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It is easy to overlook launch games, particularly if they have a franchise tie-in, and particularly if they are aimed at a younger audience. It is with that in mind that I returned to Barnyard, the Nickelodeon branded movie tie-in Wii launch title, for a second look.
With the summer fast approaching, I've recently dragged the sandpit out from under the deck and let the kids loose on it. Although they had played with it last year it now seems to have become much more interesting and absorbs many hours of their daytime play. A year on and they are able to return to this old game and play with it in new ways.
Barnyard struck me as having similar qualities to our old sandpit. Although it does have a host of structure and missions, the game is essentially a large multifaceted sandbox. There is the freedom to roam where you want and play how you want and to take things at your own pace. Although at four and two, my kids weren't quite old enough to really do very much with it, I could really see them returning to it in years to come and having a lot of fun!
Parental anecdotes aside, the game environment is surprisingly similar to recent Zelda games. Its cell shading could easily have taken its queues from Wind Waker both in visual style and variety of ways to engage with the world. The farm and the characters are both interesting and varied. They manage to hit that tricky balance of an explorable world that doesn't feel overwhelmingly big. As you progress through the game you gain access to more and more of the different areas. Again this gives that classic Zelda feel of an environment opening up from play-town to full wide open world. The introduction of bicycle transport to offset the larger world is an exactly way to avoid the problem Wind Waker experienced with excessive time spent sailing.
If you want a more sedate and manageable experience, and one that you can more easily share with your kids (or they can share with you), then this is a great little game.
Being a port form the Gamecube to the Wii you may expect the controls to be a little clunky and betray their reverse engineering. However, we find a confident and well executed implementation of the Wii's controls. The Nun-chuck analogue stick is used to run around whilst pointing the Wii-mote enables you to look and turn. Various other actions are then mapped to different gestures. Jerking the Nun-chuck enables you to jump, whereas holding A and whipping the Wii-mote does a kick. There are even some helpful screen prompts to indicate when objects can be interacted with.
One stumbling point for me however was their use of gestures to control various menus. Maybe it was just my clunky old dad brain, but there really was no need to try and get us to select items by twisting the Wii-mote left or right. Not only would it have been much easier to use the D-pad, but the onscreen symbol for the action means that it looks like you are supposed to wave the Wii-mote left or right rather than simply twist it. Even when I had figured out the correct gesture it still seemed fussy and awkward to use. This is a shame because the rest of the scheme is first class. This is all backed up with some decent tutorials that somehow manage to avoid being too frustrating despite needing to cater to an audience that might be anywhere from six to 60.
The game itself follows life in the Barnyard where the animals stand upright, talk, cook and run underground bars. As you get to know your way around you discover not only the different characters but a number of different games and missions along the way. There are enough simultaneous threads of game play to keep you on your toes. A nice touch is that you can make progress on all of them at the same time.
The game structure has you working through a variety of missions for the different animals on the farm. These missions are well varied and call on you to deliver something, collect specific items or go somewhere and perform a specific task. I particularly liked being able to grab an empty milk churn and fill it up whenever I needed. You could then shake the churn to make butter or cheese, depending on what your current task required. Way to go sticking to the dairy theme guys and a nice little educational touch for the kids too!
In addition to the main tasks are a series of mini-games. These are all well executed and provide money if you obtain a high score. The majority of them can also be accessed from the main menu, outside of the game. The only down-side was the lack of any multiplayer aspect to these games, which is a real shame as some of them are absolutely ripe for it!
Graphically, the game does a great job of recreating the world of the movie. Both the style and layout of the different zones are evocative of the celluloid experience many will have already had before playing the game. Although quite subtle initially, as you wander around the world you do notice it interacting graphically to your character. Something I have always enjoyed in games is day/night cycles, and Barnyard really delivers in this area. The day is bright and breezy whilst as dusk falls and you hear the crickets come out a mellow hue falls on the farm. Then at night the stars are out and various farm lighting comes on to make it feel all warm and cosy. Silly I know, but this makes a big difference if you plan to spend a while in the same place, as you will be with Barnyard.
The sounds, although not as impressive as the graphics, serve their purpose well. There are good background farmyard sounds that, as we mentioned above, adjust themselves to the time of day. There are also all the necessary spot effects when you interact with the environment. I really appreciated the sound of the bike tired on the gravel path and the chink of the bike chain as you tore up and down the countryside.
As is the fashion with Gamecube ports, Barnyard retails at £10 more on the Wii. However in this case you can see where at least some of that extra cash has gone. In addition to the not too shabby Wii-mote control system, the graphics have been upped in terms of polygons, frame rate and resolution. While not what some would call next generation, it certainly makes a visible difference to on screen proceedings.
Overall this is a confident rendition of sand-box game play, and as such it will have you coming back again and again. If you are looking for something grand and epic then you should probably toddle off and play Zelda. But if you want a more sedate and manageable experience, and one that you can more easily share with your kids (or they can share with you), then this is a great little game.
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