Saturday, December 1, 2012

Bully - Go, Bullworth Bulls!

There comes a point every year (summer, after the month of November) where new video games stop coming out, or at least the ones you're interested in, giving way to a drought. Unless you plan to keep playing multiplayer through this time, which some of you no doubt do, or you're like me and you review something new constantly/multiplayer isn't your thing, then you'll probably purposefully buy a shoddy game to say something about it or just buy a game off a digital store to say something about it. Another option however is to take the opportunity to finally go through your (potentially expanding) backlog of older titles. I chose this particular option when I finally decided to review the original PS2 release of Bully, since there's nothing coming out this December that I'm enthusiastic about. I had heard about the game when it first came out, as well as the Scholarship Edition, but I didn't have much of an interest in playing it until more recently when I finally got a copy. Bully, released to usual controversy by Rockstar Games in 2006, is a title that, while a mere six years old, felt like a nice change of pace from the PS3 and 360 games I have reviewed.

15 year old Jimmy Hopkins is in a sticky situation. He's been expelled from several schools prior due to his constant bullying, and he's only got one shot left before he gets sent to Juvenile Hall, so he's dropped off at a private school called Bullworth Academy while his mom goes on a year-long honeymoon cruise with her fifth husband. Immediately however, he is attacked by three bullies, but also makes friends with the shy Peter Kowalski and scheming sociopath Gary Smith. In a school with corrupt teachers and prefects who do next to nothing to stop the bullying, with the school Principal Dr. Crabblesnitch in fact encouraging it, there are five cliques constantly feuding with each other: The Bullies, The Nerds, The Preppies, The Greasers and The Jocks. It then becomes Jimmy's mission to gradually pacify and unite the five groups so that he may usher in a new era of peace for Bullworth. It also becomes quickly apparent however that Jimmy has no idea what he's gotten himself into.

As the story unfolds, the player gets to experience some character development from Jimmy, especially as he goes through the twists at the end of the game that reveal where Gary's true intentions really lie. His rise to power is handled in a way that I was actually invested in what was going on, including the internal politics of each clique being revealed from the perspectives of not only other cliques, but Jimmy's firsthand experience as well. There is a good narrative flow and I felt the ending to be very satisfactory in tying things up. All in all, a good campaign for those who like playing games for the story.

The town of Bullworth is pretty large, but is not limited by the PS2's technology in terms of the game's capability to render it. For the graphical abilities of the time, the game still looks great and is filled with varied environments and even residents who all have their own unique appearance and personality. Everything runs smoothly and the game's realistic visual style will remind Grand Theft Auto veterans of its parent games, though the choice of having it revolve more so around children and teenagers may throw some off. Jimmy may certainly be different from other protagonists that Rockstar usually makes, but he's still likable nonetheless and his somewhat customizable appearance suits him well.

Being a former bully himself though, Jimmy can handle himself pretty well in a fight. Locking onto a target is easy, being either whoever Jimmy is looking at or whoever is trying to beat him up, and thankfully so since it is required for Jimmy to be the most effective in combat. Hand to hand is a great option, with better and better combos gradually earned from performing certain tasks, the strength of them altered in a similar fashion. The combos are easy to memorize and thus easy to input at the appropriate time. Jimmy can also be assisted by some impromptu weapons that are occasionally visible in the environment, as well as the various items he earns over time. These items are mostly used for the purpose of pulling off pranks, but their combat use cannot be denied, with such things as firecrackers, stink bombs and itching powder among others. These are extremely handy in the right moments, which helps bring a certain level of depth to combat, though if one wanted to get by on fists alone, they would be able to do so. Bully, as a result, allows you to fight the way a kid/teenager would, fighting dirty and improvising to get in a good hit should it come down to it, which makes every victory satisfying when faced with those tougher than you.

