You can't really discuss Bully without dipping into the controversy that has surrounded its release. Believe me, I tried to think of so many other ways to begin this review, but I could never completely sidestep the issue at hand. From Jack Thompson's usual bellyaching to state judge's playtesting the game beforehand and a prompted name change in Europe, Bully has been through more crap in the weeks before its arrival than probably any other game in industry history.
Of course, this is what media hype does – simultaneously criticizing content and fostering sales – without knowing Jack about it in the first place. Whatever happened to not judging a book by its cover or, you know, investigative journalism? Who ever publishes the stories they get wrong? The controversy quickly deflated as actual reviews came out and gamers themselves got their hands on Bully. Even the above-mentioned judge gave the game a pass (though it begs the question why it needed to be singled out in the first place, when many other elements of popular entertainment get a free ride all the time) and a few people in the mainstream media finally caught on. Peter Hartlaub, a journalist for the San Francisco Gate, wrote:
When it comes right down to it, there's very little about Bully that's controversial at all. The violence isn't bloody, the sex is non-existent, and the language is limited to what I like to call "TV swearing" – as in the kind of mild cussing you'll see on your average prime-time programming. A lot of it still comes off as rather superfluous (it's not meant to be taken completely serious), but it's all innocuous.
What you will find in Bully is an overall engaging storyline, unique characters, plenty of pranks and victimless hijinks, and a fairly open-ended world that Rockstar has come to be known for. The developers have made strides to distance Bully from Grand Theft Auto, but it still bears a remarkable likeness in terms of gameplay mechanics and mission structure. The mini-map, the familiar checkpoint races, the clothing/haircut shops that allow you to change Jimmy Hopkin's appearance? All present. Even the fighting system takes direct cues from last year's The Warriors.
Regardless, Bully is able to stand on its own as a game brimming with content, even in its relatively small setting (the New England town of Bullworth, roughly the size of one of the cities in GTA 3). It's more intimate and each character in the game has his/her own unique model and voice actor. This does present a problem, because it leaves the developers only a set number of citizens to work with. You'll find some in specific areas and they'll perform random actions to make them seem more alive, but it's nowhere near as deep as, say, Oblivion's NPCs who have specific daily routines.
Still, you could walk by a character, then see the same one just a block down the road when there was no possible way for them to get over there that fast. It's one of those niggling problems that can bring you out of the game for a moment.
Another problem arises in the actual telling of the story. Despite my love of such movies as "Revenge of the Nerds" and "The Breakfast Club" which clearly inspire the plot of Bully and the interesting characters, the core game is far too short and disconnected to flesh the world out as fully as it possibly could have been. I kept feeling like pieces were missing and confrontations were resolved too fast. Heck, Jimmy's main rival disappears for most of the game after the first chapter.
Those who strive for 100% completion can clearly extend the experience (in fact, the game even gives you an "Endless Summer" mode after completing the main story to go back and finish everything you missed), but a tad bit more cohesiveness could have gone a long way.
Aesthetically, the game occupies a sort of middle-ground between GTA and the better-looking games of this generation. Characters animate well and the environments are reasonably detailed, but technical points like textures and polygon levels remain somewhat low. Ironically, what shines is the soundtrack. Not simply because it's good, but because it manages to be so in spite of the fact that it is not licensed . No radio stations or eclectic collection of station DJs here, but a fantastic composition remains in place. It fits the mood perfectly.
Bully comes together as a game that manages to be both somewhat derivative and unique. I never felt like it was particularly new or fresh in terms of gameplay mechanics, but it does tackle a setting and issues that rarely come up in the world of video games, because the industry, media, and (sadly) many gamers are too caught up in getting all googly-eyed over empty violence to appreciate when a game tries to rise above such shallow meanderings.
You can be one of the titular bruisers in Bully if you want – toss eggs and shoot bottle rockets at people all day long if you want – but you can't truly progress in the game unless you come to understand anti-hero Jimmy's actions. He may use his fists to solve problems and he may have gotten kicked out of several different schools on his way to Bullworth Academy, but that's because he fundamentally rejects what's rotten in our world – selfish, moralizing adults who are worse at following their own platitudes than those that they force them on and a dog-eat-dog social structure that rewards those with unbridled ambition and "manliness" over people who have real talent and compassion for others.
Of course, Jack Thompson wouldn't know that because he's too busy being one of those unruly adults that Bully spends a lot of time skewering.