Oct 16, 2006
Whether you think it's the ruin of Western civilization or a Catcher in the Rye for the videogame generation, there's a far more pressing question about Bully: is it worth the $40? That depends. If you're any kind of fan of hand-to-hand ass-kickings, open-ended gameplay and standing up for the little guy, then the answer is a big, meaty "yes" to the face.
Mixing equal parts free-form exploration, childish pranks and bare-knuckle violence, Bully is the story of Jimmy Hopkins, a young tough who's ignored by his parents and has been all but shut out of the system. Jimmy's had to rely on his own wits and fists to survive in a succession of tougher and tougher schools, but he's a decent guy deep down. The same can't be said of the denizens of Bullworth Academy, a boarding school that's home not only to the elite, but also to roving packs of delinquents who - like Jimmy - wouldn't be accepted anywhere else. The funny thing is, the line between the two is a blurry one.
The second he steps through Bullworth's gates, Jimmy becomes a target, first of teasing (because his clothes are a little grubby), then of actual violence. Backed into a corner and fed up with authority figures who refuse to do anything about bullying, he sees only one course of action: take over the school clique by clique and force everyone to stop picking on each other. What follows is a lengthy cavalcade of favors, beatdowns, vandalism, minor theft, humiliation, blackmail, make-outs and a whole lot of sticking it to The Man.
The story is captivating, apart from getting cheesy when Jimmy delivers his "I'm the boss now!" speeches to the leaders of newly conquered cliques at the end of each chapter. But aside from that, Bully is a deep, addictive game that comes closer to replicating the high-school experience than any game before it. Bullworth Academy and the surrounding town make for a big, mostly seamless game world, which you'll be able to explore on foot or, eventually, using a skateboard (which can be whipped out anytime), bicycles, mopeds and even a lightning-fast go-kart.
Above: Jimmy carries an upgradeable slingshot that enables you to lock on to targets
The fights - which happen a lot, at least until you improve your standing with the cliques - go from being simple beatdowns to elaborate, visceral brawls as Jimmy learns new moves and combos. Nobody dies in Bully, but if you're just knocking out your opponents, you're missing half the fun. Grab a troublemaker by the lapels, and you can drag him over to a trash can, locker or toilet and end the fight with a quick shove. Or, if you've got a guy on the ropes, you can execute a finisher like an Indian burn or a big handful of phlegm to the face, and send him running.
There's more to fighting than just brawling, and Jimmy has a small arsenal for when things get hairy. He carries an upgradeable slingshot (which enables you to lock on to targets or aim in over-the-shoulder or sniper modes,), and he can also grab firecrackers, stink bombs or rotten eggs. He'll also get a potato gun and a bottle-rocket launcher later in the game, but in the meantime he can grab whatever else is lying around - we're talking bats, Frisbees, trash can lids, dishes and even dead rats.
It's worth noting that you won't always have to fight - once you're infamous enough, you can usually stop a big kid picking on a weaker kid with a quick insult.
Although violence, pranks and cheeky missions are central to Bully, the game is still about going to school. As a result, you'll have to hew to the rules - vandalism, fighting or putting kids in lockers will raise your "trouble" meter, while hitting girls, adults or little kids will spike it through the roof and bring down a swarm of prefects or cops to take you down. Get caught too many times, and you'll have to mow lawns or shovel snow in a detention minigame.
Above: Passing art class rewards you with better flirtation skills
You'll also have to attend class twice per day, which sounds boring but isn't. Two of the six "subjects" - Chemistry and Shop - are just about pressing buttons on cue, but others are more addictive, offering up short word games, dodge ball matches and even the old arcade game Qix. And passing them means earning rewards that range from faster bicycles and new fighting moves to better flirtation skills and the ability to whip up prank weapons in your dorm.
There's so much more to talk about with Bully - the fully interactive carnival, the Warriors-style graffiti minigames, the insanely unforgiving (but thankfully sparse) stealth missions - but really, these are things you should be discovering for yourself. The bottom line is that Bully is a rewarding, free-form adventure that takes a surprisingly thoughtful (if cartoonish) approach to high school. You won't be disappointed. Just keep your nose clean, kid.