After falling under the radar with its late ‘06 PS2 release (and being cancelled on the original Xbox), Bully makes its debut on a Microsoft system with an expanded “Scholarship Edition” that adds four new classes to the original game’s six, alongside some new missions and clothing items. Unfortunately, little was done to fix the problems of the original game, and the initial release of the SE featured some major glitches that weren’t in the original version. Despite these issues being resolved via an update - it still never fully lives up to its potential.
Just like the original, you’re thrown into Bullworth Academy as Jimmy Hopkins, an angst-filled teen, by his reviled mother and even more hated stepfather. Once there, you’ll take classes, earn the respect of some social factions, the scorn of others, and elude the capture of the always-roaming prefects out to keep the schools orderly.
Early on, you'll basically have to attend classes since you won't have many places to explore, and you'll need to complete classes in order to gain skills, learn your way around the campus, gain allies, and in doing so, figure out just how the game and its characters work. Once you unlock the ability to explore the town, and gain the skills needed to either butter up or escape from the clutches of authority figures, you'll be able to do just about anything you want.
The school-based portion of the game does an excellent job at giving you the tools needed to figure out how the town of Bullworth works, and serves as an enjoyable tutorial that shows you how to best solve the problems you'll encounter in your adventure. After it's done, you'll be able to look back and see how the missions you had to complete early on helped you progress - so whether it's learning new attacks from a homeless drunk, or defending a fat nerd from a pack of ‘50s era greasers, you'll need to use everything learned in the preliminary parts of the game to make progress later.
One thing that impressed me most about Bully when it first came out as that unlike the GTAs, the controls in Bully were sharper when moving around on foot, riding around on a skateboard, a bike, or a go-kart. The controls are a bit sharper on the 360 all around, especially with regards to aiming, which was slightly awkward on the PS2 version, but is much easier to do here using the 360’s D-pad.
Biking is easier to do here than in San Andreas, while the skateboard is perfect for people like me who enjoy the idea of virtual skateboarding, but don't feel like getting the newest Tony Hawk game to enjoy it. Here, I can get in as much or as little skateboarding as I want, and no other game will allow me to skateboard through the hallways of a school while knocking over students and faculty at will.
Arcade classics like Super Sprint, Qix (in the form of an art class assignment), and even Paperboy are paid tribute to here. The rhythm genre is represented by chemistry class, and by the SE-exclusive music class An F-Zero-inspired 3D racing game is available in various arcade machines, as well as a Trauma Center-esque dissection game for the new biology class. Side-scrolling shooters get some love in Bully, as do Dragon’s Lair/Shenmue-style QTEs via the game’s shop class, and you can even take up boxing. Some of these games (like the classes and paper route) can be used to progress in the game, either by completing the course, or simply making money to buy clothes or better equipment.
One thing that originally impressed me with Bully was how polished the mini-games were. In past Rockstar efforts, the controls would be clunky, or there just wouldn't be enough substance to make them worth playing after their required time. Things that I expected to be shallow, like the boxing, arcade racing, and go kart racing areas had more depth than I was anticipating. So much so that they remain fun despite about a year and a half passing by since I last played them on the 360.
Unfortunately, despite being on the 360, where online integration of some kind has seemingly become a standard feature, there’s no Live play enabled for any of the mini-games or classic game homages (or multi-player of any kind online). While I doubt the Super Sprint-esque mini-game would have garnered much play, it would have been nice to race others in the F-Zero-styled game, or have quick boxing matches with friends online, or possibly go at it in a go kart or bike race. Given how well-done many of the mini-games are, not seeing them available online seems like a huge waste.
The visuals in the Scholarship Edition also seem like a waste of the 360’s power since it’s just a gussied-up PS2 game in many ways, although there are some excellent parts to the graphics. The textures have been given an upgrade, so what was once a simple red couch on the PS2 is clearly now a red-colored cloth couch, with each stitch visible on the fabric. Most other objects have been given a similar facelift, with much higher-quality textures being used in place of the PS2 ones.
With so much improvement being shown in regards to the environments actually looking and feeling like real places, I'm disappointed that a lot of character animations are still shoddy. Fighting animations are a mixed bag as punches and kicks look fine in a way, as the characters attacking and the ones taking the attack react as they should, but the animations still lack life, and end up looking very stiff and robotic. Running, walking, biking, and skateboarding animations didn't fare so well either, as they also lack fluidity and look jittery. Given how much improvement was made to the textures, the animations come across as second-rate by comparison, and look much worse to me after becoming accustomed to more realistic, organic animations on the 360.
Just as it was on the PS2, Bully’s audio features a mix of Grease-ish tunes, light muzak, and a lot of funny voice work. There isn’t a lot of music here, but what’s here is good. The sound effects are mostly realistic, with some exaggerated ones thrown in for comedic effect, and the script’s sharp writing shines through. It’s not the great music or voice work ever in a game, but it’s all solid and works well. I wish that could be said about every part of the game.
On the PS2, Bully was glitchy, but not to the extent that it seriously hampered the game - some of the glitches even resulted in some unintentional comedy. In the initial 360, before a patch was released, Bully was a bug-ridden mess. I experienced characters twitching, then rotating in place for a few seconds, excessive slowdown, dialogue exchanges where the person I was talking to didn’t respond for about 30 seconds, environments popping in much later than they should, and the game has also completely frozen when the game loads (which also takes longer than it did on the PS2).
The saddest thing is that my experience seemed to be fairly light - I had previously read reports of those things occurring, plus having to deal with audio drop-outs, and having the game freeze during normal play on a regular basis. Fortunately, after the optional Xbox Live update, the game played smoother - the slowdown was a thing of the past, and the character twitching problems seem to be gone.
Unfortunately, environment pop-in is still a problem, and some players have reported that their copy actually plays worse after the update, so it doesn’t look like this is the cure-all update that was hoped for. After dealing with problems for weeks due to the poorly-tested initial release, that’s disappointing. I’m glad Rockstar released an update to try and resolve the problems, but after using it, it’s clear that the game still has some fundamental flaws that aren’t going to be fixed by a simple game update.
When it first came out, I thought that Bully would have benefited greatly from an increase in hardware, and I’m surprised to say that Bully fared better as an overachieving PS2 game than as an underachieving 360 game. Due to the SE’s problems even with the update, and overall lack of improvement, especially given how much more powerful the 360 is than the PS2, I‘m very disappointed at how poor this “Scholarship Edition” turned out to be. The high price tag of $50 compared to the PS2 original’s present one of $20 doesn‘t help either, as too little has been added to justify the increased cost.