Bully is one of the most engrossing open-world games ever made and one that’s hard to put down even after dozens of hours of playtime.
Ask any person in the world what they think about secondary education and regardless of their of age, sex or where they live, I guarantee you that the most likely answer will be: “high school sucks.” If you ask Jimmy Hopkins, he’ll certainly provide an answer similar to that. Jimmy is the main protagonist of Rockstar Games’ Bully (known in Europe as Canis Canem Edit,) one of the company’s most compelling titles that doesn’t have the acronym GTA in its name. Bully is one of the most engrossing open-world games ever made and one that’s hard to put down even after dozens of hours of playtime.
The game opens when Jimmy Hopkins, a troubled teenager with a strong personality, is taken to a new school called Bullworth Academy. Apparently, the 15-year old has some issues with authority and as a consequence, he’s been expelled from pretty much every school in the country. But despite what the name in the front of the box may lead you to believe, Jimmy is no bully. In fact, he’s quite mature for his age. The problem is that he simply doesn’t like following rules and he’s constantly standing up for himself. Jimmy Hopkins also happens to be on a mission to take over the school.
Most of this adventure takes place in Bullworth Academy, a fictional boarding school in the New England area. Most of the times, you’re free to explore the dorms, cafeteria, auditorium and library, among many other places. From a design perspective, each different building was created using a neo-gothic design as a template, so the result is a really appealing setting that looks quite unique. The painstaking attention to detail is striking and without a doubt, Bullworth Academy is one of the most engrossing settings to ever grace an open-world game. It’s worth mentioning that once the game opens up, you’ll be able to explore the rest of the city of Bullworth, including a variety of new places such as City Hall and the mental institution, just to name but a few of the most memorable ones.
Rockstar games is well-known for meticulously crafting living, breathing environments and Bully is no exception. As you walk around the school or the city, you’ll be exposed to people’s conversations. You’ll hear students complaining about school, couples breaking up, bullies taunting geeks and so on and so forth. But it’s also the little things what makes Bully so well put together: you can slide down the stairs, punch bullies in the face, listen to random conversations or even touch ladies’ buttocks. This world is brimming with personality and that’s also reflected in the different characters.
There’s a wide menagerie of characters and each of them belongs to different factions, including the Bullies, Nerds, Greasers, Jocks, Cheerleaders and Townies. At the same time, these characters have their own one-dimensional motivations. In this case, simplistic motivations isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since the different characters reflect a specific stereotype. There’s a big dumb boy who can’t utter more than one sentence at a time, stuck up preps with rich parents, shallow cheerleaders, RPG-loving geeks and bullies who constantly harass anyone around them.
To interact with all these people, you use the game’s creative UI. Combat is simple, yet fun: you select an enemy and then punch, block, kick, perform combos or humiliate them. Additionally, you can give gifts, kiss girls, give wedges or even apologize. Like in the Grand Theft Auto series, performing acts of vandalism and committing crimes partially fills up a meter, at which point, prefects, policemen, teachers or townspeople will start following you. Violence against girls, children or adults is completely against the rules and has severe consequences in the context of the game. But once someone starts chasing you, you can use your environment to your advantage and hiding in garbage bins to mislead pursuers is extremely satisfying. There’s also a respect meter which means that performing certain actions gives you positive and negative points that affect your “relationship” with the different factions.
In my opinion, one of the problems with the GTA series is that missions aren’t that varied. Surprisingly, Bully doesn’t suffer from that problem at all. To be clear, the game does have a lot of missions that encourage you to go from point A to point B and then defeat a random character. But you’ll also find yourself killing a gargantuan carnivore plant so that the science teacher has the only one that exists. In another mission, you are in charge of exterminating all the rats from the library so that the nerds can study for the pre-pre-pre-pre midterm exams. Those are but two of the missions that come to mind, but some of the most memorable ones are thematic and take place during special holidays, such as Christmas and Halloween. Nevertheless, I’ll refrain from saying anything about them so as not to ruin what makes them so special.
But apart from accepting various missions, Jimmy also needs to undertake various curricular activities. There’s a variety of classes to attend, including English, Chemistry, Gym, Art, Photography and Shop. Each of them involves taking part in a different minigame of increasing difficulty. For instance, in Chemistry, you you undertake QTEs to successfully perform an experiment; in the English class, you form words with scrambled letters; in Gym, you take part in different sports, such as dodge ball and wrestling and so on and so forth. In order to pass a subject, you need to complete a given minigame five times. Once you do so, you’re free to explore the world at you own pace, but if you fail a class, you’re forced to retake it the next week. Finally, it’s worth pointing out that passing each individual class unlocks new weapons, fighting moves and more effective apologies, among other upgrades.
Having a strict schedule means that you have to attend two classes per day and after those two classes, you can go do regular missions for the rest of the day. If you cut class though, there’s a truancy meter that alerts nearby prefects. If they see you, prefects will try to catch you to send you to the principal’s office and if that happens, Jimmy’s weapons will be confiscated.
Your “arsenal” of weapons includes firecrackers, a bag of marbles, itchy powder, stink bombs, a slingshot, a rocket launcher, among many other items. In addition, you have access to a lot of vehicles, including bicycles, a skateboard, lawn mowers, go-karts and even motor scooters. Not only does each class of vehicle you operate different to all the rest, but some of them can be used to get more money or undertake side missions.
In terms of side quests, the game is plagued with additional activities you can undertake at almost any time. There’s a sheer abundance of collectible items that are scattered around the city. You can also play arcade games, participate in bicycle races, boxing matches and you can even change Jimmy’s appearance by purchasing new clothes, haircuts, masks, costumes and tattoos.
Sadly, Bully isn’t without some issues. First of all, classes tend to break up the flow of the game and apart from some exceptions (like the English class,) classes aren’t that creative and involve no skill whatsoever. The ones that feature quick time events are dull, repetitive and frustrating. It also doesn’t help that there’s no way to know which classes are coming up next, so most of the times you’ll find yourself wasting time until 9:00 or 11:30 just in case there’s a class coming up. Finally, while Bully is technically impressive (especially when compared to Rockstar Games’ previous title, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,) its loading times are overly long.
In the end, Bully takes some of the most enjoyable aspects of open-world titles and adopts those to create something unique and special. As a consequence, it’s fair to say that Bully lives up to its prestigious heritage. Think about it. Rockstar could have made yet another Grand Theft Auto game, but instead, the company took some risks. As a high school teacher once told me: “risks pay off.” I guess not everything about high school sucks after all.