BULLY for the PS2
Pros: Outstanding music; compelling script full of memorable characters; lots to do, see and experience; extremely fun to play
Cons: Limited by the technology of the time
Though Bully, developed by Rockstar Games for release on the Playstation 2 in 2006 (subsequently released for the X-Box and Nintendo Wii two years later), may pale in comparison to the scope of the company’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, for my money this tighter and more polished game is easily one of the best Rockstar games of its generation and perhaps one of my favorite games ever. The story here follows troubled fifteen-year-old Jimmy Hopkins who, after being kicked out of numerous schools due to disruptive and disrespectful behavior, has been placed in Bullworth Academy, a rather strict private school which prides itself on sending wayward young people on the right path, by his freewheeling (and fed-up) mother. Throughout the course of the game, Jimmy attempts to fit in at Bullworth and win over the various cliques at the Academy – stereotypical groups of jocks, nerds, preppies, greasers, and bullies, mainly by asserting himself (mainly through pugilism) as sort of “alpha male.” Initially, Jimmy meets up with a fellow student named Gary who more or less takes Jimmy under his wing, teaching him about the ins and outs of Bullworth Academy and starting him on his path to “take over” the school. The Academy’s principal, Dr. Crabblesnitch, is the main “villain” character through the first part of the game, but it eventually becomes clear that it’s actually Gary (described by various people as being a sociopath with a superiority complex) that’s the ultimate bad guy of the story.
Jimmy Hopkins and his trusty slingshot.
Much like the Grand Theft Auto series, Bully is a sandbox-type, open world game taking place in a fairly typical American town with a rather large and intricate world map that slowly is revealed and becomes available as a player progresses through the game. This map includes among other things upscale housing projects, industrial parks, slums, a downtown area, various stores, and even a traveling carnival. Since the game can more or less be completed at the player’s leisure, one of the most fun aspects of the game is exploring and discovering the game’s many locations and like other Rockstar games, there’s a lot to do in Bully aside from doing the story missions.
These missions offer up an astonishing amount of variety and are universally enjoyable to play through, but aside from the main story arc, the player can also do such things as attend classes (which are set up as mini-games), run errands for various people, do side jobs for spending money, participate in bike and go-kart races, and search for several different types of collectibles. The script for Bully is very immersive, fun and also very sharp, providing a sort of knowing satire of the coming of age process even as it replicates that period in a young person’s life remarkably well. It also provides a ton of nostalgia for the player, especially those who like myself, haven’t actually been in high school for years and years. I suspect that many players would find themselves reminded of their own high school experience in the intricacies of this game and the sort of hijinks Jimmy Hopkins gets himself into – the game sort of works like a modern Stand by Me-like tale.
The in-game authority figures are all-too ready to bust Jimmy if he causes too much trouble…
Bully was quite controversial when it was announced which mainly stemmed from the fact that the game was published by the makers of Grand Theft Auto. Before anyone had even played the game, Bully was declared a “Columbine simulator” and even outright banned in some countries – prior to anyone having any idea how the mechanics of the game worked. The final version of the game makes all this hoopla seem positively ridiculous: this game is less outright violent and more gleefully mischievous, having a similar feel to movies like Revenge of the Nerds or maybe even a light, PG-13 rated Animal House.
Missions here involve (among other things) stealing panties from the girls’ dorm, performing a big prank on Halloween night, assisting a teacher in conflict with a colleague, going on noticeably innocent dates with various girls, and helping a fellow student escape incarceration at the local mental facility. Most everything in the game is pretty harmless and good-natured – at no point in this game is anyone killed or even severely harmed – beating someone up in a fistfight results in the victim being “knocked out.” Though such things as baseball bats (which break apart rather quickly so that there’s never anything close to a Rodney King level assault) can be used a melee weapons, a player is more likely to find himself using an assortment of more comical rather than dangerous objects during the course of the game: firecrackers, itching powder, a spud gun, bottle rockets, marbles, and a trusty slingshot can be used to assist in missions or to throw off pursuers.
Every non-playable character in the game has a unique look and personality – one of the best aspects of the game is interacting with them.
