Canis Canem Edit

Rockstar takes us to school.

Bullying takes many forms. I've experienced lots myself. Name-calling was pretty bad. And having things flicked at me - especially those revolting spit balls. It persists throughout life, so you grow a thick skin. Which helps when, say, you're caught making a fairly innocuous piece of software by a gang of influential loudmouths who then band together and slag you off without bothering to see what it's like first.

That's what's happened to Canis Canem Edit, and, having now played it, it doesn't feel like Rockstar has a case to answer. Yes there are bullies, and yes they do nasty things to people, but if you can watch an episode of Grange Hill without bursting into tears then you can happily live with this.

Parents needn't worry either. Given the backlash (or, in this case, pre-lash), you'd expect Canis Canem Edit to be a groin-stamping, librarian-raping monstrosity designed to provoke. It's really not. Protagonist Jimmy Hopkins is far from mean-spirited. His actions are down to you, but you needn't fill the vacuum with hate. Indeed, you're encouraged not to - the game punishes the sorts of things groups like Bullying Online rightly deplore. Run around Bulworth Academy picking on people and not only will the headmaster assign you backbreaking labour - which is genuinely boring to do - and take away your toys, but nobody in the school will like you either.

The introductory sequence sets Jimmy up nicely, sprawled on the backseat of his step-dad's car as his parents prepare to dump him at Bulworth and go on a year-long honeymoon. A freckly chap with a caustic sense of humour, you probably won't immediately take to him - but you won't mind him either. He's no more or less unpleasant than any of Grand Theft Auto's toonified protagonists - and as a bonus he doesn't crawl along kerbs looking for hookers to knife.

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Hop out of the car and the set-up's immediately familiar. There's a mini-map in the top-right that allows you to navigate your way through the school and nearby town of Bulworth, visiting your common room, dorm, classrooms and other areas. Along with a health-bar, there's a trouble meter. Throw some punches or duck out of class and the prefects and teachers come after you.

You're quickly introduced to the rest - the simple combat system, defined as you're picked on by a group of older thugs, offers punches, kicks and grapple combos, with weapons available to cycle through using L2 and R2 as you acquire them. You can lock onto targets with L1 and fire slingshots and throw eggs, stink bombs and the like using R1, and there are also some melee weapons like cricket bats, but nothing shockingly violent. There are certainly no guns or knives, and the thwacking sound effects are more like hearty thumps than wince-making cracks. As you go you'll unlock finishing moves, too, and humiliations - Chinese burns, wedgies and the like - but you'll want to pick your fights. In fact, you're best leaving the game to do it for you throughout its 50 compulsory story missions; if you don't want to end up mowing lawns or shovelling snow, it's best to defend yourself rather than causing mischief.

After the initial fight, you're whisked off to the boys' common room, where the ambitious, smooth-talking Gary offers to be your pal. So you hang around there, with a drinks machine to pep up your health, a TV, poker table and arcade machine to unwind with, and settle into the daily cycle. Each day at Bulworth Jimmy wakes rejuvenated in his dorm, where he can also save and switch clothes, and then has to head off to class. Between classes, and during the period after school (and, if you're particularly adventurous, after curfew), Jimmy can take on story missions. The system's much like GTA's, except there's a clock in the top-left that helps you bear in mind where you need to be.

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Soon you're embroiled in your first proper mission, Defend Bucky, which involves helping out a geeky kid who went off to get some stuff for a science project and didn't come back. Naturally he's fallen foul of bullies, so you race to where he is on the mini-map and help defend him - all the while his health bar is depleting. Once you've sorted out the bullies ganging up on him, you escort him to pick up his work and then help him back out to the gate.

Doing so earns the respect of the nerd clique, and pisses off the bullies. There are five groups like the nerds and bullies in total. You also have the preppies, dropouts and jocks, and each has their own hangout spot and familiar attire. As you undertake missions you build up respect, which makes things more comfortable for you as you mingle. Eventually, they'll leave you be entirely.

You also earn a skateboard, which aids you in getting around. By tapping X you can speed up, while square brakes, and you quickly get into the fluid process of tossing the plank down in front of you and speeding away, slipping off it again with L2 or R2 when you need to ascend some stairs.

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