Bully is the latest free-roaming game from Rockstar, the makers of the Grand Theft Auto series.

A quite pleasant experience. Lower-key in many ways compared to the only exemplar of the latter that I’ve had the pleasure of playing. A smaller environment, not as long a game, much less over the top in terms of violence. Nary a car-jacking to be found; you might be able to steal a bike, but you have your own parked in garages, and running and skateboarding are both quite workable forms of transportation. Not by any means a paean to sweetness and light – no guns, but a fair amount of punching, and while your character isn’t as ruthless in his search for power as the GTA:SA protagonist, he doesn’t exactly shy away from the idea, either.

All of which has its plusses and minuses. I think I spent almost half a year going through GTA:SA; it was worth it, but that’s not the sort of time commitment I’d want to make very often. The map is a nice balance between having quite a lot of twists and turns to explore but still being entirely manageable if you have to get from one side to another. (No need here for the three cities division of the GTA:SA map.) Not quite as many gameplay options as GTA:SA; then again, some of the latter’s options (flight training) sucked. And being gun-free is more or less strictly a plus for me; I’ve been known to quite enjoy games that are full of shooting, but I’m quite happy to have my distance weapon usage be relatively rare and largely limited to the slingshot. (Though others make appearances – the potato gun, bottle rockets, water balloons.) Individual missions are, on the average, shorter and less challenging.

Having said that, it’s a much less rich game than GTA:SA, and the highs are definitely not as high. The plot is interesting enough but with less depth; there isn’t much in the way of interweaving story lines; the mission tree doesn’t have as many parallel branches; there’s nothing in the game that compares with, say, GTA:SA’s radio stations.

What else? Classes are a nice addition to the gameplay mechanic: pleasant challenges (at least once I figured out that, in shop class, it’s important to start doing what they say as quickly as possible) that are quite different than the regular missions, a nice leveling-up mechanism, and if you’re not in the mood, you should be able to play hooky without getting caught. And I ran out of classes at about the time that I got tired with them. I do wish that I’d taken part in more of the other non-mission challenges – the races are a bit boring (in particular, the bike races are way rubber-banded, to the extent that nothing but the last 30 seconds or so matters) – but many of the “do random things for strangers” tasks are pleasantly fun. (I’d avoided them since the early school tasks like that seemed both boring and (at times) gratuitously mean.) Nice to try to fill up the yearbook with pictures. (But annoying since you don’t have a way to reliably learn other student’s names – who is this Justin person that I’m looking for?) Compared to GTA:SA, there aren’t particularly many important third-person characters, and they’re not drawn very richly; the flip side is that there’s a manageable number of fellow students (50 or so) whom you frequently encounter even while wandering through town, so there are always familiar yet distinctive faces around, as opposed to a mass of anonymous yet repetitive strangers.

Definitely a good choice; I’m quite pleased with it. I haven’t played enough free-roaming games to get tired of the genre (they’re expensive to develop, I suppose there aren’t that many out there), but even if I had, I suspect that I would like Bully. It may not be hugely ambitious, but it’s not excessively imitative, either: it has its style, it has its design choices, they work well.

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