Review: Bully: Scholarship Edition (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Bully: Scholarship Edition
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Rockstar Vancouver, Mad Doc Software
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release Date: 03/04/08

Bully was one of those weird games that, based on the concept behind it, really had no right being as good as it was. Though the product was besieged by controversy for months prior to its release, some imagined (Columbine simulation) and some not (kissing boys), the actual game ended up being, simply put, a GTA-styled experience based around a private boarding school and, more specifically, the adventures of one character within it. Shockingly (based on the developer and their infamy), the game was reasonably tame, with little profanity, no blood, mild violence, and an even balance between toilet and tasteful humor, but perhaps even more shockingly, the game actually worked. It wasn’t a huge seller or a GOTY contender like certain other Rockstar hot properties, but for those who were tired of picking up hookers and stealing cars, Bully was absolutely fantastic and worth playing, just because of how different it really was while still remaining familiar.

And now it’s back.

Bully: Scholarship Edition is essentially a re-release of the original game with additional bits crammed in here and there, and is more or less geared toward players who either did not play the original or did and are starved for more. In both cases, this isn’t so unreasonable; if you’ve never played it, it’s certainly a fun and entertaining game to play and there’s plenty to enjoy in it, and if you loved the original a whole lot, of COURSE you’d be looking to play more Bully goodness. Unfortunately, Bully: Scholarship Edition probably isn’t quite the way to get into the game if you missed it the first time around, as for those who never played the game at all, there are a few technical issues in the 360 version that make the experience less than satisfying, and for those who HAVE played it, it’s not really worth playing through the whole game again for what little was added. This is not to say the game is BAD, however; Bully remains an outstanding game overall, though this time around it’s simply not as outstanding as it could have been.

The basic story remains more or less the same between versions: you play as Jimmy Hopkins, general malcontent who is sent by his parents to Bullworth Academy for unspecified reasons (though it’s pretty obvious that Jimmy was probably being something of a shit). Upon arriving, Jimmy is essentially crapped on by damn near everyone, starting with the Dean (who essentially notes that Jimmy is a horrible little brat and makes it well known that he’s already not well-liked) and moving down through the various cliques in the school, who either have no interest in Jimmy whatsoever… or want to beat the hell out of him. Jimmy eventually befriends two other outcasts in Gary (an outright pathological liar and psychopath with delusions of grandeur) and Pete (who’s fairly normal, aside from his crushingly low self-esteem), and more or less proceeds to make various attempts to entertain himself and fit in, some of which work out better than others. There’s a WHOLE lot more to the story than that, of course, but to go in-depth with any of it ruins a decent amount of the impact of the story, so we will leave it at that.

The interesting thing about the story of Bully is that it’s actually pretty damn good. Jimmy is a fairly three-dimensional protagonist who, while not out-and-out good, has his own fairly reasonable moral code he abides by, and the various characters you meet through your travels (with the possible exception of the Nerds faction, who are fairly stereotypical overall) are generally developed enough that you can understand who they are and where they’re coming from sufficiently. The writing and dialogue is generally quite solid as well, and the direction the story takes initially follows stereotypical lines before eventually veering off into other unexpected directions that are actually pretty interesting and entertaining.

Not that the story’s perfect, mind you. The Big Bad of the story (I don’t want to say who it is in case you haven’t played the game, but it’s not hard to figure it out) seems to perhaps be more successful than they ought to be, all things considered, and the ending scenario of the game will either strike you as awesome or contrived depending on your personal taste (I felt the former, but can completely understand the latter). And while the Scholarship Edition story does introduce new characters and events, they aren’t terribly important to the overall storyline as a whole and the missions and classes they are a part of don’t add anything exciting to the narrative (the only added missions really amount to one Music class oriented mission, and three missions featuring an ripoff of homage to “Bad Santa”. And, as noted, some of the characters do play into their stereotypes more than they act like legitimate characters, and some of the jokes are more toilet humor for the sake of toilet humor (hocking loogies into the stew, for instance), but this is surprisingly few and far between.

While the story has held up well over time, the visuals can’t say the same; while B:SE still looks stylish as hell, and the textures have generally been cleaned up (and the draw-in distance increased), it looks primitive in comparison to, oh, launch titles on the 360. This is generally jarring at first, though it’s fairly easy to get used to with a little time. What’s not so easy to get used to are the odd graphical glitches in the game (watching Jimmy spin around 360 degrees in his chair as classes start, as a perfect example) and the odd frame rate (which are few, but noticeable) and loading issues (noticeable load times pop up occasionally when running about the world) that pop up from time to time. On the upside, the aural presentation is as fantastic as it ever was; the music is incredibly fitting, and each track sounds appropriate to the context it is presented in, and the various sound effects are quite appropriate and fitting to their specific uses. The voice acting is especially awesome, and each voice actor and actress turns in a performance that is not only fitting and good, but also adds to each of the characters they portray beautifully, from the most important characters all the way down to the extras.