What also helps is how each clique goes up against Jimmy in a fight, their prowess entirely dependent on which one they belong to. The Nerds are naturally the weakest, since a few good hits will quickly break through their paper-thin defenses. Bullies are more generic, but put up a reasonable resistance early on and ironically aren't that much of a threat throughout the story. Preppies and Jocks on the other hand are more likely to give you trouble. Preppies are heavy boxers, which make their offensive strength higher than normal and are more likely to counter a grab. Jocks however have the best strength and defense of all the cliques thanks to their sports background. Though training will enable Jimmy to take them down much easier, they are the most trouble in groups, as their brute force tactics and lack of class, like the Preppies have with boxing, make it tough to even fully combo them. Then there are the Greasers, and later the Townies, who are more likely to use dirty tricks and improvised weaponry when dealing with the player, making up for their lack of strength compared to Jocks. The amount of variety present with every clique helps keep combat fresh and you on your toes, which helps it be more exciting when you proceed to take down entire groups at a time.

At certain points in the story, as Jimmy takes over each clique, there will be a boss fight. There is an interesting amount of variety between these fights, with some clever way of taking advantage of each unique personality trait form the differing groups. These can also easily be over the top, with the Nerd boss consisting of relatively high tech weapons in a location emphasizing cover and the Jock fight requiring Jimmy to throw back explosive-laced footballs before tackling the Quarterback (it makes sense in context). While these were all interesting, the only one that's disappointing is the final fight against Gary. The buildup in anticipation of this confrontation had me anticipating much more than a few wimpy strikes. Though the reason for his weakness can be explained away in-universe and the end result is still satisfying considering how much of a jerk he is, I was expecting a bit more from the main antagonist.

Around Bullworth Academy and its surrounding town, Jimmy can complete an array of mandatory and optional missions, most of which are actually pretty interesting. Its actually nice to see missions tailored to suit the game's more child friendly atmosphere (consider that it's rated T, as opposed to the M rating of the Grand Theft Auto franchise). While money is earned after each mission, there are also jobs made specifically to earn Jimmy some easy money, which basically boil down to manual labor. Still, the incentives for completing the jobs and most of the missions make it worth it in the end and they can actually be pretty fun to perform in the first place. The only place it may falter is when Jimmy has to go stealth. While I had no real trouble completing them, for the most part anyway, they can easily become frustrating due to the sudden level of precision required in Jimmy's movements along with careful glances at the radar in the corner of the screen. I can understand these complaints, since I'm pretty sure I came close to being caught a couple of times within a specific area.

The only other complaint I have about missions is that if you screw up at any point, you can fail the entire thing and be forced to find the mission again to retry it. The rub here is that some of them can only be accessed at certain times of the day, so the ones that can only be accessed late in the night will likely require the player to go through another in-game day just to get to it again. I learned to just avoid these missions until the end of the game to alleviate the frustration and get through the story faster. If it were possible to immediately redo some of these missions immediately instead of having to run all the way across town to get back, I would have been a little happier. Regardless, there's always something to do at Bullworth.

One bit of praise I will also give this game is the music. The score is, simply put, very well done. Its catchy and memorable thanks in part to its simplistic nature, plus it doesn't get on your nerves when played in a continuous loop, in fact being a score where I would actually love to listen to the tunes on a loop. By the same token the voice acting is also pretty impressive, with the characters actually sounding their age and bringing the right emotions up at the right times when it fits their personality. While I may not recognize anyone's name in the cast list, it makes me wonder if some ever went on to do anything more, since the voice actors clearly have talent here.

Before I end my review here, I'd like to bring up one thing regarding the controls, specifically the analog stick controls. I have no idea whether its from the fact that I had to replace my PS2 controller (I used it so much that I couldn't hold X down to save my life), but sometimes when controlling Jimmy there would be some light wrestling involved just to get him to move in the right direction, mostly when confined to the Boy's Dorm. I also had some minor camera issues, since sometimes there would be an environmental obstruction when I needed to win an important fight. Upon booting the game it was also possible for Jimmy to just constantly walk until aggressive control intervention was applied, though afterwards it never really bothered me again.

So overall, Bully is a very solid game from Rockstar. Its story is very well written, though one or two questions can come up, and its sound design is quite amazing. Its setting allows the development team to take a different approach to open world gaming, with a well varied environment and suitable missions. While there are some frustrations, they are easily overcome by patient players and the sense of satisfaction is well worth getting to. For those seeking a good open world experience on PS2 to fill in a rather big gap until another worthwhile one rolls around in the current generation, this will surely keep you busy and entertained for quite a while.

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