From my first moments in Bully, my life became about avoiding poundings. Everyone hated me -- the nerds, the greasers, the jocks, and especially the white-shirted bullies. To make matters worse, I started going through culture shock. I couldn't tell what era I was in. All the boys -- even the cool, tough ones -- called each other "pal." Mayhem was caused by the skillful use of itching powder and slingshots instead of Uzis. Golly, it was like gaming in 1950.
Despite the playground banter and beatings, the Bullworth schoolyard and surrounding community functioned primarily as an arcade that housed entrances to mini-games. These games were seemingly designed to help an obnoxious kid such as myself define his character. I mowed lawns and played fumblingly simple sports like dodge ball that seemed to be imported from failed videogame ideas.
I was never given any real sense of how Bully's various episodes would affect me and my ratings with the school's various factions. I stumbled my way around the game, hoping to find a balance with my peers, all of whom seemed to hate each other. (They also had voices like Muppets, or an adult's idea of what a teenager would sound like.) The chance to develop a detailed videogame character, something that Rockstar Games had done well in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, was absent in Bully. At Bullworth, I was merely a cog in the machine.
THE GOOD: Bully has one of the best fight engines in a Rockstar game. There is a slight lag between the moment that I press a button in the real world and the action of my character onscreen (a fist sent into the jaw of a bully, for example). That moment allows for my real-world action to grow to several button pushes in sequence, which results in more elaborate actions onscreen (a severe face pounding followed by a noogie, for example). This fighting style is more sophisticated than the firearm battling that pervades most mayhem games, and it's admirable that Rockstar took the time to successfully integrate it into a relatively safe (unless you count wedgies) Teen-rated title.
THE BAD: The Teen rating ends up castrating much of Bully's fun in the same way that a PG-13 rating can inhibit a horror film -- the good stuff that I came to see never starts flowing. The Grand Theft Auto formula was designed for willfully out-of-control explosions, murder, theft and organized crime. Bully substitutes that with an artful mix of playground mayhem: brawling, chemistry sets, detention and classes. The game's build to wilder action sequences is a slow PS2 movie littered with middle school jokes and mini-games.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The Grand Theft Auto formula takes a beating on Bully's playground.