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.
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.
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.
The missions in the game are split into a series of chapters - of which there'll be five or six in total, Rockstar tells me - and these take place over the span of one school year. The first chapter culminates in a battle with hardnut thicko Russell, who's been goaded by the treacherous Gary into taking you on. Defeating Russell involves dodging his attacks, which vary as he gets worked up, and striking back to whittle down his health. With that out of the way, you disavow Gary and help Russell up. There are loads of people at Bulworth who deserve a kicking, you tell him, but he's picking on the wrong ones. At this point, some more of Bulworth unlocks, too, giving you the chance to head out of school. Later you'll be able to head off to the carnival, beach or industrial district. The progression's very GTA-esque.
You're a student too, of course, so there's the clock to keep in mind. With two set periods to complete, before and after lunch, you'll need to head off to class when the bell goes, with several subjects to attend - chemistry, English, art, maths, gym and photography the ones mentioned. Each is set up as a mini-game, with five levels to work through during the term. Chemistry is a rhythm-response, for example, about bashing buttons as the corresponding symbols move through a Bunsen burner, while art is a sort of Snake clone where you need to move a pen from the top to the bottom of the screen without having the line you've drawn severed by a roving rubber.
Completing classes earns you new skills. Level 1 of chemistry allows you to create firecrackers with your chemistry set back in the dorm, while level 1 of art gives you a boost with the ladies, whom you can court by buying flowers, chocolates and so on, and chatting them up or even kissing them - providing they're into it. English will give you some more eloquent playground taunts. Interaction's a bit less dramatic than GTA's "ignore or punch"; here you can say something positive or negative. I don't know about you, but I always struggle to play the bad guy in this sort of game (I was rubbish at Knights of the Old Republic), so here I found myself looking after wayward youngsters and trying not to offend. Perhaps all this explains the spit-balls.
You can skip class though. If you do, a truancy notice flashes up under the mini-map. You have a grace period of about 30 minutes to get to class once it's started, in case you simply forget, but after that the prefects, teachers and even cops - if you're out and about - will swoop down and escort you to where you're supposed to be.
Actually fighting prefects and bullying other students upsets the status quo, and unless you've built up the various cliques' respect you won't make many friends this way. You can leg it, with a GTA-style limited-sprint system, and hide in lockers to evade detection, but it's far from ideal. Better just to go about your business.
That business - sorting out bullies, defending yourself, collecting things from town for the soup-soiling cook and generally helping out - earns you a few dollars to spend. To this end the town's dotted with shops and boutiques, allowing you to buy the odd new sweatshirt or some flowers for the girls. Some missions require you to customise your appearance with a different top or a new haircut.
Other missions I've tried include one called Panty Raid, where Jimmy happens upon a teacher coming out of a smut shop and agrees to go and steal some knickers for him. It sounds awful, but it's done very knowingly - and conveys the tone of the game neatly. Jimmy's incredibly savvy, agreeing to help the flapping teacher out and not to mention that he's seen him with a handful of porn magazines. The mission itself involves sneaking into the girls' dorm and dodging a teacher, whose angry stare is portrayed by a Metal Gear-style cone of vision on the mini-map radar.
On the whole it comes across very well. It's immediately playable, with some enjoyable systems tying it together and a variety of interesting mission types. Nothing ground-breaking, but nothing leg-breaking either. There's real humour to the script too, and the GTA staples of hidden side-missions and NPCs spouting amusing one-liners from just within earshot. After a spate of rather narrow-minded GTA clones, like Neversoft's GUN, it's as though Rockstar thought, "Well hey, if anybody's going to make a GTA clone and get it right, it ought to be us." The transformation seems fairly compelling.
On first impression, Canis Canem Edit isn't going to change the landscape of gaming, but equally important, for the people jumping up and down on its corpse (not even its corpse so much; it's more like they're stamping on Rockstar's womb), is that it's about as morally deficient as Ferris Bueller. I've been more appalled by Saved By The Bell. Whether or not the game can live up to this promising snapshot is a far more interesting debate than whether Rockstar's on a mission to profit off people's misery. On this evidence, it stands a good chance.
Canis Canem Edit is due out exclusively on PS2 this October.