Some of Rockstar's games are really great at evoking the zeitgeist of a particular time and place. Vice City and San Andreas are the standouts of the GTA series thanks in no small part to their 1980s Miami and early 90s Compton settings, respectively. Bully centers around a prep/boarding school, which is an experience most of the gaming audience probably has never had, but it also does a fantastic job of evoking being a kid in Buttcrack-Of-Nowhere USA, where free time is full of skateboarding and bike tricks, M-80s and slingshots, pranks and petty vandalism, and getting excited about going to a theme park for a day.
We start the game off with a simple enough backstory; Jimmy Hopkins, aged 15, is being dumped off at boarding school for a year while his mother goes on a ridiculously long cruise with the man she just married. He's had the misfortune to get dumped off at the worst boarding school in America, Bullworth Academy; first walking onto the grounds is like walking into a prep school version of Mad Max. Fortunately Jimmy is more than a bit of a natural bully himself, and rather than be cowed by the prison yard environment, he decides to get about running the school under his own iron fist.
The game uses a slightly modified version of the San Andreas engine. Obviously, there's no guns, so combat instead revolves around an enhanced fighting system that allows you to execute various combos by alternating the Square and Triangle buttons while locked on to a foe with L1, and also grappling and taking them to the ground for various other moves. Projectile weapons consist of prank items - a slingshot, eggs, stink bombs, M-80s, and eventually a potato gun. These operate more like a 3D Zelda game than GTA - lock on to automatically throw at someone with L1, or press Up on the pad to go into an over-the-shoulder manual aim mode. Otherwise, it's the same style of taking on various missions at your own pace in between the usual open-world hijinks and collect-a-thon. Instead of Bloods and Crips and Haitian boys shakin' dey heads or whatever, the factions in this one are school gangs and cliques - the Jocks, Nerds, Preppies and Greasers. Initially everyone but the Nerds are hostile to Jimmy and will challenge him on sight, but the game's missions have you alternating between appeasing and combatting them, with the eventual goal of getting them all to recognize Jimmy as boss of the school.
The game is divided into days, which initially fly by at the rate of about a minute per second of real-time. Each day has two classes for you to attend; you're free to skip them, but being out and about while they're in session raises your Trouble meter enough that school prefects, teachers and police officers will chase you on sight. Classes consist of doing various mini-games, or in the case of Photography class, roaming around outside taking pictures within a time limit. At first the game's zippy time system is annoying; you've barely got time to get to class each day, much less do anything else. Unlike the GTA games, where doing the story missions too soon is often detrimental, the key to this one is blitzing both the classes and the first chapter missions as quickly as possible. Each class only has five installments, and once all are successfully completed, you don't ever have to go back. Also, completing the first chapter gives Jimmy a skateboard and access to bicycles to get around much faster, as well as allowing you to leave the school grounds and explore the nearby town of Bulworth. Aside from greatly expanding the environment, this also allows you to alter Jimmy's haircut and clothes in San Andreas style. Once you've completed the first chapter and the initial classes, you can settle in and really start exploring the environment for all the side missions and collectable stuff.
Bully is way more easy and gentle than any of the PS2-era GTAs. Timed missions are always comfortably generous in their time limits, there's no nightmarish combat sequences or boss battles in the story, even the side races are easier to deal with. Other than a bad series of "stealth missions" to close out the final chapter (not even all that hard, just irritating), there's actually a bit of a lack of challenge here; fortunately that's counterbalanced by the detailed environment, charm and fun of exploration. Once everything is opened up in Chapter 5, the game world is roughly GTA 3-sized, maybe a bit smaller.
Though the graphics are typical PS2 blahness that haven't aged well at all, Bulworth is generally well-constructed with some really nice scenic vistas. The soundtrack is surprisingly excellent. GTA games usually have no music save the radio stations once in cars, but with no carjacking here, the game has a constant soundtrack that reminded me of '90s LucasArts games mixed with the soundtracks to the two Amiga Elvira RPGs, and seasoned with a liberal dose of wah-chika-wah funk guitar. I don't know if it's something I'd listen to on an ipod but it was a consistently excellent ambient background score.
* Gameplay Video