Kinect Nat Geo TV: America the Wild Review
Microsoft Xbox 360Also available on Microsoft Xbox 360
There's a lot of truth in the suggestion that the best use of Kinect may not be for games. Take Kinect Nat Geo TV: America the Wild, which is packaged up in an Xbox 360 game case and sold in game shops, but better suits the label of “interactive television”. It doesn't have many of the features of a typical game, and there aren't many game-like parameters by which to judge it. Most of it is real footage, so there isn't very much in the way of “graphics” at all. There are no fictional characters, so no AI. Though there are mini-game experiences within Kinect Nat Geo TV: America the Wild, it would be a stretch to call it a game in itself. But it's a promising example of the kinds of non-game experiences Kinect can provide, and perfect for showing the parents of primary-school-aged kids that games consoles can be a force for good.
Kinect Nat Geo TV: America the Wild is comprised of of eight episodes of the same kind of television you might see on the National Geographic channel. But as host Casey Anderson says at the beginning of each episode, “This is TV that you play.”. So while you do spend most of the time sat on your sofa watching Casey explore Yellowstone National Park, you're never passive for long. At various points through each of the episodes, spaced apart at well-placed intervals to ensure that even the most disinterested viewer will stay alert, are key interactive moments.
The first of these three kinds of interactive moment you'll encounter is called snapshots. Every now and then, as you're watching Casey track a mountain lion or spy on a nest of Great Horned Owls, a frame will pop up around the edges of the screen along with a brief text description – unobtrusive and easy to read – of something coming up in the next few moments of the episode. When the subject appears in the frame, you have to shout “Snap!” to take the picture. You can't just mutter it, either, or the Kinect probably won't pick it up. Sometimes you'll have to take two or three photos of the same subject, so you'll have to keep your eyes peeled for the successive glimpses of something like “grizzly bear in a blizzard”. Given that all you need to complete these tasks is your voice, it's a clever way of getting the viewer involved in the action without disrupting the fluidity of the show.
A slightly more disruptive interactive element is the “sidetracks” moments, though they still fit comfortably in the programme, again at regular intervals. Like with the snapshots, a message will appear to let you know a “sidetracks” moment is coming up, and then all you have to do is watch out for colourful – and thus obvious – footprints making their way across your screen as Casey carries on talking about things like how much a bison weighs, and then shout “Tracks!” If Kinect picks up your confirmation – and again, you'll have to make sure you say it clearly or you might miss it – then once Casey has come to the end of his current segment a different piece of footage will start to play. It'll still be about the focus of that episode, but it's like a little bonus, with extra facts that are usually to do with distinguishing a particular animal from others. You'll get to join in, too, as Casey shows you how to tell a grizzly bear from a brown bear paw-print and then asks you which way the grizzly bear went. All you have to do is raise either your left or right arm to choose one of two options, so you don't even have to get off the sofa, but it's a simple way to test what the viewer has learned without making things too dry. And even if you get it wrong, Casey just helpfully explains why you should have picked a different answer; there are no game overs here.
The most involved of the interactive moments is the one that appears in all the screenshots because it looks the most like a game. These are the “go wild” moments in which the viewer gets to use muscle memory to really take in what they've learned about animal behaviour, i.e. gets to BE the bear (or wolf, or owl, or whatever animal that episode has been following). This is the only activity for which you have to actually get off the sofa and stand up, but it's worth it as the Kinect superimposes a cartoony head and arms of the specific animal over your head and arms, ready for you to enact some species-characteristic behaviour: you might have to scrabble at rocks with your grizzly bear arms to unearth moths to chase and gulp down with your grizzly bear muzzle, or use your owl wings to bat away creatures preying on your nest of owlets. The activities are different for each animal, but they're all silly fun, especially when played with a friend carrying out the same ridiculous animal mimicry beside you.
Though you can access these mini games from the main menu to play them separately, it's not all about the fun of getting up and jumping around like an idiot, as each one is better seen in the context of an episode. For one thing, your performance nets you points. If you get enough points you get one, two, or three stars, and it's not easy to get a top score so you really have to put your all into it. At the end of each episode, you'll get to see how many stars you got for snapshots, sidetracks, and these “go wild” moments, and you'll get a badge for that episode: bronze, silver, or gold. Here is where Kinect Nat Geo TV: America the Wild is most like a game, with highscores and badges for which to aim. But that doesn't detract at all from the educational value of what's going on here; even these silly mini games are a teaching tool. After all, you're far more likely to remember how a mountain lion looks after its cubs if you've acted it out yourself. And this is especially true for kids, who might not respond nearly as well to being sat in front of a completely passive nature programme and instructed to learn. Casey does a wonderful job hosting the show, making this relatively new kind of interactive television seem totally natural and unforced. And the episodes haven't even been slimmed down to fit around this interactivity, they're still packed full of information and footage of the various animals.
Unfortunately, while Kinect Nat Geo TV: America the Wild takes up two discs that's only because of the large amount of space needed for actual footage over animation, and there are only eight episodes. However, this is a budget title, and any desire for more content is just a testament to its quality. And you even get a free one year season pass that gives you unlimited access to Nat Geo Wild episodes to watch on your Xbox 360, which is a nice touch and a good way for kids to further explore that blossoming interest in nature.
Kinect Nat Geo TV: America the Wild might not really be a true game, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t fit as a piece of software for the Xbox 360 and Kinect. For what it is - whether you call that interactive television or give it a new label - it’s brilliant. And parents in particular will be overjoyed with this one, especially given the low price. Not only does it manage to convey a lot of information in a way that's fun, but from the voice-controlled main menu to the mini games that get the child to learn through doing, this is one of the few pieces of commercial software that really clicks with the often-obtrusive Kinect and makes it seem worthwhile.