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Back-to-School Blues

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You could say many things about the new Rockstar game "Bully." But describing it as "'The Sims' with wedgies" seems about right.

While most of us were happy to get out of high school in one piece, Rockstar thought it would be a blast to relive the days of Indian burns and chemistry exams. Critics feared the game would provide a road map for school violence, but Rockstar just wanted to provide an open-ended simulator filled with jocks, preppies, auto-shop toughs, nerds and, of course, bullies. No, this wasn't going to be a happy-go-lucky, interactive "Grease." Then again, it wasn't going to be a dreary "Basketball Diaries," either.

At Bullworth Academy, players take on the role of Jimmy Hopkins, a 15-year-old pugilist who has no particular reason to take any push without returning a shove. And since you've been dumped into this private-school compound for the next year, your days and nights play like an episode of "Oz," if the writers for National Lampoon had gotten a hold of the script and rewritten the lead for John Belushi.So, along with the brutality and unpleasant violence of bigger kids lording over smaller kids, you get satire, slapstick and a little sophomoric humor thrown in for good measure.

What is missing, oddly enough, is the interesting transgressive behavior that put Rockstar on the cultural map. Gone is the "Grand Theft Auto" larceny and excessive vice. Sure, you can rumble with other playground troublemakers. But there's no blood involved. Yes, you might enter a fray by the auto shop with a baseball bat. But you're more likely to do your fighting with stink bombs and itching powder.

Once you've gotten past the idea that Rockstar sanitized its iconic style of game play into a wry, after-school special, you can begin to appreciate just how weird this game really is.

In an industry filled with space monsters, Nazis and the living dead, it's funny to think that skateboarding, racing to get to class, learning fighting moves from the hobo who lives behind the school, harassing townies, and running a protection racket for nerds can hold a gamer's attention. Even when you sneak into the girls' dorm in search of new missions, you are reminded that Animal House offered more salacious thrills than you get here.

In a way, "Bully" succeeds because it offers a toned-down game in which you can't be too bad, and a heroic deed is as simple as retrieving a classmate's homework from some bully.

Who's It For: Fans of the "Grand Theft Auto" series will recognize the Rockstar blueprint. Kinder and gentler than its previous games, "Bully" carries plenty of smarts and provides polished play that will keep you skipping virtual classes for hours.

If You Like This, Try That: When you're done with school, graduate to the Rockstar masterpiece, "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." Sure, you can do a lot of unpleasant things in this game. But you can also fly around a simulated Hollywood with a jetpack. "San Andreas" stands as one of the biggest, most enjoyable games of recent memory.

Best Part: Riffing off a well-known feature in "Grand Theft Auto" involving ladies of the night, the protagonist of "Bully" earns a 25-percent health boost whenever he smooches a girl.

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