Canis Cane-wha now?
It means 'dog eat dog', in case you were wondering. That's the Latin motto on the school crest of Bullworth Academy, setting for the latest free-roam-em-up from the Rockstar stable. And yes, we know what you're thinking upon hearing that: GTA. In the schoolyard. Controversial indeed - not helped, of course, by the game's original (and still its U.S release) name, 'Bully', and all the oh-so-wrong ideas a game of such ilk could lend impressionable under 18's.
You'll notice, however, that the game now known as Canis Canem Edit doesn't actually have an 18 certificate. Indeed, it's a 15. And, to be frank, were it actually the type of game some scaremongers first depicted, we simply wouldn't be stocking it, BBFC rating or not.
But, we're heartily happy to say, it isn't that kind of game. In terms of subject material, Canis Canem Edit owes less to Grand theft Auto and more to Grange Hill - with a visual side order of The Beano, and an aural accompaniment reminiscent in no small way of Harry Potter. Put simply, this is a game where you bash the bullies - not do the bullying yourself. And it's got more than its fair share of charm with it.
A young Wayne Rooney
That said, from the moment you roll up at the gates of Bullworth and see your parent's car careering into the distance, you get the feeling that your one-year spell at the 'worst school in the country' isn't going to be all commendations and kiss chase.
'You', in this case, is player character Jimmy Hopkins - an ostensibly good guy, who's admittedly a bit rough and ready, but generally falls into the bracket of 'just misunderstood'. Being the new kid, as well as the spitting image of a young Wayne Rooney (poor chap), Jimmy naturally becomes a prime target for the resident bullies - categorised by their un-tucked white shirts [my old head of year would be fuming if she played this - Ed] and violent demeanour - and has to defend himself with what turns out to be a combat system surprisingly similar to last year's Rockstar release, The Warriors.
There's no blood, though - we have to stress that. No blood, no guns, no knives - no weapon of any description you wouldn't expect to find in your average caricature of American school life - think The Simpsons, and you won't be going far wrong. Actually, that comparison is spot-on in a lot of cases; amongst Jimmy's favourite weapons are a slingshot, stink bombs, and at the game's very most violent, a baseball bat - while included in his preferred options of getting around (when you take walking and running out of the equation) are bicycles, and his trusty skateboard - or you can always take the bus if you don't want to manually travel. That's 'take it' in the commuter sense. Along with the lack of graphic violence and adult themes, there's strictly no grand thieving of automobiles here.
This is a game where you bash the bullies - not do the bullying yourself.
Much of the game, however, does feel very GTA. As already mentioned, the gameworld is typically free-roaming, and that's joined by another familiar GTA staple, the overhead map in the top right-hand corner, which provides you with waypoints to make getting around the school and surrounding town manageable. It's all typically Rockstar, and fans of their previous action adventures will have more than a fair idea of what to expect.
On a third count of familiarity, GTA's Wanted Meter has now been adapted to be the Trouble Meter - but it's here that the similarities diverge somewhat drastically. Canis Canem's central conceit is that you're a schoolboy, so if you get caught doing something you shouldn't - be it beating kids up, walking around an off-limits area like the girl's locker room, or playing truant, the game won't just lump you in jail a la Liberty City and co., but will actually see you punished by doing one of a few, to be honest slightly monotonous, mini-games; such as mowing the school's lawns after class.
Half-pint pullover wearing Bond villain
And that's the biggest way in which Canis Canem Edit differs both from GTA, and the game which so many people thought 'Bully' was going to be. Ingeniously, it discourages bullying on the part of the player by punishing wanton acts of violence with gameplay you'd really rather not be experiencing, leaving you with two real choices to avoid it - either get very, very good at running away and hiding in dustbins, lockers and the like or, more appropriately, just play the game according to the story structure. Which really is far more fun anyway.
The story itself starts with Jimmy making friends with, and, in honesty, mostly being taken advantage of by manipulative and megalomaniacal boy genius Garry, who, with a sort of half-pint pullover wearing Bond Villain quality to his character, is a very good example of the larger-than-life individuals who populate the school.
With extended play, however, things centre on Jimmy's ongoing quest to unite the school's legions of preppies, jocks, greasers and the perpetually picked-on nerds, while still trying to stay on the good side of his teachers by attending classes and taking the missions which further the story.
Attending classes in a game may sound unutterably dull, but lessons at Bullworth are far more fun than we remember.
The idea of attending classes in a game may sound unutterably dull, but lessons at Bullworth are far more fun than we remember from our youth. Chemistry class, for instance, it a basic rhythm-action minigame involving pressing certain buttons on the Dual Shock as they appear over the centre of the screen, while art involves trying to draw rectangles on a grid to uncover a picture (reminds us a bit of Catchphrase really - sadly sans Mr Chips. And Roy Walker. Boo!) while avoiding a rubber bouncing around the square, which will wipe out any uncompleted lines. All classes have several difficulty settings and completing them gives Jimmy a bonus for the rest of the game - with increased chemistry proficiency, for instance, allowing him to make more powerful stink bombs.
Missions are where these character augmentation aspects find fruit - ranging from basic fetch and carry quests, like picking up some shopping for the school cook, to jumping on your bike, peddling into the suburbs and egging a teacher's house; there's even a reasonably addictive racing engine in there, too. It's not highly original, but the setting and, in particular, the game's well-delivered dialogue give proceedings a character and unique feeling you won't find in any other game.
Above the average action-adventure
Moreover, the sandbox elements of Canis Canem are ever-present; even a bit of effort spent on something as banal as getting girls to like you by giving them gifts will allow you to eventually get a kiss off them - which along with drinks from vending machines, acts as a way to top up Jimmy's health - something that may be familiar to GTA fans, but is applied here with a certain cheekiness that stops things from ever going stale (unlike our memories of school dinners. Eurgh).
That might just epitomise Canis Canem's approach to the story-driven free-roamer better than anything else about the game. There's a certain comforting familiarity to what it is, but the sensitivity and care Rockstar have taken with the setting and in crafting the script raise it above the average action-adventure. It's not even the most spectacular looking game on PS2, but the aesthetic just works, as does everything else about its five chapter school-based melodrama. With Vice City Stories out on PSP, it likely won't be Christmas's biggest Rockstar title, and the 15 certificate will stop some younger gamers enjoying its delights, but Canis Canem Edit is the type of fun sandbox fare that will appeal to all, offering a childhood fiction everyone will identify with. This is perhaps the one Bully you really could love.
* Wonderfully original tongue-in-cheek story with larger-than-life characters and sitcom-esque presentation
* An altogether different type of sandbox title
* Brilliant audio
* Not the most graphically astounding game on PS2
* Some fetch-and-carry quests don't match the script's originality
* We'd have liked to have seen it set in an English school...