because it requires you to hammer away at the "A" button vigorously to pedal faster. This motion is so uncomfortable that after a two-minute race you will probably find yourself grabbing at your cramping wrist. The go-kart racing is fun, but it shares a problem with the bike racing – over the top rubberbanding AI. The AI rubber bands so badly in this game that no matter what you do, you can hardly ever win or lose by more than a second or two. If you spin out at the start, you can easily make up a ten second deficit within a minute. If you bolt to a lead, the AI will remain about a second behind you pretty much the entire way. The racing is ultimately too easy. I won about 90% of the races in my first try.
Attending classes is another big part of life at Bullworth Academy. Bully has a unique day-night cycle that loosely simulates teenage academic life, and completing various classes is a big part of it. There are classes in a wide variety of subjects, each of which involves a mini-game. All of the minigames are at least decent, and some of them, like using the Wii-mote for Biology dissection, are quite fun. What makes them all valuable is that each minigames matches its class wonderfully, and the act of going to school and passing classes adds to the game's immersiveness. One slightly annoying feature in the game, however, is the requirement to go to sleep by a certain time every night. The game requires you to spend too much time just running to your bed when you would rather be doing other things. And my word, are there a lot of things you can do. You can set off firecrackers in toilets, hand out wedgies, stuff people in lockers, slap "Kick Me" signs on people's backs and watch the mayhem, pick locks, shop for new clothes, grab girls' behinds, explore the world to collect items, spray tags, play minigames, and many others.
Bully is a game infused with a lot of attention to detail, but that doesn't keep it from looking outdated. The game has hardly been upgraded from the PS2 version, if at all. The game renders some huge environments, but makes up for it with low polygon counts and low details everywhere on textures and characters. Combine those problems with jagged edges an each shape and object pop-in, and Bully is a really ugly game, even for the Wii. Nice art direction and creativity improve the game's aesthetics, but is ultimately a port from an outdated console onto another outdated console. Graphics are not the primary attraction for Bully, but the ugly graphics are still disappointing.
There is a lot of stuff to do in Bully, and if you wanted to, you could spend 40 or 50 hours playing this game to reach 100% complete. The story quests take maybe 15-20 hours to get through. There is a lot of content in this game, and regardless of your play style, you should easily be able to get your money's worth out of it.
If you didn't notice this game come out, and you have any interest in open-ended action games, then don't let this one pass you by. It might not go down as an all time masterpiece, but it is one of the best games on the Wii. Bully is only slightly below Rockstar's best games, and that is saying a lot. The great setting, story, and mission design will constantly keep you coming back for more.