Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Bully Review

      From the time you start up Bully to the time you finish, you'll be completely engrossed in an experience that is as close to high school as you could probably ever want in a video game. Playing as Jimmy Hopkins is not only visceral as you whale on nerds, jocks, and bullies alike, but Bully delivers something more that many video games fail to grasp: Immersion. Emotional Investment. Depth. These are all concepts that when attempted by most games are lost to a sea of meaningless violence, forgettable characters, and a severe lack of focus. Bully is not one of these games.

      So let's talk about immersion for a moment. You know the feeling; everything around you, and even you, disappears and leaves nothing but the game. You're not playing the game. You're experiencing it, letting it all wash over you, absorbing it into every corner of your mind. It's rare for a game to ever accomplish making you forget about your own problems and get caught up in the main character's. Bully succeeds at this by taking the formula from Grand Theft Auto and downsizing it, focusing it. It's a smaller setting, with fewer characters, and just less to worry about. And that's where Bully's secret lies. It's a game all about structure. Wake up, go to class, enjoy your day, go to sleep. More games, like Grand Theft Auto, need this kind of structure. It's a game that's all about intimacy. Because everything is more focused, you feel much closer to the characters, the school, and the town of Bullworth.

      Going down a hallway in Bully is an experience all in itself. You'll see familiar characters bustle around you, never repeating character models as in most games, telling you "Hi Jimmy!" or "Get lost, loser!" depending on what you may have recently done to him or her in the past. One of them may try to pick a fight with you, so you'll shove him against a locker, but now his friends are involved. It seems like you're overwhelmed, but a prefect walks by and complicates things. I embarrassingly was startled enough by the arrival of a prefect one time that I actually yelled "Cheese it!" as I led Jimmy to the safety of an empty locker.

      Once you're safe, however, the bell rings to go to class and the clock begins to tick. You spot your girlfriend and give her a quick kiss before booking it to class, where you'll learn skills to help you throughout the game. Once you're out, a nerd runs up to you asking for help, and the fun starts all over again. It's this kind of experience that happens often in the game, where you get so caught up in the world of Bullworth Academy that it seems to transcend the status of being "mere entertainment."

      Rest assured, though, that the "game" elements of Bully add up to form the whole. Every time you fight a member of a certain clique, for instance, their theme music will begin to play, so when you fight a nerd, you'll have a completely different experience than fighting a jock. The music will be different, yes, but so will your opponent's fighting style, dialogue, and reactions. Not only that, but as I said, character models are not repeated, so you may find yourself in a fist fight with "Pee Stain" Algie, the head of the nerds. Or maybe you'll spot Derby, the head of the preps, and you'll remember when he called you a "filthy Democrat!" and jumped you that time in the boxing club, so you'll drag him into the bathroom and give him a swirly. Every fight in the game, inside of a mission or not, is memorable in this way. It's not as brutal as Grand Theft Auto or The Warriors, (these are just teenagers after all), but expect to be surprised at just how savage some of these fights get- kick to the ribs, knee to the balls, baseball bat to the shoulder, spud gun to the stomach.

      But let's talk about the dialogue for a minute which I mentioned briefly a moment ago. These characters are damn funny and all have something damn interesting to say. You'll want to sit and watch almost every cutscene, because not only do they brief you about what you're supposed to do next, but they practice something that again, many games don't bother with: Character Development. You'll actually learn things about each character that gives you a better overall perspective on their personality and the motivation behind their actions. That bastard greaseball Johnny Vincent isn't such a bastard once you get to know him- he's just insecure. And that changes how you feel about these characters, and you will care about many of them. You will hate many of them. And you can even interact with them outside of the missions: A cool feature of the game is the ability to lock on to a character and talk with them, compliment or insult. While compliments will get you a smile from the guys and a kiss from many of the girls, insults will more often than not get you decked in the face. Unfortunately, it's nowhere near as good as it could've been because the conversations you have are always so disjointed that you are booted out of the experience and reminded that you are playing a video game.

      I strayed from the "humor" I was about to discuss. I apologize. The nerds are downright hilarious. Some are completely terrified of you and everything you stand for, while others are threatened by your conquest of the school. They'll get picked on in gym class and run away with their arms flailing wildly. The jocks are equally amusing, such as when you beat one of them to a pulp and kick them while they're down, they might pathetically utter something like "there goes my scholarship..." or "when I heal, you're so gonna get it!" The preps just make you want to pound their faces in, with their snobbery and admissions of incest. The entire game is filled with that sort of humor, both the easy jokes about high schools like the repulsive lunch lady, or the ones that are above and beyond, like the drunk English teacher's crush on the promiscuous art teacher whom Jimmy happens to fancy.

      The game's story is great despite being a typical rags-to-riches tale filled with betrayal, deceit, and conspiracy. The writing will make you laugh at some characters and genuinely care for the well-being of others. The music ties into every aspect of Bully, adding yet another layer of depth. The framerate is a little choppy at times but never enough to distract you from the chaos happening on screen. But one of the biggest sells of the game, to me at least, is just how well put-together the whole package is, and this is best illustrated, I think, through the interactivity of objects. Grabbed a nerd? Stuff him into a locker, give him a swirly in the toilet, shove him into a trash can. See a poker table that people are crowded around? Go kick it to pieces. Water fountain, fire alarm, random piece of wood lying on the ground... All things you can use. The game even goes beyond just changing from night to day- there are seasons and holidays (dependent on storyline though).

      Bully is one of the funniest, most immersive, compelling games to come around in a long while, and you owe it to yourself to check this game out.
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  1. Interesting take on the game; well-written review.

    Personally, my perspective is 180 degrees from yours. I found the characters to have too much predictability in their "things aren't what they seem, look beyond the surface" portrayal. The fact that all of the gameplay seemed to boil down to disjoint minigames was a big turnoff. I couldn't feel the immersion that I had hoped for (and which, apparently, some people have felt!) because of Rockstar's decision to make the game behave like GTA, with people spawning in when your back is turned and each character having a very limited number of scripted behaviors (albeit with a few "organic" interactions which were good). Most importantly, though, it seemed like there was a conflict of interest between Rockstar's desire to tell a specific story and the game's implication that you can affect your world in open-ended gameplay.

    I'm a fellow 1UP user (Cyranix) and have started reading WID since seeing the links in your signature on the boards -- love the work, keep it up!

  2. I wouldn't argue that the characters' actions during the storyline are definitely predictable at times or that during regular gameplay many characters react similarly each time you do a specific thing to you. I gave Rockstar the benefit of the doubt on that stuff because I still found the story compelling and fun, and because as I went over in the review, I found many of the reactions funny, so I didn't mind seeing them again.

    I did like how "disjointed" the gameplay felt, but more because I viewed it as "diverse." It's supposed to be school (and life), after all, so you should expect that kind of experience. To me it added to the atmosphere, but I can relate to why you would feel that.

    Thanks for the support, Cyranix!