Bully: Scholarship Edition
Games are art. Yeah, I know, you’ve heard it all before; but before you write me off as some old-fashioned hippie, consider your view of art. Art, in the most traditional sense, immerses the viewer in a world not their own; be it a picture, a book, a poem, a song, or otherwise, ‘art’ in the loosest sense immerses one in a universe that can be open or closed, free or restricting, based on how the artist renders it. ‘Art’ is a reality separate from our own.
All games, in their own right, are art. Even Halo 3 manages to involve the user into a fantasy world, even if such a world consists mostly of teabagging and rockets to the face. It’s the good artistic games – the Psychonauts of the world, if you will – that provide the greatest immersion and most unique landscapes. Rather than taking a purely unrealistic approach, however, Rockstar decided to take every person’s fear – grade school – and turn them into a ridiculous, one-of-a-kind world.
Bully: Scholarship Edition takes the idea of living out all your grade school fantasies and runs with them. Not so much a game as an interactive narrative, Bully takes the core elements of a certain bigger Rockstar cousin and spins it into a unique experience. If you’re expecting just another Grand Theft Auto clone, then rest assured that the similarities are sparse; Bully has a range and a certain presence that GTA simply does not offer.
The game sets you on the path of fifteen-year-old delinquent Jimmy Hopkins, a boy with a broken home and an extensive permanent record. Expelled from more schools than he can count on his hand, Jimmy finds himself at the end of the line: Bullworth Academy, an institution for the budding dredges of human society. Home to the psychotic, corrupted and insane youth of the world – not to mention every major stereotypical clique imaginable – Bullworth will be where you direct young Hopkins for the next year of his life.
The driving force for this game is by and large its involved and frequently over-the-top storyline. Bully seems to indulge on ridiculous dialogue and a sort of soap opera narrative; thankfully, the voice actors did their jobs dutifully and the frequent conversations give the town of Bullworth a unique feel. Over the course of the game, you’ll come to know Bullworth’s constituent cliques: the nerds, the jocks, the preps, the townies, the greasers and, of course, the bullies. Each clique is successfully pared down to its most recognizable stereotypes, and each character in each clique is hilariously ridiculous The greasers’ area in particular feels like, well, Grease. All in all, the atmosphere of Bullworth is lively; while you’re practically guaranteed to see the same people many times, each person is different. Rockstar took an active approach to ensure that no two characters – even the most minor of townspeople – were alike. Most of the characters have a host of dialogue, as well, so it is nearly impossible to go through this game and hear every line from every character.
For such a comparatively small world, Bullworth is rich with all sorts of activity. The core gameplay is composed of over 100 missions, many of which advance the main storyline. The objectives for these missions vary wildly; you’ll do everything from shoot rats in the library to go on a panty raid in the girls’ dorms. In addition, some juicy subplots are advanced through side missions, which reveal characterization for many of the teachers, students, and Jimmy himself. The missions, in fact, are so varied that the interesting bit is not only accomplishing what you have to do, but to see what happens next. Bully’s main appeal is that you simply cannot put this game down; seeing what happens to Jimmy is half the fun. In addition to the missions, there are a host of smaller minigame-style activities. The most apparent are the classes; there are ten in all, each of which representing a minigame – everything from rapid-fire math questions to the requisite ‘press-this-button’ sequence – lasting no longer than a few minutes. Most classes are short, sweet, and results in a nice upgrade for your character. When you’ve exhausted those, there are plenty of world activities: paper routes, errands, go-kart races, carnival rides, and so much more. Again, each is designed to be very short and reward you with money or small upgrades.
The modus operandi of Bully seems to be presenting the player with a variety of hundreds of activities, none lasting more than five minutes. With a small, sandbox backdrop, it works. You will be constantly engaged, and even if you don’t like a particular mission or activity, there’s the incentive that it won’t last for very long. Bully just constantly throws more and more tiny games at you. In fact, Bully stands to be a great entrance game for newer gamers, just because of how many different genres it shows. There’s brief stints of third-person shooters, vehicle racing and typical action sequences in this game, not to mention its engine is essentially that of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Bully is essentially the grand sampler of all video game genres.
Of course, I could go on forever about how varied the gameplay is, how great the cutscenes are, and so on. What really matters it how it plays and handles, are this is where things tend to get a bit shaky. For starters, the graphics are technically awful. While you can’t short anyone for this – after all, the game is essentially a two-year-old PS2 port – the so-called ‘modifications’ seem marginal at best. The clunky character models tend to degrade the cutscenes a bit, and the game has holdover glitches from GTA: San Andreas, such as getting stuck in the environment. Most grievous of all is the fact that game freezes up with some regularity. While the frequency tends to be based on the age of the 360 you’re playing it on – my newer 360 tended to run it much better than my friend’s older one – it can and will happen and given the fact that you need to return to save points to backup your data, it can and will frustrate you at some point. A very recent patch claimed to have ‘fixed’ this particular bug, but your mileage will vary (it has still occurred to me, and reports claim that the patch did little to nothing in general). This will likely be a convincing factor if you’re deciding between this version and the Wii port.
The controls are adequate yet rather clunky. The skateboard in general is about as responsive as a rhinocerous, and riding the bike and sprinting involve tapping the A button as fast as possible; this is fine when it’s an event or minigame, but absolutely ridiculous when you have to do it everywhere. You can always simply hold the button, but this will of course make your character go more slowly. Overall, the feel to Jimmy is not extremely fluent; thankfully, the controls do not take anything away from the experience.
A key addition noted for the Scholarship Edition was the multiplayer. It consists of a venture between Jimmy and sociopath extraordinaire Gary. I can say with a definitive conclusion that this is thoroughly average in every respect. You only get to play the minigames, essentially, and while it provides a short distraction, there is absolutely nothing to get excited about with it. It may as well have never existed, to be frank.
The real question with Bully: Scholarship Edition revolves around the budding lineup for Rockstar. It’s no secret that GTA IV will be here very, very soon and will be an inevitable hit. So is it worth laying down $50 to get Bully with GTA IV right on its heels?
Yes. Bully has a charm that perhaps no other game can match. It has a lengthy story mode – the entire game, in fact, is about 20 hours if you’re dedicated to uncovering everything – and a variety of gameplay that will keep you engaged. The cutscenes and dialogue make buying the game worthwhile if only to follow the story. The characters, environments and locales are interesting – if just a bit aged – and the game separates itself easily from Grand Theft Auto despite being on the same graphical engine. In short, this game is NOT Grand Theft Auto.
What it is, however, is a game worth bragging about in its own right. Despite its shortcomings – even the game-stopper bugs – it simulates almost perfectly the experiences of a typical schoolchild, despite being ridiculously over-the-top in almost every manner. It’s the characterization and interactions that give the game realism, and Bully should be lauded for immersing the player in an artistic, unique world. ‘Games are Art’ players rejoice: you have a new game to play.