It’s interesting to note that, while it was fairly easy to get away with serious crimes in the GTA games, Bully imposes harsh punishments for serious offenses: fighting prompts a immediate response from various school chaperones and teachers, and more serious infractions (such as beating up girls, teachers, or little kids) lead to instantaneous punishment if Jimmy is caught. A player trying to get through the game quickly learns that it simply doesn’t pay to cause serious trouble all the time: doing so will result in the player having to perform many iterations of the purposely tedious and irritating detentions. For my money, the designers have done a nice job of ensuring that a player isn’t able to really “run wild” and cause massive destruction and violence. This isn’t at all a “Columbine simulator,” and the game actually has delivers a message against bullying or harassment of other students.
Gameplay here is generally excellent, though I did have some issues with the use of the right analog control that is supposed to control the camera angle. A few times, it got a little wonky as I attempted to maneuver Jimmy with the left analog and fidget with the right analog camera controls to see what the hell I was even doing since the default camera angle didn’t quite cut it. All in all though, it’s pretty clear that Rockstar had come close to perfecting the third-person perspective seen here in their earlier Grand Theft Auto titles.
Playful hijinks abound in the game.
Bully for me plays like a more perfect and compact GTA-like game for the PS2 – everything about the game’s controls have been tweaked for maximum effectiveness and I think the game overall is more focused and enveloping. Shawn Lee’s rock-oriented instrumental music cues are not only very catchy and appropriate for the tone of the game, but they also evolve in real time as different circumstances happen in the game. Get a teacher, police officer, or fellow student angrily chasing after you at any point and a “chase theme” instantly is heard on the soundtrack. Personally, I think this is one of the best, most underrated original game soundtracks ever made: it would rival the soundtracks of most feature films.
Perhaps the best aspect of the game is the fact that the assortment of non-playable characters (namely, other students, teachers, and townspeople) Jimmy encounters in the all have their own distinct personalities. Every character here is fairly recognizable, and they respond to Jimmy in varying ways depending on how their respective clique views him at a given point in time (performing certain missions causes some factions to like Jimmy more, while others will view him with hostility). The voice acting used to portray these characters is outstanding, and quite a few of the lines of dialogue present in this game are laugh out loud funny. Though it’s somewhat unfortunate that the capability of this generation of game systems didn’t allow for the sheer volume of individual people seen in Grand Theft Auto 5 or Red Dead Redemption (non-playable characters onscreen in Bully will repeat fairly regularly, even if their appearance in these different areas at virtually the same point in time is completely illogical and impossible), it’s hard to knock a game that has presented so memorable a group of characters.
Chemistry class becomes a synchronized button-pushing mini-game and English class features a sort of word mashup – most of the classes a player can attend are actually rather clever in their set-up.
This game is one that I find myself returning to every now and then simply due to the fact that it is so enjoyable to play. Though I was a little distraught during my last play-through of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas since the graphics in that game don’t really hold up anymore, I found during my recent completion of Bully that this title is still very pretty to look at, without many noticeable imperfections in the imagery. Since there is so much to do in the game, I find myself really getting into this game whenever I do play it and I think it has a good length: it probably would take around 30-40 hours to complete all there is to do. The depth of the game (especially considering the time period in which this game came out) really is the aspect of the game that sets it apart from vaguely similar games of its day (there are many, many aspects of the game that it would simply be impossible to cover in this review), but in all honesty, Bully is absolutely unique in its main scenario and the way the script plays out. As such, I would give this game my highest recommendation. It is definitely one of my favorite games of the Playstation 2 era and probably in my top five video games of all time. In my opinion, this is a title that any gamer should check out.
Despite some light sexual – and bisexual – content, this game would be appropriate for teenaged gamers and above. It’s generally good-natured and comical.
Bully is rated T for Teen, and I feel as though that rating is appropriate. The game has a fair amount of violence (mostly fist fighting), but no blood to speak of and I think the rating level could mostly be due to the “comic mischief” that includes vandalism, mostly playful prankish behavior and bullying. Language is probably of the PG-rated variety (a few exclamations of “bitch” is about as worse as it gets), and though there is some crude humor and relatively minor sexual content (including the much discussed ability for the apparently bisexual Jimmy to acquire health by kissing boys!), this game would be appropriate for mid-to-older teens and up.