Jimmy Hopkins is having a bad day. His recently remarried mother is running off with her rich husband on a yearlong honeymoon, and Jimmy, the 15-year-old troublemaker that he is, is getting sent off to Bullworth Academy, an extremely dysfunctional (hey, aren't they all?) boarding school. This sets the stage for Bully, Rockstar's latest release. We got some time in with the final version of the game, and it must be said that it makes a great first impression.
Right off the bat, you're shoved into a school uniform and forced to adapt to school life. That includes going to class, where you'll participate in brief minigames that upgrade your abilities in really useful ways. Gym class will teach you new fighting moves, English class helps you speak more articulately, which in turn makes it easier to talk your way out of trouble if one of the patrolling prefects sees you doing bad things or a harassing bully starts giving you the business ends of his fists. Then there's shop class, which gives you access to bikes, and art class. Doing well in art class makes it easier and more beneficial to get kisses from Bullworth's many female students, which gives you a health bonus. If you're wily and can hide out from authority figures, you can skip class, but the benefits of attending the classes really make you want to stay in school. But, of course, there's more to school life than just attending class.
Early in the game you'll become friends with this weird kid named Gary. Off his ADD medication, Gary's now got delusions about taking over the entire school. Since it's currently a very clique-filled place that offers the typical groups of nerds, jocks, bullies, preppies, and leather-jacket-wearing greasers, that's no easy task, especially because at the beginning of the game, all of these factions are way into beating you up. You're given a handful of powerful fighting moves that make one-on-one confrontations really easy, but over time your enemies grow in number, and fighting off three or four guys at once isn't nearly as easy, even if you know how to execute sweep kicks, uppercuts, and mounted wrestling moves. Your standing with each group is listed on a stat screen, and certain events will ally you with the various groups. Helping a nerd, for example, make his way to and from his locker without incident, raises your standing with the nerds.
Bully is open-ended, but it's also a very mission-based game. Early on, you'll team up with Gary and essentially do his bidding, but before too long you'll hit the game's second chapter, which opens up the school gates and lets you venture into town. The missions are nicely varied, though none of the ones we've seen so far have been oppressively difficult, which keeps things moving along. Some missions are as simple as retrieving role-playing game character sheets from the bullies that have stolen them. Another has you going on a full-on nighttime panty raid in the girls' dorm. You'll also engage in bike races, boxing matches, and the occasional house egging. But you don't have all night. You wake up at 8 a.m. each morning and you're forced back to bed at 2 a.m. Throw in two classes each day and you're looking at a system that forces you to make the most of your time, but considering you can just as easily go an entire day without doing any missions or skip classes to focus on missions, time never becomes too much of a problem.
The bulk of the spotlight Bully has received prior to its release comes from the recent failed attempts to block it from reaching stores, the theory being that a game called Bully would have to be harmful to children. But the T rating for Bully means that there's no explicitly foul language, and from what we've seen so far, the game comes across much like a lighthearted PG-13 movie. Yes, there's plenty of mischief, and yes, there's plenty of kid-on-kid fisticuffs. But this is most certainly no Grand Theft Auto. In fact, you spend more time in the game defending weaker children from bullies, not bullying them yourself--though that option is always there, even if it doesn't gain you anything.
The game's dedication to keeping things light comes across in its set of weapons. As you do well in chemistry class, you earn the ability to make weapons like firecrackers and stink bombs. You'll also have a slingshot that you can use to attack foes (or windows) from a distance. You'll also find bags of marbles that you can use to make would-be pursuers slip and fall, and cartons of eggs, which always come in handy.
The characters in Bully are very expressive and well-animated, which goes a long way to help make the world feel alive. The environments look pretty nice for a PlayStation 2 game, and the world is large, but not sprawling. The voice work in the game has, so far, been pretty good, and the music is really, really great. There's a different instrumental track for each faction, which plays when you're attacked, but every piece of music so far has been outstanding and it really sets the mood well.
Hopkins is a tough kid, but he's not a monster. So far, Bully seems like it's a great game, but we've still got plenty of girl-kissing and preppie-pounding to get though. Stay tuned for a full review later this week.