It's hard to write about Rockstar's latest schoolyard bruiser, Canis Canem Edit (formally known as Bully) and not make comparisions to the studio's other free-roaming action series, Grand Theft Auto.
To be fair, Canis' is a bit more Grange Hill than The Sopranos, but it does share many often-overlooked traits with the acclaimed crime-em-up, like a massive and varied mission structure, well-penned and hilarious characters and a game world we could easily lose ourselves in for an entire weekend. Indeed, from what we've sampled we reckon this could be the best game to exit Rockstar's doors in... well, since GTA.
Swinging open the school gates, we were recently granted an unrestricted play-through of the first few hours of Canis', which included the entire first chapter and a portion of the second.
In case you've missed it thus far, the game plays out the story of unfortunate schoolboy Jimmy Hopkins, a 15-year-old ginger hoodlum who's been expelled from every school he's ever been to. Which brings us swiftly to Bullworth Academy, the bully-filled boarding school Jimmy's been dumped at by his mother and her upteenth husband.
Essentially, it's the game we all dreamed of playing when we were teenage tear-aways; Bullworth has all the usual traits of a regular school like woodwork lessons, cafeteria and bundles, except in Canis Canem Edit you can strut the halls chatting up girls, beating-up bullies and throwing bricks through your English teacher's windows without fear of real life detention.
An early mission introduces me to the Canis hoodlum gameplay nicely, tasking me with fetching a tearful fat girl's stolen chocolates. In every part of the school prefects patrol the halls and will quickly drag you to the principle's office if you're up to no good. This is all determined by the trouble meter situated in the top right of your display; the meter will rise depending on the severity of your mischief. Headbutting a teacher, for example will land you in the red-zone, with no chance of a button-mashing escape from the prefect's clutches.
This particular mission leads me through the halls to the boys lavatory where our chocolate hoodlum is scoffing his loot. A swift punch to the chest hands over the sweets, but thanks to an overlooking teacher I'm now the attention of every spying authority. You can use the HUD map very effectively to avoid falling into the gaze of a prefect, whos cone vision is provided on-screen, and when locked in a pursuit there's plenty of bins lying around for you to dive into, putting you into a first-person spy-perspective to make sure you're in the clear.
Combat itself works really well. Simple combos start you off on a gentle learning curve, chaining up punches, throws and grapples for various effects. As you progress in the game you'll learn new moves from gym class and an ex-solider tramp living behind a school bus, who'll teach you headbuts and uppercuts in exchange for radio parts scattered through-out the world. Keeping with the spirit of the game, there are also 'humiliation moves' that you can perform when your opponent is on his last legs - like making them punch themselves or spitting in your hands and wiping it in their faces. Schoolyard classic, that one.
To me, the most impressive part of Canis though is the amount of work Rockstar has put into making each character unique. There are over 100 different characters in the game, each with their own names, voices an personalities, who you will get to know through missions and fetching tasks. After a few hours, running through the halls I could spot different students immediately. It's cliched, but Canis works ways into creating a living, breathing school.