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Luckily, when you are captured during lesson-time you’ll usually just end up in class, which is far from the worst place you can be. Unlike so many of the real-life lessons I endured in my far-gone school days, these bring tangible benefits. Just complete the simple mini-games – making words out of a jumble of letters in English, or finishing a simple rhythm action game in Chemistry – and you’ll learn to taunt your way into trouble or grovel your way out of it, or how to manufacture stink bombs and itching powder. Even Gym class has its uses, as you can build up fighting moves in the wrestling ring or improve your accuracy with the school’s makeshift projectiles.
While all this is going on, you’re also making your way through the school’s social scene. There are individual bullies wandering around, plus cliques of nerds, preppies, greasers and jocks to deal with. Befriending these groups makes sense – they’ll offer you missions and occasionally help you out with items – while antagonising them can make your life much harder. True, you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs, but the more you beat up on one group, the more they’ll look to gang up and give you payback. And if you’re wondering how threatening a gang of nerds can be, remember: these guys might be busy playing ‘Grottoes and Gremlins’, but they sure know their way around a stink bomb.
The basic ingredients of the game are solid, but what makes the game work is the way they’re all put together. Bullworth is a fantastically consistent universe. The school itself is laid out logically and easy to navigate, but chock-full of shortcuts and secret areas to discover, while the cast is full of personality. From drunk teachers to fascist headmasters, gruesome cooks to grizzled, war-vet tramps, geeks both scrawny and chubby, short-skirted bimbettes, tiny whiners and brain-dead beefcakes, the game throws in every schoolyard cliché going yet fills each one out with some individual detail. The dialogue isn’t always hugely funny – or at least not as funny as it thinks it is – but it’s never less than acutely observed. Compare it to the empty stereotypes of Just Cause, Scarface or Saints Row and it’s hard not to be impressed.
The missions, meanwhile, are mostly excellent. Yes, there are the traditional fed-ex delivery missions and collect ‘em all jobs, but even these are given a twist by the choice of item locations (the girl’s toilets, the school trophy cabinet) or the presence of the ever-vigilant prefects. Otherwise, stealing back a revealing diary or playing mildly unpleasant planks on Halloween night is a lot of fun, as is protecting a wannabe nerd politician from stone-throwing hecklers.