Bully: Scholarship Edition
PC game enthusiasts know they're in trouble when a game's menus require keyboard input rather than allow you a mouse pointer. That's the first indication, but hardly the last, that this version of Rockstar Games' boisterous look at schoolyard folly is just a quick cash-in. There seems to be little regard for the platform here: The game suffers from numerous bugs and glitches, the keyboard and mouse controls are awkward, and for a game that hardly pushes the capabilities of a halfway decent computer, it performs poorly. It's too bad, because at heart, Bully is one of the better gameplay experiences in recent years, letting you break a drunken schoolteacher out of an asylum, help the lunch lady drug her date, steal panties from the girls' dorm, and take pictures of snotty kids sitting on the lap of a homeless Santa. But with little in the way of meaningful additions and all sorts of platform-specific problems, Bully on the PC just feels rushed.
Assuming you can look past all the frustrations and don't mind eschewing the keyboard and mouse in favor of an Xbox 360 controller, you'll find an entertaining experience with heavy doses of humor and attitude. As new-kid-on-the-block Jimmy, you find your sneering self dumped at Bullworth Academy, a private school populated by the usual cliques we all came to know and hate in our own adolescences. By fulfilling missions, you'll progress from one chapter to the next, alternately gaining sway over one social circle while alienating another. One of Bully's many brilliant aspects is the variety it throws into these tasks. At one point, you'll man a potato-spewing turret to defend arm-flailing, bedwetting nerds from invading jocks; at another, a professor instructs you to infiltrate the preppies' dorm and kill a prized Venus flytrap. In fact, some of the most amusing missions were created specifically for the Scholarship Edition and revolve around a Kris Kringle gone bad.
The story at the heart of Bully is incredibly involving, and Jimmy is both charming and exasperatingly cocky. He's also believable and is likely to remind you of at least one person you know or knew in your younger years. The enormous surrounding cast of goofball nerds and slick-haired greasers deserves equal praise, from the obese and enuretic Algie to Mandy, the head cheerleader with a surprising streak of insecurity. The success here is twofold. First off, you have an incredible script bursting with both cringe-inducing realism and snort-out-loud one-liners. A romantic interest says "I'm such a player" after flowers and a kiss; cafeteria cook Edna tells you that hawking a loogie into the mystery stew gives it flavor. At first glance, these moments seem to play to stereotype, but each character transcends labels and comes across as remarkably individual. Second of all, the voice acting is utterly spectacular, from the main cast to the hysterical quips from minor characters you overhear in your travels.
You're hardly stuck moving in a straight march from one mission to the next. As you play, more and more of the academy and its surrounding community open up, giving you plenty of leeway to explore Bully's many unique nooks and crannies. If you choose to stay on campus, you can attend class in the morning or afternoon. Standbys such as gym (dodgeball time!) and chemistry are still here, but four new classes have been added to the PlayStation 2 standards, and they are arguably more entertaining than the holdovers. In biology class, you must carve open a specimen and remove its vital organs in an allotted amount of time--and it's much tougher than it sounds. In geography, you must place the appropriate flag on its corresponding country. Math takes a Brain Age approach by asking you to quickly solve simple math problems, whereas music class involves a rhythm-based minigame. Passing your lesson means gaining a new reward, whether it be new clothing, new melee combos, or better aim with your slingshot.
Of course, you can skip class entirely (and risk being seen by the keen eyes of prefects and police officers) and tool around on your own. Here, you can bully other kids to your heart's content or save the meeker students from their own bullies by beating up the aggressors. Close combat is on the simple side, especially after you unlock various combinations. However, there are times when you'll need to handle multiple enemies at once, which makes for a greater challenge. If you choose to explore your inner intimidator, there are plenty of ways to do it outside of fisticuffs, though. You can shoot bottle rockets at fellow students, give them wedgies, stuff them into lockers or garbage cans, or taunt them once you've sufficiently whittled down their health bars. If you'd rather follow the straight (mostly) and narrow, you can romance the ladies (and a few gents) by giving them flowers--or chocolates, in the case of the big-boned gals--which usually merits a sloppy-sounding kiss. Alternately, you can run quick errands for townspeople, mow lawns for extra cash, participate in bike races, drop some quarters into arcade machines and gun for a high score, egg cars, take yearbook photos, or head to the local carnival and lounge with the little people. You could probably hurry through the main quest in 10 hours or so, but you could easily spend four times that number if you wanted to see everything Bully has to offer.
Just be sure to hook up an Xbox 360 controller if you want to have fun with these tasks. Not only are the keyboard and mouse controls awful, but inexplicably, Bully does not support any other gamepad. The default key assignments are laughable (who thought that using the left alt key as a main button was a good idea or that it should be the oft-hammered sprint button?), though you can thankfully reassign them to more natural-feeling keys. The mouselook camera controls are lethargic and don't improve much if you increase the mouse sensitivity in the menus (which you can access only when the game has started, not from the main menu). And in a final slight to PC game players everywhere, Bully's tutorial tells you to press "mousewheel up" and "mousewheel down" at the same time. Some console-to-PC ports need a controller to be at their best, but given Bully's brand of third-person action, it shouldn't have been one of them.
As you move from one task to the next, you will discover some of Bully's other idiosyncrasies. This is a game that does a lot, though mechanically speaking, some aspects don't work as well as others. Triggering an event or opening a door can sometimes be a pain because, for whatever reason, even standing right on top of the marker won't always generate the prompt; bicycle and skateboard controls can be loose, which in turn leads to some frustration on certain missions; and some targeting foibles can make it tough to punch or aim, among other peculiarities. And in this version, you can add the occasional crash to the list--so save early, and save often.
It's unsurprising that a port of a two-year-old PlayStation 2 game wouldn't live up to current-day standards from a technical point of view. However, Bullworth is rendered with incredible style, from restrooms dingy enough to make you wrinkle your nose to a beautifully designed carnival funhouse that hits all the right notes. Yet while Bully's art design is outstanding, it's technically problematic. For some reason, outdoor environments are all washed out; everything is fuzzy and overlit during the day, as if you turned up the gamma settings on your monitor. There are also all sorts of weird lighting glitches, like flickers and blinking shadows. Additionally, Bully's technical performance is decidedly mediocre, and the slowdown isn't limited to the frame rate: The entire game speed lurches along, slowing down and hurrying up as you move in and out of more populated areas. At least you'll get an amazing sonic experience. As previously mentioned, the voice acting is outstanding, and everything from ambient sound effects to the eccentric minimalist soundtrack strikes just the right chord. However, we ran into a number of sound bugs, such as frequent occasions when voice-over and lip movement became desynched or when speech was completely inaudible.
If you skipped Bully the first time around, you should definitely catch up on what you missed--but you shouldn't do it with the PC version. The game offers plenty of memorable moments and crafts an adolescent world that is both surreal and painfully truthful, but a poor job of porting means that you need to overcome a number of obstacles to get the most out of it. The platform--and the game--deserve more respect than this.