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Criminals. Superpowers. Criminals with superpowers. For a genre that's all about being able to do anything, sandbox games have become mighty predictable. But you only have to look back as far as the end of the last generation for the antidote to the industry's myopia. Bully. A game that few people talk about now, but which remains easily the equal of GTA IV in terms of playability. It needs a sequel. Here's why...
Above: Jimmy Hopkins may look like a sneering, shaven-headed Neanderthal, but he's actually very likeable
The game world in Red Dead Redemption was massive, possibly in answer to everyone who said GTA IV was too small after San Andreas. Maybe too big. Personally, I felt that the wilderness that made up the majority of the play area was a little too empty to hold my interest all the way to the end (I appreciate I'm in the minority when I say that). There's only so much you can do in a big open field - kill birds, ambush stagecoaches, pick flowers and kill more birds. While the execution is superb, there just isn't the opportunity for the kind of gameplay variations that Bully keeps throwing at you.
Bully's game world is comparatively tiny for the first three or four hours, but then opens up once you get outside of the school, giving you a virtual playground that's approaching the size of a GTA island. It's packed full of surprising and fun things to do. The go-kart track, the rollercoaster at the carnival, mowing lawns for money, doing a paper round, hitting the boxing ring, racing your BMX... after the similar variety of San Andreas, this was what we expected from GTA IV but we were sorely let down.
Above: The carnival area is something not even GTA IV gave us. Closed for the season? Bah
Clearly, returning to school wouldn't be the best way to do Bully 2. Rockstar would either have to ignore the first game and have Jimmy start afresh at a new school, or (and this is my preferred option), set it at college as a straight sequel. This would be ideal, especially as Rockstar could get past the whole 'child violence' thing and avoid having more angry parents lobbying for the game to be banned. It's hard to believe now, but the outcry was so great last time, they were forced to rename the game 'Canis Canem Edit' (latin for Dog Eat Dog) in the UK, which didn't do anyone any favours.
College would also give you a new campus to explore, complete with halls of residence for stealth infiltration and a cast of teachers who are every bit as crazy and unstable as the old crew. Basically, it would be more of the same, but more grown-up and without all the PR headaches that go with it. All it needs to do is keep tongue firmly in cheek (or firmly in someone else's).
Above: Jimmy will happily kiss anyone. Fat, thin, boy, girl... he's not fussy
We're well into this generation of consoles now and the technology is in place to make a game like this absolutely come alive. The original did appear on Xbox 360, but it was a comparitively shabby port that added little in the way of current-gen gloss. The low-poly character models from the original would be replaced with high quality imagery in a style not as realistic as Heavy Rain but perhaps in the faux realism of Uncharted. And while a few canned animations would certainly be good for humour, adding the physics of GTA IV to the characters would give you loads of new ways to make your own fun.
The other thing that's been missing from the genre for too long (aside from the odd exception like Saints Row 2) is a sense of humour. Bully's full of cutting satire and humourous observations, mostly delivered with a surprising level of subtlety. Like the alcoholic English teacher who gives you his bottle then opens a new one as soon as you're gone. The girl with the cold sores who insists they're not contagious once they've scabbed over. The Einstein mask you can wear that makes every cut-scene impossible to watch without laughing. The girls who kick you in the nuts when they catch you kissing another girl. When was the last time you played a game like that?
Above: This Qix-style art class revealed your art teacher in increasingly suggestive poses. Lolz
Red Dead has reignited interest in the third-person GTA-style game after the slight feeling of saturation that accompanied the DLC episodes for GTA IV. While we wait for the inevitable GTA V, there's unquestionably room for one more stop-gap title from Rockstar. I'm not convinced LA Noire is going to fill that hole perfectly. I am convinced this would.
Bully was initially misunderstood, modestly celebrated but now almost forgotten. I can understand why Rockstar would be reluctant to put themselves through all the bad press a second time but a college setting could sidestep all that. And with the genre getting just a little stagnant and set in its ways, Bully 2 would be a welcome revision class in how to make a great sandbox game.
Do you agree? Let me know what you think in the comments.
14 Sep, 2010