Here's a refreshing entry into the games-based-on-movies fad: instead of simulating a movie's plot, THQ's Barnyard offers up an open-ended Grand Theft Auto-style experience (minus the sex and violence, of course). In fact, Grand Theft Bovine would have been a fitting subtitle.
Upon first glance, the open-ended elements are simply a vehicle to take you from one minigame to the next with little to do in-between. But then something unexpected happens: the game slowly transforms into a fairly entertaining story-driven game, revealing surprising depth.
Boasting a large, open-ended environment, the game (mostly) allows you to run around and explore as you see fit. However, you're not granted unrestricted access to the entire map; some of the areas have to be unlocked, which requires little more than playing minigames and completing easy quest-like missions. This style allows Barnyard to avoid pitfalls normally associated with movie-based games, such as exaggerating the plot.
While there is much to be mined from this setup, it does wear out its welcome fairly quickly. Gameplay is broken up into day and night missions, but each time period only grants you access to a few minigames, most of which you'll replay until given the opportunity to try something new.
Fortunately, the minigames are fun and often put a nice spin on the games they're mimicking: pool is played on a table shaped like a boat, with gophers substituting as putters - a move which transforms the normally sedate act of golfing into a frenzied race to sink the ball. There are even varied, quest-like missions that employ you to chase this or track down that.
But they're all too simple. So simple, in fact, that you'll have little trouble blowing through this game in a couple days, tops. Even preteens will find few of these games challenging. That's when Barnyard begins to wear out its welcome. Seeming to be nothing more than a collection of minigames and quests, it grows repetitive and tiresome.
Then, something interesting happens. As you progress, it begins to reveal its depths, taking on the movie's plot. Now, obviously, this is to be expected in a film-based game, but this progressive, seemingly episodic manner creates unexpected depth when moving from minigames to plot-oriented missions.
Visually, Barnyard textures its world with deceptively detailed characters and environments, retaining the film's brightly colored and stylized look. Unfortunately, the sound department doesn't bode so well. We're treated to the same three or four obnoxious themes because music is in short supply. And the dialogue doesn't fare any better. The game gives us brief bits of spoken dialogue - usually short sentences - followed by long stretches of silence while we continue to read dialogue-heavy text.
Ultimately, Barnyard is an easy, mildly entertaining grab bag of minigames and missions. Young kids will still undoubtedly enjoy the game, and their parents will find themselves sucked into numerous minigames as well. Which is more or less what can be expected from a broadly-targeted game based on a family film.