Long before the reality show craze swept the brand name's TV channels, National Geographic was known for displaying wildlife, nature and culture in ways that were both raw and beautiful. In print and film, it often captured the world from stunning viewpoints and educated people along the way. The brand has dabbled in interactive programs before, and this console generation has already delivered National Geographic-themed trivia games to all three platforms. Their latest endeavor is an exclusive offering for the Xbox 360, but Kinect Nat Geo TV: America the Wild isn't a trivia game — or a game.
Kinect Nat Geo TV is being considered as a two-way TV experience, and the way the title is presented seems to fit that mold. The product essentially takes eight episodes of the series "America the Wild" and mixes in some interactive content where the commercial breaks would've been. Some of the content needs to be triggered during the episode to unlock it while other bonuses, particularly the minigames, occur naturally. Your performance in all of the tasks in the episode results in stars, and earning a certain number of stars gets you a medal ranking for the episode.
Each episode breaks up the interactions into three categories, all of which appear several times per episode. Tracking activities ask you to call out a particular word once you see animal tracks appear on-screen. You aren't looking for animal tracks hidden in the episode but rather animal tracks that appear superimposed on the screen. Once the game recognizes that you've called out the tracks at the right moment, it waits for a commercial break to present smaller episodes designed to act as supplementary information. At times, there will be questions asked, and you'll be required to answer a two-choice question using your arms to represent each answer. Failing to call out the tracks on-screen means that you'll miss out on watching the related episode segment, and since they do somewhat reference one another, missing a segment means that the secondary information doesn't flow as well as it should.
The second activity involves taking pictures of particular subjects. At the beginning of the activity, you're told what you'll need to photograph, and once the camera frame is superimposed on-screen, you have to say the keyword to take the snapshot. At the end of the activity, the game waits for a commercial break before giving you the result of your shots, along with pictures of you from the Kinect when those particular shots were taken. Of the three activities per episode, this one is certainly the least involving.
The only real issue concerning both segments is the reliance on voice commands. While most Kinect titles have gotten voice recognition down almost perfectly, this title seems to fall a bit deaf on occasion. There have been times, for example, when the vocal commands needed to be repeated a few times before the game recognized them and performed the required action. While this may be acceptable for the tracking activities, some of the photography ones require quick timing, and bugs like this can make a difference between getting any of the medals.
The last activity type is the minigame, which is quite similar to what you'd see in most Kinect minigame compilations. Kinect Nat Geo TV dabbles in a bit of augmented reality as your play space slowly transforms into the animal's habitat while you and a friend have animal heads and limbs superimposed onto your bodies. All of the games are timed and usually center around a central activity, whether it's swatting away scavengers or pouncing on your prey. Once time expires, your score is calculated and converted into medals.
The good news is that the physical interactions are much more responsive than the vocal ones. Every movement you make is met with almost immediate feedback, and there are rarely any times when the game loses you or fails to sense you hitting the desired object. The augmented reality process is also done well, though it's a bit awkward to see. The environment changes are good, and the graphical overlays do a good job of hiding just enough of your environment to make it feel like you've entered the wilderness. The heads placed over your head are animated nicely and look very good, though a bit cartoon-like, and they even include head jerks and ear flicks if you put your hands near your head. The limbs look odd, as the game only decides to cover your forearms instead of your whole arm, giving you a hybrid animal/human look. Though it can look a bit odd, it redeems itself by rarely losing sync with your limbs, keeping the illusion intact for the duration of the minigame.
Though these minigames are certainly the most involving portions, they aren't perfect. The main complaint is how similar they are to one another. Most of the games have you swatting at other objects or animals, and while the settings may change, the actions rarely do, and all of the games start to feel like they're blending into one another. That feeling is worsened by the fact that just about every minigame in one episode takes place in the same environment, with only minor enhancements made to each minigame. You may be asked to feed a younger animal, which usually requires head movement toward the desired object, and an even later version might ask you to start swatting at newer enemies, but in the end, it feels like the 24 available minigames are really just eight minigames with various activities thrown in to make them seem a bit different.
The show is great due to the fact that the host isn't overly enthusiastic or subdued. The use of various high-speed shots and good camera angles is highlighted by the fact that the whole thing is presented in HD. The only issue some may have is that the interactive segments are mandatory. There's simply no way to watch the episode without having to participate in a few segments, and while that's exactly what the developers may want, others may simply want to watch the episode.
As a bonus, players who purchase this version of the product receive a one-year pass to the Kinect Nat Geo TV app. The app is packed with more features than the DVD set, and it even includes the episodes, so you don't always have to use the discs when you want to play. There's also quick party feature for those who want to go straight to the minigames. The real meat of the app comes from access to a number of the National Geographic nature shows. Select episodes from shows like "World's Weirdest" to "The Incredible Dr. Pol" are all here, along with a collection of episodes dealing with things like sharks and pets. There are even episodes of "America the Wild" in noninteractive form for those who want to watch them without interruptions. As expected, the episodes are in full streaming HD with nary an interruption unless your connection is terrible. The only question left is whether or not the selection of episodes will expand, and only time will tell. One thing to note for Achievement lovers is that the app and the DVD set are treated as two separate products with 1,000 points each, giving a big boost to your Gamerscore if you're willing to play each episode twice.
If you're treating Kinect Nat Geo TV: America the Wild as a game, it really isn't much of one. The minigames are too similar, and the other interactive sections aren't exactly the most involving. If you're treating the product as a DVD collection of episodes, it doesn't work well at that task, either, since there's no way to skip the interactive segments. However, as a whole, the product is excellent and engaging with the right mix of educational content and silliness coming together for an enjoyable 40+ minutes per episode. Young nature lovers who want to do more than just watch TV will certainly get the most out of this.
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