At the risk of plagiarising John's excellent review of Pathologic... Actually, where's the risk in plagiarising John? I can simply poke him in the stomach! Prod. So: "Living city". It's a misnomer, for the most part. The city only ever lives when you start changing it. If you don't start, it never will.
It's a good point. Trees in games don't make a sound when they fall over in a forest and no-one's there, because they don't fall over. They don't even exist unless you're there. Grand Theft Auto has this problem, but then the whole point of GTA is that you're bigger than the city. It's subservient. GTA's not a Truman Show; it's a God Game, where everything bends to your whim - even time. It's still annoying though. It's a game where you can stand still for 50 days and it's as though nobody noticed.
Dead Rising turned this on its head to some extent. One of the reasons I love it so is that the trees do exist, they do fall over, and you've no chance of getting to all of them in time to see or hear it happen. And while Canis Canem Edit doesn't quite go that far (nor, sadly, does it allow you to hack up the other students), it does break free of its structural education in the Scottish playgrounds of Liberty, Vice and San Andreas in another way: you've got to work around the school bell. Tommy Vercetti, Tony Cipriani, Carl Johnson - Rockstar's criminals have a pliable relationship with time. Jimmy Hopkins has a pliable relationship with authority, but he's still forced to work within boundaries - this is one of many things that separates Canis Canem Edit from its rivals.
From the first morning after you arrive at Bullworth Academy, your adventures need to be undertaken in the context of your other obligations. You can roam around, meet people, explore the grounds looking for hidden surprises; but if you're caught out of class during the morning or afternoon period, you'll be hotly pursued by prefects - little red dots with visible cones of vision on your radar - until you can hide, or until you're brought to heel and sent to lessons. If it's after curfew, you're sent to bed. Add to that that certain things are only open at certain times of day, and some missions only occur on special occasions - like Halloween - and it lends the unliving city of Bullworth more credence. You're under pressure, and it's compelling. You're like Harry Potter with a slingshot and a skateboard.
It's a bit of an existential point, but it's one of many things that struck us when we went back to school with Rockstar this week. Given the chance to spend over three hours exploring the first chapter of Canis Canem Edit, we were given a really good sense of the game's tone, pace, content and structure.
It's best thought of as a kind of Grand Theft Auto spin-off where the authority has yet to lose control, but where your exceptional talents as the world's key player are much more carefully integrated. Tossed out of the car by your unlikable parents, you almost immediately have to fend for yourself. On the way to the dorm, you're tackled by the preps, grounding you in basic combat techniques - fisticuffs! Separated and sent on your way, you're met by Gary, a poncy kid with ADD who clearly wants to build an empire and use you as a blunt instrument for doing so; in the dorm, you change into your school clothes, save your game in your diary, and pass the bed where you'll have to sleep at night in order to recoup energy. You also meet Pete, an effeminate young fellow whom Gary likes to pick on, but it's Gary who drags you on a whistlestop tour of the school and how to do wrong in it, learning how to spot prefects and hide from them, pick your way into lockers (rotating the analogue stick to fiddle with the padlock tumbler), and when all else fails how to apologise (L1 + X).
You also meet Eunice, a chubby girl whose chocolates have been pinched, and by greeting her (L1 + X, again), you're able to take on the task of getting them back, for which she thanks you by planting herself on your lips. As you move about the school later, you hear other students mentioning this - partly a nice example of how the world changes its view of you, and partly the first signs of Gary's Machiavellian counter-intelligence. Into the cafeteria you then go, to meet the groups that make up the student body - the preps, the greasers (think T-Bird jackets and pomade), the nerds and jocks - and their relative levels of respect for you will also vary as you integrate with the campus. Then the school bell goes, the pocket-watch takes its permanent place in the top-left of the screen, and the pressure begins to manifest itself.
You might imagine attendance of your classes is the punishment mechanism, but in reality it's not; punishment comes from the confiscation of tools and weapons when you're caught by prefects. Classes themselves are actually quite useful. Chemistry is a rhythm-response mini-game, which is simple and doesn't overstay its welcome; the upshot of completing it successfully is that you gain the ability to create fire-crackers using the chemistry set in your dorm. Art involves drawing lines over a picture, as little eraser icons try and break the bits you've already drawn, and improves your chances with the ladies; completing level two of art gives you a 50 percent health boost whenever you kiss someone. English helps you apologise more convincingly, thus getting out of having to fight everyone, and the English lesson itself is actually, believe it or not, mildly educational. The idea is to take a group of scrambled letters and form as many words out of them as possible in two minutes. There are five completable levels for each class, and - it's almost amusing - your education is effectively character development.
The game continues to present itself through various missions that Jimmy undertakes during his first days in school. Thanks to GTA there's a familiarity to some of the controls and other fundamentals, but there's still quite a lot to take in, and it speaks well of Canis Canem Edit that much of the tutelage is handled subtly, without shoving reams of text in your face - although I suppose a decent education system was a bit of a prerequisite for a game about school-life.
