Okay, so the controversy over Canis Canem Edit isn’t entirely undeserved. This is a game where kids beat up other kids, and occasionally do so with baseball bats. It is a game that encourages the throwing of bricks and bin-lids, a game in which many situations are best dealt with by violence, theft or both, and a game in which the lead character is the sort of ASBO-flaunting teen who keys your car on the way home from a night drinking cider in the park. If you let a ten-year-old anywhere near it, you’re absolutely mad.
On the other hand, none of this changes the fact that Canis Canem is an absolutely stunning example of game design, arguably doing more to advance the open world genre than any of the so-called next-gen efforts – Saints Row or Just Cause for example – with a shift away from the basic fast-driving, sharp-shooting, gang-banging nonsense that GTA first bought to the party, and towards a game of more intimate and varied goals and challenges. In fact, the game it’s closest to in spirit is Dead Rising; by narrowing down the game world to a fairly small area and populating it with a more interesting cast of characters, both games build an environment that feels richer in life and personality. Never mind the size, check out the depth.
Here that environment is Bullworth Academy, an educational institution run by a vaguely psychotic faculty, and peopled by a collection of rich-kids, hardnuts and assorted social misfits. After a brief ‘welcome to the school’ preamble, Jimmy’s relatively free to explore it, completing missions and side-tasks, making friends and enemies, and endeavouring to stay out of trouble.
Why only relatively free? Well, unlike GTA and most open-world games, in Canis Canem your day is highly structured. You’re expected to get up in the morning, go to your first lesson, have a short lunchtime break, return for a second lesson, enjoy a little time in the evening, then be back in the boy’s dorm before bedtime. Of course, you don’t need to stick to this routine – in fact, you won’t get very far if you do – but the halls and pathways of Bullworth are patrolled by zealous prefects, and if they catch you playing truant during lesson-time or trespassing school buildings after nightfall then there will be repercussions.
This instantly has a major effect on the way you play. Firstly, some sections have to be played like Metal Gear Solid-lite, with Jimmy sneakily completing objectives while dodging the gaze of nearby prefects (handily shown on the on-screen mini map). Secondly, a smart player learns to organise missions around the structure of the day, as it’s easier to achieve certain tasks while the prefects are off-guard (during lunchtime or early evening) or while the halls are mostly deserted. Finally, you learn the benefits of developing short-cuts (so you can escape the prefects in a chase) and using the bins and lockers to hide-in (always good when the heat is on).