Somewhere hidden amongst the controversy surrounding Rockstar's Bully is a highly entertaining game. You'd be forgiven for thinking Bully is much more than a game - something far more scandalous - but it's really just another free-roaming action title. The fact that it's from the creators of GTA and sports a title begging to be ripped apart by anyone opposed to video games as a form of entertainment has simply got people worked up over nothing. After a successful debut on the PlayStation 2, Rockstar and mad doc Software have brought the game to the Xbox 360 and nothing has been lost in translation.
You play as Jimmy, a teenage boy who's dropped off at a boarding school while his mother and step-father go on a year-long holiday. He looks like a right little bruiser, with a short stocky build and the face only a mother could love. Yes, he looks like your stereotypical school bully, but as things turn out, he's not the repugnant bad boy that his image suggests.
One of the first kids you meet is Garry, a really annoying bully that lives in the same dorm as you. You only put up with him for so long, though, and soon that rather weak friendship is over and you move onto other things. The storyline isn't all that involving, but interesting little things pop up throughout, with Jimmy moving from one activity to the next, showing about as much commitment to something as most kids. Bully is about surviving as the new kid, and it carries that off very well indeed.
The main area is Bullworth Academy, the school in which you'll attend lessons. During the morning and afternoon sessions you'll be required to go to class, with truancy frowned upon by teachers and prefects. These lessons are basically little mini-games that increase in difficulty as you progress from lesson to lesson, and success will earn you rewards in a number of areas - such as increased luck with the ladies. If you're simply messing about outside of class and get caught by a prefect, you'll be taken to the lesson without any real punishment, but getting caught while on a mission will cause you to fail.
Missions are split into sub categories, so you get a number of main progression missions, cash generating missions and help missions, in which you help out a student in need. At first these will take place within the school grounds, but pretty early on in the game the whole town is opened up. You'll find yourself doing largely the same kind of activities, such as finding items and returning them, protecting people, or delivering papers on a paper round. It remains fun though, and there's enough humour in each to keep the game feeling fresh through to the end.
Being a school there are a lot of other students wandering about, and each one has their own distinct personality. Jimmy can talk to any of them, and can choose to be good or bad, or even to make a move. Girls love presents, and once you get in their good books you can give them a kiss, which doubles as a way to restore health. Each stereotypical school group is represented, with nerds, jocks, preppies and greasers making up the four distinct social circles in the game. The nerds are obviously picked on by everyone, so these are the students that tend to come running up to you for help - they'll pay for your services, so it's worth it.
Just as GTA has a wanted level, Bully features a trouble meter. If you punch a kid, steal a bike, throw a stink bomb, trespass in the girls' dorm, or do anything else that is perceived as being naughty, your trouble meter will fill up. The more it's filled the more the authority figures pay attention to you, so any prefects, teachers or policemen (in the town area) will come running after you. If you get caught you get one chance to break free, but get caught again and you'll be thrown back to where you should be. Hiding in bins, lockers or simply out of view will lower your trouble meter, but running hell for leather to your dorm or other save locations (more are opened up as you progress) also does the trick.
Bully's reputation has come about because of what bullies are notorious for doing, and of course there's plenty of bullying in the game, but it really isn't as bad as it sounds. You can beat people up, humiliate people, throw things, shoot people with your slingshot, and generally do the kind of things that kids do. The combat system is remarkably simple, and projectile weapons can be auto-targeted or manually aimed without too much hassle. There are no guns, no machetes, no bombs (that do real damage anyway) and there's no killing. Sure, kicking a guy while he's on the ground isn't nice, but people who pick on you first deserve all they get - in a video game anyway.
Part of Bully's charm is how simple everything is. You might fail the odd mission, but most people should find working through the game a pleasure, and not a battle against cheating AI or cheap tactics. The gameplay world isn't huge by Rockstar standards, but it's more than big enough for a kid, and environments like the fairground are so wonderfully created that you'll want to go back again and again - whether you're on a date and trying to impress, or simply trying out the rides and mini-games. The map is equally great, with easy to understand markers, and because the game world isn't overly large it never takes too long to get from one location to another - and you can always catch a bus back to school.
On the PlayStation 2 Bully looked pretty great, with the large environments and attention to detail going a long way to counter the lack of next-gen polish. Sadly this port to the Xbox 360 is essentially the same game, running at a higher resolution and with improved texture quality. The difference is clearly noticeable and a welcomed upgrade over the original, but Bully can't escape its PS2 roots. What hurts more than a slightly last-gen appearance is an occasionally slow frame rate and frequent loading screens. The loading in particular starts to grate after a while. We experienced one crash while playing the game, resulting in a small amount of lost play-time, so saving regularly is advised. This is something Rockstar is hoping to fix with a patch.
One area that holds up just as well as it did on the PS2 is the audio. There aren't any licensed tunes to listen to, which is somewhat of a surprise given Rockstar's history with the GTA series, but the dynamic soundtrack does an excellent job, and the voice acting really is superb, sounding incredibly natural. Although the in-game models don't quite synch perfectly to their voices, the feeling of being in a real school is one of the game's greatest achievements.
Speaking of achievements, they're one of the new additions to the Xbox 360 game. While there's probably not enough new content to tempt gamers who have already seen all there is to see in the original release, eight new missions, four new classes to attend, new characters and a handful of two-player mini-games are solid additions to the core game - although most these mini-games are based on classes you take while at school. We'd have traded them all for a smoother frame rate and higher polygon models, but the new content can't be sniffed at.
Bully is a surprisingly simple and rather tame game by Rockstar's standards, but that's part of its charm. The sense of grandeur seen in the likes of San Andreas isn't here, but Bully has a sense of character that is unique. You'll care about sneaking back to your dorm after curfew, forgetting to buy flowers for the girl you quite fancy, or earning a few quid before school starts. It's a fun experience from start to finish (something that will take longer than you might think) and a welcome breath of fresh air - even if it is a port.