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Canis Canem Edit

Extensive hands-on with what looks like Rockstar's best game since GTA.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

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.

Sticking signs on people's backs - always a winner.

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.

There'll be several types of vehicle to master, although this certainly isn't GTA's 'mission-based driving'.

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.