Canis Canem Edit
Have you ever wondered what the Grand Theft Auto titles might turn out like if they explored other scenarios? Like, say – for the purpose of this review – a boarding school? Well, that’s pretty much what Rockstar must have thought too, when the Houser brothers & co. sat down for a meeting some three years or so back. It’s fair to say that Canis Canem Edit (known as Bully in the US) takes the GTA template wholesale, drops a few elements here, adds a handful of ideas there and comes out with something with its own feel, character and style. In more ways than one it actually makes significant improvements on Rockstar’s seminal series.
You take on the role of Jimmy Hopkins – a delinquent 15 year old who is left at Bullworth Academy by his newlywed mother and stepfather. The story takes place over five chapters, and the crux of things is that Jimmy wants to unite all the school’s factions, to have everyone get along and prove he’s the toughest student out of them all.
Like other titles of this ilk, you need to travel around the school grounds (and later the whole town) exploring and accepting missions to help your fellow students and undermine the school bullies. There’s plenty of variety in the missions – there are the usual collections and races, plus you’ll spend a lot of time doing things like playing pranks on fellow students, sneaking into the girl’s dormitory and defending or rescuing friends in peril. There’s also loads of side missions you’ll find scattered around, such as bike races, go-kart races, Paperboy-esque delivery missions, lawn-mowing, superb arcade machines and Punch Out style boxing matches. The sheer breadth of tasks to do is one of the game’s strongest aspects – in this respect it comfortably trounces most other games in the city-based ‘sandbox’ genre.
The controls are pretty much the same as in GTA, but again, if it ain’t broke… Exploration is made a lot more fluent and natural thanks to the hassle-free way Jimmy does things – if you jump against a wall he will grab it automatically and climb up, or if you go near a climbable surface or tree, a quick press of triangle will make Jimmy grab hold of it. It might be a relatively minor addition, but exploring is generally a joy thanks to the intuitive controls and well thought-out actions. The shooting is also very well handled, with an auto-aim kicking in when you press L1 (you get three projectile weapons, including the ever-present slingshot). You can also zoom with a tap of up on the D-pad for a bit of manual aiming.
All in all, it builds on ideas explored in GTA, and is as solid as any third-person games out there. Jimmy is also rather handy with his fists. In a system lifted from another big Rockstar game, The Warriors, Jimmy locks onto his opponent – again with the L1 button – and can punch, grab and fire one of his weapons or use a mischievous item (such as itching powder, fire crackers, etc). Although the combat is a little simplistic initially, it soon opens up and gets much better when Jimmy starts to unlock new moves from both gym class and the hobo who lives round the back of the school. The fighting is really well implemented, and once you get a few new moves you’ll probably prefer to duke it out with your fists rather than use weapons where possible.
Typically, this being a school and all Jimmy does have to attend lessons. You can choose to skip them if you want, but if you do so you’d best avoid the authority figures, in the guise of school prefects or police officers, or you will get busted for truancy and have to attend class regardless. The classes themselves are actually pretty enjoyable though – there are six in total and these include English (which involves finding words from six predetermined letters), Photography (run around school or town taking pictures of specific things) and Chemistry (enter button presses in time to prompts). Each subject has five classes of increasing difficulty, but if you fail at any of them you can re-try it next time it comes around. To help you with your timetable there’s an ever-present clock on the screen, and the day is scheduled as follows: 8am – wake up, 9am to 11am – Lesson one, 1pm to 3pm – Lesson two, 7pm – bedtime becomes available, 11pm – curfew, 2am – pass out from exhaustion. Anything in between these times you are free to do what you want, although some missions are time-dependant and won’t be available outside the working day.
One of the game’s strongest aspects, but one which may be taken for granted by most, is in the setting and characterisation. Placing the game in a school gives it a certain something that titles like GTA or Saint’s Row can’t ever hope to match – a degree of familiarity with the player. Although it is full of the American high-school movie clichés, there will almost certainly be at least a few points towards which players will feel drawn, be it the different student groups (Preps [rich kids], Greasers [bikers], Jocks [sportsmen] and Nerds), the student and teacher characters or even the overall setting. For most folk, you can’t really say this about other games in the genre, and it gives CCE something of a unique appeal.
