WORDS BY: Paul Curthoys
Sometimes a game cancellation can be a good thing, but no one was happy back in late 2006 when Rockstar pulled the plug on the widely anticipated Xbox version of Bully. After another 18 months in the incubator, this infamous boarding-school sandbox game is moving into your 360 with more wedgies, stink bombs, and panty raids than you can possibly imagine. But in 2008, should you care about a crusty old PS2 game? If you’re a fan of Grand Theft Auto–style action, absolutely! It’s a real shame that this Bully doesn’t deliver the blazing tech performance that it unquestionably should, but there’s so much gameplay richness and black humor in here that we’d jam a dunce cap on anyone who passes it up.
Bully sets its GTA-alike stage by sending young thug Jimmy Hopkins to the most hellacious boarding school ever imagined. The food’s so nasty that rats won’t eat it, there’s enough dirty fighting to make an underground cage match look tame, and — in the game’s most realistic touch — brutal cliques control everything. Finding your way among jocks, preppies, bullies, nerds, and greasers involves a lot of brawling, smooching, mini-games, boss fights, and fetch quests. Bully’s actual individual moments of gameplay are surprisingly simple, and they run the gamut from short button-mashing brawls to elaborate missions like planting a turd bomb in the faculty lounge. The variety and pace give it a real Wario Ware feel, and like the Nintendo DS’ mini-game maestro, half the fun is being startled by what you have to do next.
game’s “wrong” sense of humor definitely helps. Fetch quests are far less tedious when you’re chuckling about helping a porn-loving gym teacher steal panties or when you’re showing a drunken Santa bum the true meaning of Christmas by terrorizing his glossy, successful Santa rival. Unfortunately, a lot of the smaller side quests, like robbing lockers or helping kids with tasks, lack that supporting humor and have little payoff (who needs $5 or a lame hat?). You’ll quickly learn to ignore most of them.
One of Bully’s biggest successes is weaving together all these boarding-school clichés into a compelling, wide-open landscape with plenty of rewards for the inveterate explorer. It won’t feel that way at first because you’re confined to school grounds until the second chapter. But after that, you can check out everything from fancy stores to the tenements on the wrong side of the tracks, and you’ll rightly feel like you have a big world at your feet.
As far as the “Scholarship Edition” tagline goes, it means you get four new classes to attend, eight new missions, and some surprisingly fun multiplayer (see sidebar on page 70). Sure, that’s dandy, but the sad part is that a game this big didn’t need a handful of new missions. It needed prettier graphics (which it has, though their PS2 roots shine through often) and it needed wicked-fast next-gen performance — which is ultimately Bully’s Achilles’ heel.
Rockstar’s top priority should’ve been the elimination of all of the PS2 version’s pop-up and load times. Instead, characters commonly teleport into existence just yards in front of you, and getting to class can mean sitting through three excruciating loading screens. (Quick tip: Let a prefect catch you for truancy, and he’ll drag you off to class in one load instead.) At the very least, Rockstar should’ve added the ability to use the map to teleport past some of this tedium. With properly focused polish, Bully would’ve earned an Editors’ Choice award — the gameplay is that good, but the technical execution drags it down that hard.
While we’re complaining, this game isn’t one you stick with for its story. A bully’s quest to end bullying among cliques by relentlessly bullying everyone does not make a good yarn. But it does make an impressively wide-open world full of tons of gameplay types and nuggets of surprise. Your inner game explorer won’t be able to resist.
+ Big, rich world to explore.
+ Impressive gameplay variety duplicates Wario Wareâ€™s fun.
- Inexcusable load times and pop-up.
? $50 is pretty reasonable, but why not go for a fair-and-square $40?