When I initially walked through the gates of Bullworth Academy, the first student to walk past me yelled "I hate you!" Later on, I had that same kid eating out the palm of my hand. That's pretty much the character arc of Bully. You, as career ne'er-do-well Jimmy Hopkins, show up at a new school full of fools, and you end up as Mr. Popular.
Not really the school slaying simulator that certain crusading lawyers and easily-swayed-by-the-press-release media outlets would have had us believe. Whether Rockstar intended Bully as a colossal bait and switch for the video luddite crowed, or whether the game was dialed down in response to GTA criticism, we'll never know until that final shareholders' report. Yes, there is violence - but the "worst" weapon in the game is a baseball bat and you can't even retain it as a selectable item. Yes, it covers the uglier side of school life - but it tempers the peer pressure and name calling and, well, bullying with a strong message of "stop being a dick and letting others think for you."
At no point can you tear up a classroom with an AK-47, nor can you ram a monster truck through a crowd of elementary school kids. The best vehicle in the game is a go-kart. For some of you, maybe this is your exit cue.
Not that I'm saying that a bloody high school spree would be a bad game, given the proper tone and depth. I believe that games can and will explore all facets of our human lives, including the not-so-pretty parts. I'm just saying that while Bully may be a GTA gameplay clone, but it is not a GTA content clone... and that may explain why its sales were less than stellar. Bully is a T-rated GTA. Tales of its depravity were wildly exaggerated.
Prior to Jimmy's arrival, the school (and the town, really) has been split between five cliques (a sixth group, the townies, is introduced near the game's finale): the clownish, awkward nerds hang out at the library and Bullworth's comic store. The snotty, rich-kid preppies have their own private dorm and are found all over the ritzier parts of town. The greasers - straight out of West Side Story - rule the school's shop and own the dirty, urban section. And, standing a good foot or more taller than Jimmy, the jocks are kings of the gym and football field. A fifth, less important, group simply called "bullies" roams the campus at will, but center on the areas where they can taunt the nerds as they walk to and from class.
What's great about the cliques is that each character is unique, in looks and name and voice. Whenever you see a pudgy kid with his fly down, that's Algie. Whether his model spawned on school grounds, at the amusement park, or by the bike shop, it's Algie. If you are currently on good terms with the Nerds, he'll know that status and your (limited) conversations with him will indicate his group's level of trust with you. Now, this uniqueness only applies to your fellow schoolmates and a few select adult characters; the NPC civilians roaming Bullworth are just as random and stock as any GTA game. Still, it's a great upgrade and a hint of what could be coming down the pike for future games.
Your mission in the game is, surprisingly, to unite these cliques. Jimmy repeatedly mentions how he wants to put an end to all of the bullying and stick it to the people in charge who let it continue. Being an aggressive teenaged punk, his solution is to cow the leaders of each clique and work himself up to the top of the heap.
It sometimes come off as a rather strange conceit: Jimmy the supposed tough untameable problem child, yet whose actions are all geared towards ending bullying. You can feel the strain on the scriptwriting when you trigger another silly mission - say, collecting a girl's missing personal items from the greasers' hideout - and the scene ends with an exasperated Jimmy saying "All right, all right, I'll go take care of it." Rockstar wants him to be tough, but mission after mission he comes off as a softie.
The storyline's chief motivator is a fellow student named Gary, who initiates Jimmy's quest to unite the clans and rule the school. His early scenes with Jimmy (and whipping boy Petey) really show off some great voice-acting and writing. It's a shame that Gary largely vanishes during the middle of the game, and he is almost never seen outside the constraints of a cutscene. I could have used more of Gary... the scenes where the boys rag on each other felt absolutely pitch-perfect, packed with demoralizing insults and frat house rivalries. The game may be cartoonish overall, but the uneasy politics of high school life are very fairly and accurately represented.
The adults are not so well-drawn, dropping in and out of the game with all the impact of a pebble in an ocean. Jimmy's mom, the teachers, the crazy old bum who lives behind the fence... they all seem like three quarters of their storylines were left on the cutting room floor. For example, Principal Crabblesnitch opens the game with a great intimidation cutscene... and then you hardly ever see him again. After such great buildup - after movies where the characters have separated fingers! - one by one they just drop out of Jimmy's life. Some build up to a key mission before the inevitable Vanishing, if they're lucky. It leaves one with the impression that the swiss cheesed storyline was intended for something greater.
As fits the GTA pattern, the Rockstarianly landlocked game world is revealed in chunks. In a subtle academic twist, it is presented in chapters. Chapter One limits you to strictly the grounds of the school, for example. Note that the entire real estate of Bully could fit inside San Andreas' Los Santos sub-section. Compared to other games, the size of Bullworth may seem skimpy, but the bonus is that it looks great and is packed with details. There's very few repeated-model buildings and a scarcity of obvious, overused textures.
