Parents today are so scared that bullies will beat up their kids, or that their bully kids will beat up a member of the black-trenchcoat mafia, that Rockstar's latest title triggered a firestorm more than a year before it hit the shelves. But the actual game takes the easy way out: Rather than casting you as a bully or a victim, Bully tells the story of a social outcast and sort-of psycho who doesn't fit either extreme. Jimmy Hopkins is the new kid at a thuggish boarding school, where you won't find a single sympathetic character or clique. Jimmy winds up protecting the nerds from the bullies, but the nerds—who are armed to the retainers with firecrackers and stink bombs—look like they can take care of themselves. And even after Jimmy has beaten the crap out of everybody who stands in his way, he doesn't seem to know why he bothered. Maybe he is just a psychopath.
The first few minutes of Bully are claustrophobic and off-putting, but as soon as you and Jimmy settle in, the game becomes surprisingly endearing. Holidays come and go, your acts of revenge grow sweeter, and the kids (especially the girls) start to show you respect. New locations open up off-campus, like a carnival, a decrepit asylum, and of course, plenty of teachers' houses waiting to be egged. After you've mastered the art of playing hooky and sneaking around in the middle of the night, Bully starts to feel like a vulgar Harry Potter; it's a sometimes-fantastical story about learning to survive, and then love your school. But it helps if you're the one on top.
Beyond the game: Though it isn't Grand Theft Auto: Columbine, Bully is still catching flak for a different issue: If you're tired of kissing the girls, it turns out that a few of the boys are up for smooching, too.
Worth playing for: The Grand Theft Auto-style gameplay and BMX bikes adapt well to a game where the deadliest weapon is a slingshot, and compelling writing keeps the simple premise from running dry.
Frustration sets in when: Jimmy automatically falls asleep at 2 a.m. every night, and there's nothing as frustrating as racing out of the girls' dorm with an armful of panties, only to pass out on the front steps.
Final judgment: An engaging trip back to the days before guns took the fun out of school violence.