Due more to its name than anything else, Rockstar Games' Canis Canem Edit is set to be the most controversial game of the year. When it was first announced at last year's E3, the usual suspects (Keith Vaz among them, making a bid to become the UK's answer to Jack Thompson) called for it to be banned, in concert with anti-bullying websites (Bullying Online continues its call for a ban). Thompson, naturally, indulged in his usual frothing at the mouth, an act he has resumed recently, now that Rockstar has announced an October launch date and released a trailer and some new screenshots. Not to mention shown us the game.
Yes, indeed: we have seen a goodly swathe of Canis Canem Edit - down at Rockstar's Kings Road offices. And we can report that it is a rather amusing piece of action-adventure froth that majors on playing things for laughs and, after Table Tennis and the Midnight Club games, is perhaps the tamest, most innocuous effort that Rockstar has ever come up with. Not that trivia like actually seeing what the game is like would have any bearing on the Moral Majority's wish to see it banned.
So, what is it really like? Well, best perhaps to start from the beginning. The intro movie shows the game's protagonist, 15-year-old ginger teen Jimmy Hopkins, being driven to Bullworth Academy by his mother and her umpteenth husband. It is made clear that Jimmy, sulking on the back seat, hates his stepdad and is a troubled teen. He is dumped unceremoniously at the gates of Bullworth Academy (supposedly set in New England), with the words: "See you in a year's time."
Which gives the first gameplay hint - Canis Canem Edit takes place over the course of a year, during which the four seasons will pass (the game has a weather engine). Jimmy's first task is to find his dorm room and change into his school uniform - prefects and teachers will bust him if he is not wearing it on campus. On the way there, a quick cut-scene introduces you to Russell, a hulking idiot renowned as the biggest bully in the school. In his room, Jimmy can change clothes, save the game and collapse onto his bed to sleep - being a 15-year-old, he needs his sleep, and if he stays out too late, the screen will blur, he will start moving slowly and will eventually pass out.
Next-door to Jimmy's dorm-room is the boy's common room, with a TV, pool table and arcade machine - which can all be used (Canis Canem Edit is packed full of mini-games) - and a soda dispenser, which restores health. Scripted schoolboy shenanigans and the odd cut-scene (for example, introducing Jimmy to his first "friend", Gary), take place there.
The school campus is realistically large, consisting of all the buildings you'd expect to find at a school. It positively teems with pupils, teachers and prefects, in a pleasingly life-like manner. It has plenty of things you can interact with - for example, footballs you can kick (quite violently) at other pupils.
The teachers and prefects will bust Jimmy for any transgression, such as pinching a girl's bum or being truant from class (you're not registered as truant until half an hour's worth of game-time has elapsed from the start of the class). Depending on the severity of the offence (signalled by a colour system in the HUD), they will chase you and, if they catch you, haul you up to the headmaster's study. The headmaster will give you a dressing-down and confiscate one of the items that you have earned by completing missions. But the third time you're hauled up in front of the beak, you'll be given a manual labour task to perform, which depends on the season - in summer, it'll be mowing the football pitch, in winter, shovelling snow from around the teachers' cars. If you're busted, your best plan is to leg it, and hide in a locker or even a waste bin.