Not to mention that, in addition to the now-expected day/night cycle, Bully has something of a season cycle as well. It's triggered by chapter... so you can't stand in one place for hours and watch the leaves fall off of the trees and then grow back... but you do get some distinct seasonal weather patterns throughout the storyline. Even the NPCs' clothing changes! These are the benefits of a late-cycle PS2 game that sacrifices outright size for graphic detail. But be warned: once you advance through the plot and bypass the seasons, you'll never see those effects again. You get one shot at seeing the campus decked out for Halloween or covered in snow for Christmas. After the big finale, you can continue playing in Endless Summer mode, which, as you may have surmised, locks the game firmly and finally in summertime graphics. Rats.
The soundtrack is subtle and nicely cinematic - the opening instrumental is plainly derived from Harry Potter's delicately forboding school theme. It is sparse, which is a departure from the soundtrack focus you might expect in a GTA game (so I'm surprised to learn there's a soundtrack album available). About the only audio detail of any worth is that the tension music changes depending on which clique is currently throwing punches at you. And the bassline that starts whenever you hit the streets on foot absolutely kicks ass. You hear it quite a bit, but it never feels overplayed.
So what do you do in Bully? You attend class, for one. The game's clock is (almost) always ticking in the corner. At 9am, the school bell rings and it's time for the first class of the day. If you don't get there by 9:30am, you're considered truant and the patrolling prefects start gunning for you. If you don't get there by 11am, you miss that class entirely.
Once you make it to the classroom, the clock disappears and you get a strange little unique minigame (Qix!) related to English, Art, Chemistry or Gym (two additional classes, Shop and Photography, appear in a later chapter). A few classes are required to advance the plot, but if you fail the minigame, you can always take that class again when the "day" cycles back around. Passing the class will net you some skill upgrades and unlock some bonuses, like extra bikes to ride. If it sounds like kind of a drag to be forced to run to class twice a day, every day, it is. But I think that's kinda the point. In any case, once you beat the class's fifth level, you never have to go to it again. You can re-play the minigames, but you receive no benefit... which is slightly weird, but points to the game's lack of complicated skill sets.
Another bit of simplified strangeness: at 2am, you pass out. You wake up in the nearest save room at the dawn of a new day (a bright and cheery 8am). So Jimmy doesn't get to stay out all night. I guess this is intended to further evoke the "he's a kid" feeling, similar to the classes and the lack of drivable cars, but I thought it an unnecessary extension of the concept. Just let me play! I can get over the "but when does he sleep" question.
And just to prove the point that kids have to follow the rules, every time you break the law, you instantly put all nearby prefects (or cops) on alert. The game even tells you your crime, from the obvious (stealing) to the anal (riding a moped without a helmet). If you coldcock one of the younger students - particularly the female ones - expect to get jumped by a prefect and get shutdown. You will not win. You will wake up outside the infirmary with all of your weapons confiscated. The message is clear: don't break the law. To balance this potential buzzkill, all the roving authority figures quickly lose interest in your infantile infractions, so a quick hoof in the opposite direction will save you.
Beyond the classes, your missions are all the same stuff you've done a hundred times in other games. Just this time with a private school paint job. Win the bike race. Destroy the math teacher's house. Make enough money to buy one particular item. Bully is not blowing the lid off the GTA sandbox concept, just offering another setting. Nothing in the game is as crappy as making Spider-Man fetch balloons in his GTA clone, but very few missions do anything memorable beyond translating the usual activities into this new little world.
They did manage to advance the lock-on system. Rockstar finally made one that works, and it's in a game where the weaponry consists largely of materials for pranks. To lock-on, you just have to be looking at an enemy and tap a shoulder button. Another shoulder button will fire off your currently selected inventory item, and general combat happens on square and triangle.
Supposing that you don't want to fight, you still use the lock-on to initiate brief and limited conversations with NPCs. Mostly, you can either say something nice (X button) or not-so-nice (O button). When layered with the game's built-in clique tracking system, this lets you potentially talk your way out of trouble with a bully. Or you can keep sweet-talking a girl (and some boys) to exchange a kiss for a health-up.
Again, Bully is the T-rated GTA... both in content and in time served. If you thought that San Andreas and Vice City overstayed their welcome, you won't find that complaint in Bully. You can finish this game out to nearly 100% and have a great time doing it. (I stopped playing at around 40 hours, whereas I clocked over 80 - at 70%! - on San Andreas. I like screwing around in these games, so a more efficient player could polish it off in half the time.) And while it may be scaled down, it offers enough pluses to make up for it... great graphical detailing and persistant unique characters among them.
If you're still waiting for the PS3 to drop in price, Bully would be an excellent way to spend 2007.