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Teen-rated Bully dishes it out, for better or worse

In my high school, I was the sort who routinely wound up on the receiving end of adolescent hazing. I never found a proper way to deal with it, except to harbor a lifelong contempt for the thuggish characters who dished it out. The last thing I wanted was to become one of them.

Then again, I wasn't much fun. Not like Jimmy Hopkins , protagonist of the new video game Bully. Jimmy's a riot -- literally. Armed with stink bombs, baseball bats, and a kung-fu grip, this 15-year-old terror ravages his reform school in a quest to outfight and outwit the school authorities and his fellow students.

You'll be pleased to learn that no principals were harmed in the making of this game. Jimmy's other rivals aren't quite so lucky; many of the school's hulking ``jocks" or leather-jacketed ``greasers" will know the sting of Jimmy's slingshot or the caress of his booted foot.

Violent? Oh yes, as befits the latest offering from Rockstar Games, creators of the Grand Theft Auto crime games. Rockstar and its parent company, Take-Two Interactive, made their name with games that go right to the edge and a little beyond. The GTA games, with their unabashed celebration of thug life, have outraged many a concerned parent. The company made matters worse by smuggling an explicit sex scene into one of them, forcing the Entertainment Software Rating Board to change the game's rating from Mature to Adults Only. This year the company's fantasy game The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion got jacked up from Teen to Mature, because of some previously undiscovered nudity.

No surprise, then, that the knives are out for the Teen-rated Bully. Child psychologists fret that it might create a new generation of schoolyard thugs.

Florida attorney Jack Thompson last week persuaded a judge to consider whether the game could be legally sold to teenagers. After an hour of vicarious villainy, the judge gave the game his back handed blessing, declaring it no worse than TV.

To one who's played a few hours of the game, that sounds about right. There's no gunfire, no blood, just a steady stream of rude and rowdy hijinks. Grand Theft Gym Locker, you might say. Indeed, like its hard-core GTA forebears, ``Bully" features an open, nonlinear structure. Where many games force you to follow a precisely scripted story line, this one lets you wander as you wish, tackling its challenges in any order you choose.

Protagonist Jimmy is no angel, but he's far from the worst lout at Bullworth Academy. Most of his misadventures are aimed at securing for himself a comfortable place in the campus pecking order. If that means cutting a class to help out the neighborhood wino, in exchange for a lesson in hand-to-hand combat, OK. Then again, schoolwork has its benefits as well. Each class is a simple, entertaining game-within-the-game. The art teacher, for example, is something of a hottie. Do a good job painting her picture, and you'll find it easier to win the affections of your female classmates. Get a passing grade in English, and you become adept at talking your way out of a beating from the students who are bigger and meaner than you.

There are occasional opportunities for random abuse of the weak, but most of the game's violence is aimed at big, strong nasties well able to look out for themselves. And in many of his missions, Jimmy acts as protector to defenseless fellow students. In all, Bully hardly comes across as a digital training aid for kids looking to commit the next high school massacre.

Then again, it takes about 40 hours to play every level of the game. Since landing a copy Tuesday, we haven't had time to try them all. Ironically, the game rating agency is in the same boat. It relies on the game companies to accurately describe the games; with thousands of titles coming out every year, the agency hasn't got time to play through all of them.

So it's just possible that there's a special bloodbath level hidden inside Bully. Possible, but not likely. Last year's GTA sex -scene scandal hammered Take-Two's stock price and brought threats of federal regulation. They'll have no stomach for a rerun.

But even if Bully lacks leather-clad kids brandishing shotguns, it's hardly your best bet for teen entertainment. It's fairly slow going for the first couple of hours, as you learn the school pecking order and master some basic moves. The constant running from place to place gets a little old. And there's too little of the snarky humor that's probably the best feature of the GTA games.

Besides, even if there's no blood or death, there's a steady ration of cruelty and disrespect, exactly the sort of Darwinian nastiness that soured my teenage years. I can't imagine a few hours of Bully would turn my teenage daughters into spiteful delinquents. But I've no interest in finding out.

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