In terms of audiovisual presentation, CCE is pretty decent in all departments. The graphics are adequate, although they don’t really push the system – they’re slightly better than the GTA series, plus they house some additional lighting effects and neat little touches. Probably the nicest aspect of the graphics and gameworld is that the look of everywhere changes with the seasons – trees turn brown and shed their leaves in Autumn, everywhere is caked in snow in Winter (which also affects how your means of transport react, plus you have an endless supply of snowballs) and everything blooms into green during Spring and Summer. Although it’s a fairly small detail, it does impress, and it’s nice to see the town change through the different seasons and chapters. Hopefully other developers will make the effort to adopt this in their games.
The script is pretty smart, and cutscenes tend to be fairly short and to the point – you can skip them anyway, if you like. The voice acting on the whole is pretty top drawer – there are no names you’ll recognise in the cast, but that doesn’t stop it being amongst the very best voice acting out there. The music is very good, for the most part it has something of a childlike, bass guitar and xylophone combination feel to it, which actually works a lot better than it sounds. There is assorted music for the various fights you get into, and different soundtracks for different areas in the game. It’s up there with the some of the better original soundtracks from the last few years in games, and the audio overall is one of the game’s very strongest aspects.
Technically speaking, CCE is pretty good. When travelling around town you won’t encounter any loading screens, although going into or out of buildings will make you wait for a handful of seconds. Unfortunately, going into missions or cutscenes is slightly less impressive – you have to wait a good twenty seconds or so while these load, and it does disrupt the flow of things somewhat. The draw distance isn’t bad – better than San Andreas, plus the fact you’re often on foot doesn’t leave much opportunity for buildings or objects to feel like they’re springing into nothingness just in front of you. The game can comfortably fit about a dozen characters on screen at once. If a lot is happening, the frame rate can tend to get a bit stodgy, but this only really occurs in a few notable places, and it was never game-breaking. NPCs will also go about their business convincingly. They will walk from one location to another and go inside buildings etc, stop to talk or fight and generally act like some of the better NPCs I’ve seen in a game. Like most aspects of CCE, it’s taken an element from GTA which was already pretty good and tightened it up.
Canis Canem Edit is not without its faults, though they are pretty minor. One thing which will consistently irritate is the fact that you cannot change Jimmy’s angle of movement through camera manipulation. Instead, he keeps running in his original straight line despite where you move the camera, which has a tendancy to annoy. Another [slight] problem is with the difficulty; or lack thereof. The thing is, it’s not unlikely that you’ll get through the entire game with only seeing the mission failed screen a couple of times. Getting beaten up so badly that you have to go to the school infirmary tends to be very infrequent as life-giving soda is obtained from many fallen enemies (like GTA, you don’t have ‘lives’ and no-one can actually die, you just lose a bit of money, weapons, and are taken to the hospital).
Another aspect which seems slightly underdeveloped is the fact that you have lots of opportunity to earn money – completing missions, taking bets, doing part-time jobs – but there doesn’t really seem to be anything of interest to spend your money on. By the end of the game I had something like $1300, but other than a few clothes, there wasn’t much to buy. A nice expensive go-kart or scooter to work towards would’ve been good. CCE is not a game guilty of any glaring flaws, but it does house a few odd design decisions which would have probably made for a slightly more enjoyable experience had they been omitted.
In summary, Canis Canem Edit takes the well-trodden city-based ‘sandbox’ path, adds plenty of it’s own style and originality and comes out with a pleasing, well-rounded and well-developed game. Although it can’t always shake the feeling that it is a GTA-lite game, and it is probably forever fated to live in the shadow of bigger games in the genre, it is possibly the best example since San Andreas and well worth a try for fans of similar games. Let’s hope to see a sequel which will hopefully break free of comparisons and establish CCE as a quality series in its own right.