The gameplay in Bully, at its core, traces its roots most readily back to Rockstar’s own GTA franchise, though it’s fundamentally different enough that the two can’t be readily compared without much difficulty. Essentially, you’re given a free-roaming environment and allowed to move around in the game as you deem appropriate, undertaking tasks as you go, but that’s really where the similarities end. First off, Bully relies more on fisticuffs over weaponry insofar as combat is concerned, which is something that GTA was notoriously bad at. Bully, however, is pretty good at it; by locking on with the left trigger, Jimmy is offered four options for dealing with his targets; the “positive” negotiation option (which can be just saying hi to someone, offering them money to back off, apologizing to them, or flirting, depending on the person highlighted), the “negative” negotiation option (shoving and taunting, mostly), punching and grappling. This is used to deal with folks whether in combat or not, mind you, and you can use it to bully people, flirt with girls (and some guys), apologize to authority figures and bribe people to be your flunkies. In combat, however, it’s mostly used to hurt and/or embarrass those you’re looking to kick the crap out of, and in this respect, it also works quite well; aside from chaining together and charging various strikes, you can use the grapple to initiate all sorts of grabs and takedowns, and humiliate opponents in various ways once you’ve worn them down… in schoolyard oriented fashion, so more wedgies and wet-willies and less curb stomping.

So, really, it’s rather uncomfortably realistic.

Secondly, while Jimmy can traverse the world at large and undertake various tasks within it, as noted, the world at large is DRASTICALLY different from that of the GTA world. See, Jimmy’s a kid in a small, strict town, and thus the world works around that. The town you traverse around is much smaller than any in the various GTA-type games you might have played prior, though this is, surprisingly, not really noticeable, as it’s time consuming traveling the town, since Jimmy can’t drive (though he can skateboard, grab onto cars while skateboarding, and ride a bike as the game progresses, and can take the bus places if needed, which makes things somewhat less time consuming). You might think this would be an annoying downgrade, but it’s actually well integrated and works perfectly fine in context. Also, another side effect of being a kid is that Jimmy has to obey certain rules of the game world itself so as to avoid getting into trouble; he has to sleep or he passes out around 2AM (which either results in being apprehended by school officials or waking up missing a shoe or something, depending on where it happens), he has a curfew to obey, he doesn’t kill people (but he does knock them the hell out quite often), and he has to attend classes (or be truant and dodge officials).

Failure to adhere to the rules results in similar repercussions to that of GTA; when Jimmy breaks a rule of some sort, whether it be breaking into a locker, trespassing, truancy, hitting a girl (which is actually a far worse crime in Bully than just regular violence) or whatever, a delinquency meter of sorts fills up, and either police officers or prefects (depending on whether you’re on or off of school grounds) will attempt to detain you. On one hand, if you can avoid being captured long enough, the bar will empty (unless you’re is presently breaking a crime, say, by being truant or in violation of curfew), and if you ARE captured, you can break away by spamming the Y button, but on the other, if your bar is red, any attempts at detaining you instantly succeed (presumably, because you’ve done so much bad stuff that no attempts to ensure your safety are taken into consideration or something to that effect). And while being detained essentially results in being brought to the principle’s office and having many of your items stripped from you, unlike similar titles Jimmy will occasionally have to deal with detention as a repercussion of his actions; this often involves doing chores on school grounds, like mowing the lawn and shoveling snow and such.

Of course, you can always just go to your classes, which, aside from being a mildly interesting diversion, actually help you out in game. Most of the classes actually improve your abilities in some way; Gym class, for example, can teach you new moves or improve your throwing accuracy, while Art class can improve your kissing skills (kissing, FYI, acts like, um, paying for favors in GTA; kiss a girl or guy, and your health will improve exponentially) and so on. Most of the classes are little more than silly little mini-games, mind you (Chemistry, Music and Shop are essentially of the DDR mini-game format, Art is Quix, English is Scrabble of sorts, and so on), but they’re short and generally entertaining in their own right. Four new classes have been added to this version of Bully (Music, which is noted above; Math, which is just “Here’s a problem, solve it” questions with multiple-choice answers; Biology, which is, uh, dissecting dead animals… woof; and Geography, which is matching flags to cities/states and is thus the hardest course in the game for, well, probably just about everyone), though they’re mostly there as window dressing; yes, they’re still pretty fun, but three of them only unlock new outfits for Jimmy (which is neat, but not terribly useful), and the only class that actually UNLOCKS something (the ability to see hidden items on the map) is, well, Geography (Doh!), which is kind of a pain in the ass.

Now, in-between obeying the rules, going to classes, kissing people and avoiding/beating up various people who step to you, you’ll also be asked to complete various missions in the storyline, which can range through any number of activities including bike races, beating up one or more people, fetch quests, and so on. Most of the missions are specifically used to advance the storyline, though certain ones are ancillary and don’t need to be completed. Many of the missions will also rely on you to use your various tools of the trade to complete them; much like in GTA, Jimmy has weaponry at his disposal which he can use to take down foes and accomplish tasks, though since he’s a kid, this is restricted to less violent items such as fireworks, stink bombs, eggs, and marbles, along with the occasional bat or board as needed. As you complete missions, you advance the storyline through its various chapters, which are marked (usually) by the changing of seasons around Bullworth, indicating how much time has passed. The chapters (and conversely, the seasons) won’t progress until you complete the appropriate storyline chapters to progress things, so you won’t have to worry about missing things as you can’t move the story forward until you’re ready to do so, really.