Proficiency in combat, for example, grows from various sources: wrestling in gym class teaches you new fighting moves; pursuing a prep called Davis, who pelts you with eggs for sucking up to the headmaster, reveals more about how to use projectiles; going off with Gary to torment the homeless man who lives behind a knackered old school bus reveals a method of unlocking advanced moves, by hunting down radio parts lurking around the school (think hidden packages) and handing them over when you've got a moment to spare him.
You gain more tools, like a skateboard for getting around faster, a camera, and a slingshot, and the ways by which they're introduced is often a more compelling part of the world than the plink-instruction-plink-instruction-plink-mission approach of GTA. Gain the slingshot and the next thing Gary wants to do is smash windows, before he sends you up a tree next to the football field - another useful skill to know about - to shoot at practising players.
The learning's fun, then, which is an achievement - goodness knows how much we all hate games that throw you into a classroom when you first fire them up - but there's fun to be had elsewhere too. There are 75 rubber bands (no wait, now think hidden packages) to uncover, humiliation moves to experiment with (used when an enemy's on their last legs - you can even do that "why are you hitting yourself?" thing), and a huge variety of extra-curricular activities. A basketball court offers a "penalty shots" mini-game - bet some money, and then try to use five available footballs to hit a student dancing along the goal line, winning or losing based on how much of his health bar you can break down. (Actually, I spent a good 15 minutes on this alone, and lost all my money - pay attention Jack Thompson, Rockstar's teaching us the folly of gambling.) A girl might ask you to escort her safely back to her dorm after lights-out. And, as we all know, "Once a girl likes you, she will always accept your gifts and want to kiss you." Other students will ask you to run errands for them if you introduce yourself, which nets you some extra pocket-change; useful for buying drinks from vending machines to top up your health.
Because of the way the day's structured, with periods of great peril separated from freedom by the shrill blast of the school bell, it rips between styles with aplomb. On Halloween night, dressed as a skeleton (Gary appears to have found an SS officer's uniform), you egg other students and set off fireworks, and ultimately have to stealth your way to the teacher's lounge, where you set a bag of crap on fire and pull the alarm bell. Even the stealth's quite entertaining - somewhere between Metal Gear Solid's run-and-hide and the Beano.
Narrative's where the game bears closest resemblance to its sister-series, with colourful, fairly stereotypical characters (the big fat nerd whose flies don't do up properly, with a weak bladder, and thick-rim glasses, and buck teeth, and so on) and that urgency of dialogue that always felt a bit contrived, but the jokes are often good, and the portrait it paints of Jimmy himself makes for a bit more empathy than the brutal selfish/haplessness of the usual protagonist. When he helps up the misguided bully he's just floored in the final scene of chapter one, and tells him there are plenty of people worth picking on at Bullworth and he's going after the wrong people, it's hard not to like him. A bit. Although he's still a bit of a runt and a skinhead. At least you can change his haircut in town.
Part of the town - the map itself has plenty of areas you won't be able to access until later chapters - opens up with the conclusion of chapter one, and although we weren't allowed to spend much time there (not least because it was about 7pm by then, and Rockstar wanted to go home), we did get a feel for how the game might blossom. The school cook sends you on an errand to pick things up, which gives you a chance to try out a bicycle and head to the butcher's, hairdresser's and clothes store - of which there'll be several. You can also ride the bus for a quick way to get home - bound to be handy when the hours are dragging on after curfew. Meanwhile a prep gym in town gives you a grounding in boxing - punching from first-person, dodging with X and swinging with square - after which you earn a boxing outfit and a Beach Clubhouse, the latter pointing to a bit of empire-building.
But naturally you won't leave the school completely behind, and one of the first second-chapter missions has you helping a drunken old English teacher to clear out his stashes, smashing up a trophy cabinet and delivering the evidence to a sympathetic colleague out by the old school bus. There was no sense attempting another mission with the bell about to toll, I thought, as I trudged back toward the dorm room - but there was some fun to be had tripping up prefects by tossing marbles, found behind the bus, into their gormless paths on the way home. "I wonder if the army processed my application yeeaaarghhhh."
Considering the amount of controversy that Canis Canem Edit has courted without even peeping out of development, it's always been quite interesting to note that the game's original announcement, way back in May of last year, was met with virtually zero fanfare. Beyond GTA, Rockstar's other action games have rarely done more than flirt with the sort of critical success and notoriety that its breadmaker has - and were it not for the cottage industry of morally-indignant talking heads its frivolous relationship with violence has helped to cultivate, this one probably wouldn't have caught our attention either. So we probably owe the Thompsons of the world a debt of gratitude - because, actually, Canis Canem Edit looks a bit good. It's a Rockstar game in all the good ways, and on this evidence, it's going to have been worth the hassle. As my own school motto used to go, "Ad astra per aspera".