Before its release, Rockstar’s Bully found itself in the center of a media firestorm. The subject of nonspecific and wildly rampant hyperbole, popular media had a heyday painting it as a "Columbine simulator" and the next major piece of socially irresponsible entertainment set to corrupt the innocent and impressionable children of America. Since most of these claims were made by headline-hungry people who knew little to nothing about the actual game (or videogames in general), it comes as no surprise that the project is much tamer and far less violent than dozens of other discs passing completely under the radar of politicians and news anchors everywhere.
In all fairness, Rockstar didn't really do much to fight this portrayal of Bully. After all, it's said that bad press is better than no press, and what better way to achieve notoriety and “hot game” status than to position it as the thing that parents fear (and by extension, kids want)? It was the most intelligent thing they could have done, really, since Bully is nothing more than a Grand Theft Auto one-off dressed up in teenager's clothing.
Set in a boarding school, young Jimmy Hopkins is dropped off by his wealthy, negligent parents and left to his own devices. Engaging in the expected hijinks along the way, Jimmy, like our current president, is something of a "uniter.” Taking the disparate cliques so familiar to anyone who’s ever been to high school, he tackles them one by one and eventually becomes the common link joining these social circles together.
Although great care has been taken to illustrate Jimmy's world, Bully carries over many of the common characteristics found in Rockstar’s other work. Rough graphics, control issues, a poor targeting system, shoddy collision, and so on suggest to me that very little has been done to polish its underlying structure. As a player and critic, my opinion is that it's well past time for Rockstar to stop ignoring the obvious and invest more resources in the engines running its games.
Besides the technical issues, Bully also possesses the same basic identity as Rockstar’s biggest seller, Grand Theft Auto (GTA). With a duplicate open-world philosophy and random assortment of missions scattered throughout the map, I was on familiar ground instantly. Although concessions have been made to make the experience more player-friendly (handy bus stops acting as quick returns to school grounds, easily available weaponry in Jimmy's room, the ability to gain life by kissing passing schoolgirls, and so on) many of the nonsensical hoops that GTA players suffer through still remain. As someone who’s spent time with nearly every title they've published, it's quite tiresome to again be confronted with Rockstar's stubborn resistance to improving their formula—little things like adding a "restart" option for failed missions, or reducing the need to constantly traverse large stretches of the map to get from mission to mission would go a long way to making their games less tedious.
These similarities to GTA might not be so damning if not for the fact that so many of the missions are simple fetchquests requiring a player to travel to X location, and deliver item Y to person Z. This is stuff I’ve been doing for years, and it stopped being engaging a while ago. There are a few inspired missions like stealing the school mascot uniform to sabotage a football game, but most of the tasks were just variations of the same thing and instantly forgotten after completion. Although people who aren’t already well-versed in the GTA style may get more mileage out of Bully, the entire adventure was stale and repetitive, not expanding in any significant way over what Rockstar has already established multiple times.
Unfortunately, Bully’s largest asset and potential saving grace—the school environment and cultural content common to the vast majority of gamers—is undercut by a scattered central plot that doesn’t hold together. The general concept of Jimmy uniting the school is clear, but the details are lost jumping between the disparate, disconnected missions. Bully also fails to make the grade in terms of character development. Friends become enemies in the span of one cutscene with no explanation, and in practically every story segment from beginning to end, Jimmy belches the same "what's going on?"—a sentiment echoed by me as I wondered where the storytelling was.
I appreciate Rockstar's effort to take its most significant contribution to videogaming and reshape it into a form that's friendlier and more appropriate for younger gamers. There's no denying that the academic setting will more palatable to some than the usual depiction of gangster life. However, Bully is the same product I’ve already consumed four-plus times before, and an interesting thematic twist isn’t enough reason to sing its praises. Bully is even further lessened in light of the fact that it comes on the heels of what I consider to be one of videogaming's significant achievements, San Andreas. Still, I can't fault Rockstar for creating a product that seems more "socially responsible" than people accuse them of being, and any developer deserves to profit by cashing in on the fruits of their past labors. Bully may not be the step forward (or even the societal poison) some might have expected, but it is competent at what it attempts to do. To many gamers, this alone will be enough.