So, yeah, Bully is a pretty interesting game that plays well. Fine. That said…

Okay, well, now that we’ve gushed all over the gameplay and how wonderful it is, what’s wrong with it? Well, the biggest issue with the game is, essentially, that if you’ve played Bully, B:SE offers you, literally, NO REASON TO PLAY IT. The four new classes in the game are generally uninteresting; of the four, the only class that plays in any sort of interesting way is Biology, and the only class that’s really USEFUL is Geography. Now, this isn’t really that bad until one stops and notes, “Hey, this is a $50 re-release of a nearly two-year old game, WTF?” which doesn’t seem so bad until one notes that Fable: The Lost Chapters, for example, did the exact same thing (more storyline, more to play around with, more clothing options, etc) and was released at value price (on a system that a LOT LESS PEOPLE OWNED, no less). Suddenly, B:SE doesn’t seem so great anymore, especially if you’ve already played/owned it. There’s very, VERY little here that’s original in comparison to the prior title, and while the original game (and its concept) were pretty original a year and a half ago, adding to that a couple of classes that feel like a couple of prior classes, one new class that offers little for completing it, and a couple missions featuring Billy-Bob Thornton (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) isn’t much of a reason to own it.

But let’s assume you’ve neither played nor owned the game and are looking at it as a first time acquisition. Well, there are some smatterings of detection issues here and there and some mild AI issues that can cause you problems; activating doors and missions sometimes requires re-centering yourself numerous times in the same spot until the game decides you’re properly where you need to be to activate a quest, and fighting enemies is a pain in the ass when your own allies or random bystanders tend to, literally, wander up right in front of your fists, which can cause you no end of suffering. The game also has odd balancing issues; the actual storyline missions are mostly balanced perfectly fine, but when one is wandering around the vicinity of the Gym, one can find oneself surrounded by multiple enemies in SECONDS for no adequately explained reason except that Jimmy is loathed, which isn’t a problem when one is simply passing through, but when one is undertaking a mission that takes them to such an area (Photography, anyone?), well, grab the vaseline buddy, you’re screwed. Fighting one or two enemies is fairly manageable in most cases; fighting four or five guys at once is generally suicide without allies, and even WITH them it’s no picnic.

This is then further hampered by the fact that the game is generally one of those “play it once to completion” sorts of games; beating the game generally doesn’t unlock anything cool or spiffy that you could play around with, and while Bully tends to be more focused than GTA, GTA tends to offer the player more of a reason to return to the product upon completing it; Bully, while entertaining, doesn’t have any real replay merit save for reliving the experience (good though it is). Now, Rockstar DID make the various classes available as local multiplayer games, for those of you who want to battle your friends in Biology or Consumo or whatever, which is cute… for about ten minutes, after which time it becomes incredibly boring considering how many other games are mini-game collections PRIMARIALLY and thus do it better.

And, oh yes, according to reports, the 360 version has crash bugs at certain points. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I did not personally experience any crash bugs (though I did have a couple of disc-read errors, which is most likely the fault of the console over the game), many, MANY people have, so it is best to be aware of this thing. Rockstar is promising a patch sometime in the near future (read as “sometime before the sun burns out”), so this will presumably not be a problem forever, but you may want to be aware of this all the same and wait on buying it for a few weeks.

Assuming you can get past the technical issues and you haven’t played it before, Bully: Scholarship Edition is something you really, really should play and might want to consider owning. A strong storyline, sufficiently lengthy quest, high-quality presentation (more so aurally than visually, but still), and addictive overall experience will more than make up for the lack of replay and the few annoying issues that pop up here and there. But while the technical issues will (hopefully) be fixed for those holding off because of that… those who were hoping for a new and exciting experience with this re-release will be sorely disappointed; the amount of new content in this game wouldn’t even be CLOSE to an expansion pack in most cases, and while the product itself should be experienced if you haven’t, if you have, the added content is wholly forgettable and not even really worth the cost of a rental, let alone a full purchase, unless you’re looking to play through the whole game over.

Of course, if you are, then I understand that. I would.

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: POOR
Originality: POOR
Addictiveness: GREAT
Miscellaneous: ABOVE AVERAGE

Final Score: ENJOYABLE.

Short Attention Span Summary:

Bully: Scholarship Edition is GTA for people who are tired of GTA, but didn’t play the original Bully. A fantastic story, excellent sound, fun gameplay that manages to be familiar and innovative at the same, and a good long quest make this a must-play for anyone who never has. But some (hopefully temporary) technical issues combined with translation hiccups make this a not so good translation, and a general dearth of anything new that’s interesting make this almost worthless to fans of the original. Anyone who’s never played Bully should check this out; everyone else can hold off for the sequel without missing a damn thing, really.



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