We’ve all been affected by schoolyard bullying at some stage in our lives, whether it be as witness, victim - or even the villain. If some poor kid were being picked on, any onlookers would either jeer from the sidelines or take the “see no evil” approach, silently thankful they weren’t the bully’s intended target. The victims would no doubt dream of the day when they’d be in a position to take sweet revenge on their tormentor. As for the bullies out there, be warned: with the arrival of Canis Canem Edit (a.k.a. Bully in North America), your days are well and truly numbered!

One need look no further than the phenomenally successful Grand Theft Auto series to learn that Rockstar’s stable of developers are no strangers to controversy, and not afraid to court it, either. With its tongue-in-cheek take on the darker side of school life, Canis Canem Edit had ruffled quite a few conservative feathers before it was even released. While the game contains far less violence than GTA, the highly topical subject of schoolyard bullying – and the fact that someone actually built game around it, was always going to prove contentious. Be that as it may, what’s it like to play?

The very first thing we noticed about Canis Canem Edit was that, in keeping with Rockstar’s tradition of turning out highly original titles, the creative team at their Vancouver studio have treated us to something quite different from the usual gamers’ fare. This becomes apparent as the intro unfolds, setting the scene for things to come. Young Jimmy Hopkins has been expelled from every educational institution he has attended, when his much-married mother and latest stepfather finally dump him at the gates of schoolboy hell… otherwise known as Bullworth Academy.

Bullworth is the original School of Hard Knocks, where only the strongest can thrive, and everyone else is fair game for the school’s bullies. Instead of an inspirational Latin phrase encouraging students towards academic greatness, Bullworth’s brutally honest motto translates as dog eat dog. Beneath the outwardly respectable veneer is a seething mass of corruption, to which most of the staff seem oblivious or apathetic. Jimmy quickly finds himself a small fish in a big, polluted pond, with an entire school year looming ahead. He must learn to juggle classes with a little extracurricular activity, take on the bullies and the establishment and claw his way to the top of the social ladder.

Players are dropped directly into the game and gradually introduced to the various controls and in-game commands. With more than one function assigned to most buttons, learning to master them is not exactly ‘child’s play’, and there is no tutorial to ease you into it. However, being thrown in the deep end actually works extremely well; within half an hour you will be proficient with the controls and fully immersed in the plot. The game’s story-driven structure and ‘sandbox’ style of play provide plenty of opportunity for Jimmy to explore and get up to mischief - both during and outside school hours.

There are several onscreen displays to help you track Jimmy’s status and whereabouts: a mini-map for navigational purposes, a handy clock to keep an eye on class and curfew times, an item display which allows access to Jimmy’s inventory, and a social interaction menu. With this you can instruct Jimmy to intimidate or apologise to other students. If the circumstances are right, he can even earn himself a kiss!

Bullworth is home to five different student groups, each with its own particular style of dress and favourite hangout. Two of these - bullies and nerds - need no explanation as they are found in every school across the globe, but the other three groups are US stereotypes. The preppies are a bunch of spoiled rich kids, greasers are into cars and leather jackets, and jocks are academically challenged students who excel at sports – usually of the contact variety. Jimmy can align himself with a particular clique, but of course this will affect how the others react to him.

In addition to the students, there are some colourful and memorable staff members you’ll encounter within the school, as well as other people (townies) to meet on the streets. A lot of effort has gone into giving each of these characters a unique voice, appearance and personality. Such attention to detail should earn some brownie points with the critics. It certainly impressed us.

Pulling off successful pranks and defending yourself against bullies requires more than mere brains and brawn. In addition to his fists and feet, Jimmy has a number of weapons and items at his disposal. These are acquired by achieving pass marks in class, or as rewards for successfully completing one of the game’s many missions. His arsenal includes the slingshot - a schoolboy staple which never runs out of ammo, never gets confiscated and is upgradeable; itching powder for distractive and disruptive purposes; a skateboard for that smooth and stylish getaway; and a camera, for taking in-game photographs that you can save to your memory card. None of the weapons found in Canis Canem Edit are of a lethal nature, which we thought was appropriate for the schoolyard setting and in line with the censor’s rating.

While there is a lot to see and do both inside and outside the school gates, Bullworth is essentially a learning institution, so naturally there are classes to attend - two per day from a pool of six subjects: chemistry, English, arts, maths, gym, and photography. Classes provide a change of scenery to Jimmy’s extracurricular activities, and take the form of entertaining mini-games. There are five classes to be passed in each subject. Successful completion of these will reward you with extra abilities and items.

For example, passing English classes will enable Jimmy to sweet talk his way out of a sticky situation, or into the hearts of female students. Chemistry classes allow him to get creative with the chemistry set in his dorm. Passing gym classes will rewards him with more fighting moves, and so on.

When the bell rings for class, you have a short grace period to reach the classroom before being deemed truant. When this happens, any patrolling prefect will attempt to nab Jimmy on sight - ditto for breaking curfew. Avoiding authority figures is a bit like dodging the searchlights in a prison break. They have a limited field of vision, so as long as Jimmy stays out of sight they will leave him alone. Far simpler though to get the learning side of things out of the way early. After completing five classes in all six subjects, you have no more worries about getting nabbed for truancy.

The game is laid out in five chapters, each pertaining to a particular faction. There’s a wide variety of missions to be completed within each chapter, and these will ensure you never become bored for the duration of Jimmy’s stay at Bullworth.

Although much of his time is spent at school he does get to venture out into the town of Bullworth a little later in the game. There are several interesting locations to explore, townies to meet and shops in which to spend his cash.

Supporting the game is a superb soundtrack, which covers a variation of musical styles and blends in with the on-screen events. Voice acting is very well done, with all characters – even minor ones - delivering their lines in a convincing manner; although we found some phrases became repetitive after a while. The dialogue itself is full of wry humour and you will laugh out loud at what you see and hear – particularly if you have an eye for pop culture detail.

Graphics-wise, we’d have to say the game looks great for a PS2 title. Character animations and facial expressions are extremely lifelike, and movement is fluid. Framerate chugs a bit in places, but this doesn't detract from the gameplay.

Canis Canem Edit earns full marks for originality and attention to detail. Contrary to what you may have heard, it doesn’t glorify school bullying or trivialise the victims’ suffering, and certainly doesn’t deserve the negative publicity it received prior to release (which was largely based on speculation, anyway). Instead, the game aims to entertain those game enough to revisit the worst aspects of their high school years, and the general consensus around here is that it has achieved this goal quite admirably.