"Whether you're the new kid at Bullworth or an accomplished alumni, Bully: Scholarship Edition is well worth your money, but only if you approach it with patience and keep your expectations in check."
Bully is a good game, make no mistake. I loved it on the PlayStation 2, and I looked forward to having an excuse to play through it again with Bully: Scholarship Edition. My hopes of playing through an enhanced version of Bully were all but destroyed when I heard about the many problems users were reporting upon its initial release, though. Crashes and freezes were frequent, framerates were inconsistent, and glitches in everything from character models to music made the end result something that I wanted no part of. I like Bully and all, but like hell I'm going to pay $50 for an inferior, buggy version of a game I've already played before.
Rockstar's quick response and announcement of a patch was reassuring, however. With such a fast turnaround time, it sounded like Bully's issues were a quick fix, and I looked forward to the results with renewed enthusiasm. After receiving the game, I waited until the patch went live, and I downloaded it hoping for the definitive Bully experience that I was expecting.
So does the patch provide the necessary fixes that users demanded? Well...it addresses most of them, at least. To its credit, I have not seen a single freeze or crash during the entire time I've spent playing the patched version of Bully: Scholarship Edition. I haven't seen a single glitch that I wouldn't also expect to see in the original PS2 release, and gameplay feels stable and consistent throughout.
The framerate, though. Oh man, that framerate. You'll be tempted to return the game and demand a refund upon watching Bully's intro movie. What was a smooth if graphically underwhelming real-time cutscene on the PlayStation 2 is a jerky, almost unwatchable mess on the Xbox 360. We're talking sub-Earth Defense Force 2017 framerate here, and Bully doesn't even have the excuse of its intro being filled with hundreds of giant ants.
Fortunately, in-game framerates fare a little better, though they're never as consistent as you'd like. Indoor environments often see a framerate that's freakishly fast, and rare, unpredictable bursts of 60 frames-per-second performance will take you off-guard and possibly nauseate you. Outdoor sequences are almost universally poor in terms of framerate, unfortunately (the carnival area is particularly awful), but after a half hour of gameplay or so, you'll scarcely notice the constant hiccups and jerkiness. Oddly, performance seems to get improve slightly over a long gameplay session, though this might just be my imagination.
While much of Bully's gameplay is unaffected by these problems, the framerate issues come into sharp relief during the classroom minigames, and can result in many failed tests. Timing-based actions in the music and chemistry classes are made unfairly difficult thanks to Bully's jittery performance, but the new Biology class -- a Trauma Center-styled dissection simulation -- is the worst offender. Biology's gameplay consists of guiding a small cursor over a non-animated prerendering of the object of your dissection. Not a single polygon is involved. It's a simple matter of sliding single-frame sprites over a still background. So why does the framerate slow to a chuggy crawl during this segment? Why should dissecting a 2D frog give off the impression that your Xbox 360 is being taxed so strenuously that it's in danger of overheating?
It's here that you realize that Bully's constant framerate problems are not the result of boundary-pushing graphic work or issues with data streaming. No, as you watch your cursor slowly skip over a painting of a frog's intestines, you'll realize that sloppy programming and a rushed port job are to blame for the majority of Bully's problems, and that its technical deficiencies are so widespread and thorough that patches will never offer a full fix.
Despite its problems, though, Bully remains a fun game from start to finish. It's really hard to fault Bully's underlying design. Where the Grand Theft Auto series can often seem bloated and overly complex, Bully encapsulates free-roaming sandbox gameplay in a modestly sized world. It's just big enough to offer an ample amount of freedom and plenty of things to do, yet you'll never feel overwhelmed. Whereas I gave up on just about every Grand Theft Auto title once I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility to complete a laundry list of missions and side quests, Bully's gameplay feels tight and compact. It's this streamlined approach to sandbox gameplay that encourages you to see the story through to the end.
The Xbox 360-exclusive Achievements are also well-designed, and add more to the overall game than you'd expect. Though a few are overly difficult and even buggy (witness the many sad tales at GameFAQs or Achieve360points.com describing hours spent struggling for 100% completion, after which the game refused to unlock the linked Achievement), the majority are easily attainable and fun to aim for. Many encourage the use of items and actions that you may otherwise ignore in a playthrough on other platforms, and the Bully experience is made richer and more fun when you're giving constant wedgies and stinkbombing the school population while Achievement hunting.
Bully's soundtrack deserves special mention as well. It's understated and modest, and it always fully suits the action on-screen. The bassline that plays when you're running around campus is likely to stick in your head for days, and almost all other tracks are just as fun to listen to. Bully's sound design as a whole is just as brilliant, and the voice work is perhaps the best to be featured in a Rockstar game to date.
Despite its technical problems, Bully veterans will still find Scholarship Edition to be a worthy, solid playthrough. The narrative is as enjoyable as it was on the PlayStation 2, and working your way through missions and sidequests for a second time will feel worthwhile thanks to Scholarship Edition's Achievements and extra features. The package will be of even greater value for those who missed Bully the first time around, and its annoyances might even be easily overlooked by those without prior expectations. Whether you're the new kid at Bullworth or an accomplished alumni, Bully: Scholarship Edition is well worth your money, but only if you approach it with patience and keep your expectations in check.
Freelance review by Danny Cowan (March 28, 2008)
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