Reviewed: August 22, 2006
Released: August 1, 2006
When it was announced that Nickelodeon – the children’s television channel – was going to begin the production of videogames based on their licensed television properties, there was a collective groan let out across the gaming world. The sporadic licensed movie fare we were already getting was bad enough. But, at least movies appear and disappear from popularity on a strict and rapid schedule with a life cycle of about three to six months.
Television shows on the other hand – no, they hang out all year-round. And at any given time, Nickelodeon could easily dish out helping after helping of Rugrats or Spongebob shovelware to the hungry masses and cash in on the hysteria. And at first, that’s exactly what Nickelodeon did. But a change occurred a year or so ago, and suddenly Nickelodeon’s games began to hold their own. It is as if Nickelodeon and THQ suddenly realized that their games had a bit more substance and uniqueness – they might just generate a bit more excitement in the property as a whole.
Before long we were seeing Spongebob, Jimmy Neutron, and Fairly Oddparents games breaking out of the standard licensed platformer mold and showing real signs of design diligence. We were also saw an entirely new property – Tak – a platformer had true redeeming quality.
Nickelodeon’s newest gaming release is also a tie-in to Nickelodeon Movies’ newest box-office release, Barnyard – a CG animated affair chronicling the zany antics of a barn load of livestock when their vegetarian farmer is away.
And while Barnyard – the game – might miss its marks with respect to the presentation value, and often gets stuck on the superfluous item collection treadmill, the game ultimately squeaks by simply because of the overall variety of what it gives.
There is a real reason for concern when a game’s opening cinematic is simply a two-minute musical montage showing snippets of the game’s upcoming action. Much like the movie trailers that give away all of the funniest parts of the film ahead of time, one has to wonder if the developers are showing their cards a bit too early and taking all of the fun out of the game.
Understandably, I was nervous Barnyard suddenly fed me a constant stream of video clips showing cows riding BMX bikes, shooting streams of milk in bullet time, playing Whack-A-Mole, and on and on. Where’s the spoiler warning, guys? Are you trying to ruin all of my fun?
But, I quickly began to see why the developer chose to do this – Barnyard starts off almost drearily slow, and without some kind of hint that a bunch of fun stuff was in store, I would have lost interest before completing the tedious opening training missions.
As it stands, I’m glad I stuck it out, because Barnyard really does a lot of things right – which is a surprise for a licensed tie-in.
The game starts with the gamer taking on the role of a new cow delivered to a farm stocked with mischievous and fun-loving animals who love their farmer – a vegetarian, no less – but also tend to get a bit hog-wild while he’s away.
The gamer is allowed to pick the gender and breed (basically, color) of their cow with whom they will navigate Barnyard, completing a variety of in-game missions and minigame-style missions in an attempt to raise rank and become the top cow on the farm.
Barnyard’s missions range from the expected item collection and driving missions, to a number of very unexpected; bar room style darts and pool, and even golf and the aforementioned Whack-A-Mole. All-in-all, Barnyard features nearly two-dozen mini-games – each of which sports its own solid design and unique gameplay.
There are also missions where the chosen character is tasked with fending off attacks from roving coyotes and raccoons – the primary weapon being, er…milk, squirting out from his or her udders. Yes, I said “his” udders – you know, if you choose a bull, of course. (Note to city kids: This is not the way it is in real life)
None of the missions are too hard that an average gamer can’t master them on the first or second try – which makes the game a great choice for families that like to game together. My kids and I had a great time passing the controller around – and Barnyard succeeded in trumping our regular evening fare (Mario Party, Smash Bros Melee) for the few days.
Barnyard does a wonderful job emulating the open-world sandbox style play made popular by the Grand Theft Auto series. The farm (including the surrounding land and later a second farm) are pretty much open for free roaming exploration, and certain animals hanging about dole out the missions to the player. Thankfully, the game flags (on screen and on the map) which characters are waiting with mission objectives, alleviating much of the needless confusion and roaming about.
With the PS2 nearing the end of its lifespan, you would think that the developers would know how to squeeze every last ounce of processing power out the aging console – and really, most late model PS2 games have been looking quite phenomenal.
Barnyard is not one of those games. In fact, I know you’ve heard this one before, but Barnyard looks more like a late-model PSone platformer than it does any PS2 game released in the past year and a half.
Granted, the lacking visuals are most likely a result of the world’s immense size combined with the memory limitations on the PS2 – regardless, the poor color palettes, lack of definition, scenery clipping, and stiff animations make Barnyard look like an ancient game by today’s standards.
That’s not to say there aren’t some unique details to be found; the polygonal trees and shrubs sway and rustle in the wind or when brushed against, and the animals kick up dust when strolling along pathways.
Regarding the sound quality, Barnyard really drops the ball – but in some really strange ways.
For instance – Barnyard features some fairly good quality voice acting in the game. Definitely a positive mark, right? However, when you approach an animal to receive the next mission you only get about half of the opening sentence before he (or she) fades off into silence. You are left in silence to read the remaining text on screen. Then, as quickly as it went, the animal’s voice suddenly fades in for the last half of the closing sentence and off you go. It is quite distracting, really and does not do a lot to promote continuity in the game.
The background music deserves a passing grade, for sure – but not a whole lot more, as the bluegrassy theme song that plays incessantly in the background will begin to wear on your nerves after a while.
I must admit that the environmental sound effects – birds chirping, wooden floors creaking, the sounds of hooves on staircases, even the smashing of boxes – are all really well sampled have a general air of authenticity.
Most of the discriminating gamers tend to avoid movie crossovers like the plague – and for good reason. However, Barnyard breaks the traditional tie-in mold, packs in a ton of gameplay variety that is easily worth every penny.
But I have a feeling that the game is going to have a great struggle trying to catch gamers’ attention.
Most gamers will be turned off by the low-fi graphics and sound long before they find the real substance hidden within the game – and that’s a shame, because the developers gave a very solid effort otherwise.
The price might also prove to be an issue, since most movie tie-ins of late seem to be aiming at the $20-$30 price. With Barnyard selling at a suggested $40, it very well might get overlooked by frugal parent in lieu of cheaper releases like Ant Bully ($30). It’s a shame, because the two games are a world apart in terms of gameplay quality, but that’s the breaks.
What a shocker. A licensed movie tie-in – based on a relatively unknown property no less – that actually ended up being fun and entertaining for the whole family.
Nickelodeon and THQ are getting better and better at this whole gaming thing. Each successive release shows that the two are willing to take risks and give gamers valid reason to buy the games, rather than simply relying on licensing gimmicks or mass hysteria.
As a parent, it certainly is nice to have family-friendly gameplay that happens to be rewarding for everyone in the tribe.