One of the main challenges facing teachers at school is trying to make learning fun. If you can’t capture a child’s imagination, the chances are what you’re telling them will just go in one ear, and straight out the other. But while your options at school may be limited to an overhead projector and an old VHS player, games have long been coming up with new ways to get children involved. After all, wouldn’t it be better if learning was so much fun, they didn’t actually realise they were learning?
Kinect Nat Geo Series 2 takes this concept and almost perfects it. If you’ve played Season 1, the chances are you’ll be in familiar territory here, although how it all works is a little bit confusing. First off, you'll have to download an app from the Xbox dashboard, which grants you access to nothing at all. From there, you have to go into kinect episodes, where you'll have a choice of two seasons. Each season contains eight episodes, which are available as either a £20 (2400 points) “season pass” that grants access to all eight, or at 400 points a pop. It's really not the easiest of menus to find your way around for a family-oriented Kinect game, with countless different sections and categories, when only two or three were needed.
But, having successfully survived your way through the deadly habitat of the menus, it's on to something more exciting altogether - the show. Nat Geo Series 2 is a collection of programs that explore some of nature's deadliest (or otherwise most incredible) creatures. Hosted by the incredibly enthusiastic Dr Brady Barr, season two takes you and your children on a trip to hunt down a giant alligator, search out a Japanese giant salamander, and discover a deadly squid, amongst others. Along the way, you’ll be encouraged to shout out when you see certain things, take photos, and even become the animal in question in a Kinect powered minigame.
Lasting for roughly half an hour, the majority of your time will be spent sitting down, occasionally calling out to interact with the well put together, informative, and very entertaining programs themselves. Dr Brady Barr is an affable host, explaining things (and obviously being deeply passionate about his job), without being either too patronising or obtuse. With Dr Barr as your guide, you’ll quickly learn all about not just where the animals live, but how they work, how they hunt, how they survive, and their own unique foibles. For example, did you know that you can tell alligators apart from crocodiles by the shape of their head (alligators have a nose that’s shaped more like a duck bill, crocodiles are more pointy), and by how many teeth you can see (you can only see the top layer of alligator’s teeth, but you can see top and bottom on crocs)?
Perhaps most impressive is how Kinect Nat Geo Series 2 manages to appeal to both sexes, and young and old. While playing the game, we were every bit as interested in the shows as our children were (a boy and a girl), as things have a very "Deadly 60" vibe, making you feel more like you’re solving a mystery than taking part in something educational. Dr Barr helps keep things moving by almost constantly seeming to be in danger – at one point, he’s almost slides into a lake that has alligators in it, while at another, he’s wading through a swamp, only to be dragged off his feet as something bites at his leg, while he yells at the camera man to get out of the water. It’s entertaining – and gripping stuff.
The “two way TV” premise here is that from time to time, you’ll be asked to shout out at the TV. At several points in the show, a layover will appear that looks a bit like a camera, with text telling you what your target is – such as seeing a twisting salamander - and all you have to do is shout “SNAP!” to take a picture. Similarly, if you see some footprints appear over the screen, you have to shout “TRACKS!” in order to start a nifty little side-story called sidetracks, where Dr Barr will usually try and find an animal that’s closely related to the one you’re searching for in the main show – only this time, he needs your help. From time to time, you’ll be shown two pictures, and asked to make a choice by raising either your left or right hand, whether you’re telling him where to search for the creature next, or identifying which picture looks more like an alligator’s nest. Sometimes checking if you’ve been listening for the past few minutes, at other times testing your intuition, these are nice little asides that help your children feel like they’re learning something.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Kinect game if there weren’t some minigames to take part in, and Kinect Nat Geo serves up plenty – even if they are mostly rather similar. At several points throughout the episode, you’ll get the chance to “go wild”, and “become” the creature in question. Showing you on the screen, only this time with an octopus’s head and arms superimposed over your own, for example, it’s the sort of thing that children will appreciate, just because it looks so utterly ridiculous. After that, you’re given a minute or so to try and complete a task as that animal, whether you’re splashing at the water, and attempting to catch fish in your mouth as an alligator, or arranging your underwater home as an octopus. Surprisingly, though, these minigames are actually quite hard – and not just because they’re subject to all the usual Kinect foibles. At the end of the game, you’ll be awarded up to three medals, depending on how well you did – but getting all three seems to require some sort of herculean feat, as the points barrier has been set so high. As most of the minigames seem to involve catching something in “your” mouth – like an alligator catching fish - the games are a little bit biased in favour of the little ones, and against the adults, too – although having to basically squat around your living room in order to make your mouth close enough to your hands should at least keep those watching entertained.
The medals you’ve earned from the minigames are added to a running total for each episode, along with the medals you’ve earned for getting questions right throughout the show, and for taking photos at the right time. Tallied up into an overall score, you'll be awarded either a bronze, silver, or gold medal at the end of the show, helping add a little bit of replayability to what’s otherwise a watch-once affair. Seeing as you’ll undoubtedly get some questions wrong the first time through, you’ll likely end up having several trips through each episode if you really want a gold – and it’ll likely be the minigames that are the only things standing in your way.
But, sadly, Kinect Nat Geo Season 2 isn’t without it’s problems – and in this case, they’re pretty big. The first, and by far the most concerning is that you don’t actually download the episodes in question. Buy a season pass, or an individual episode, and you won’t actually download a thing – instead, you have to stream each episode from the internet. And that’s fine if you have a mega fast, ultra reliable connection – but if you’re one of the millions whose connection randomly drops out or suddenly slows without reason, then Kinect Nat Geo becomes an altogether more frustrating experience. While the game’s been designed to cope with changes in the quality of your connection by automatically switching to a lower quality stream, you really don’t want to end up sitting there watching a blurry mess of pixels when you’ve paid the same entry fee as everybody else. What’s also concerning is the notion that these servers may not be around forever – although Microsoft have never turned a server for a game off, and do specifically say in their description that you have access "forever and ever", other companies have made it a habit of periodically turning off servers for older games (we’re looking at you, EA), and should Microsoft decide to pull the plug one day – such as when the next Xbox comes out, like they did when the 360 launched - you'll find yourself suddenly locked out of a game you've paid for. At the moment, this is certainly more of a hypothetical concern – but the problems caused by a dodgy network connection are enough of a headache on their own.
At one point, we managed to watch two thirds of an episode, only for it to suddenly pop up with a message telling us the Kinect Nat Geo servers were unavailable at this time, as it dropped us back to the main menu. Luckily, you can resume each episode from where you left off, meaning you won’t have lost all your progress – but try as we might, we couldn’t get the episode going again. If there were an option to download the episodes to your hard drive (like in Kinect Sesame Street TV), then this wouldn’t be a problem, but here, it's a pretty large oversight.
A bit more confusing is the extras that come along with your season pass. Along with granting you access to all eight Kinect episodes, you'll be able to stream shows from a large back catalogue of National Geographic programs - but only for a year. Covering a wide range of subjects – including one about a woman who has over 700 cats - these are all well and good, but they're rendered almost unwatchable by the incredibly frequent adverts. Even though you've paid for the programs, and even though you only have access to them for a year, the shows are littered with adverts of an ever increasing regularity, seemingly getting closer and closer together as you watch the show. Even more depressingly, they’re currently only showing the same advert. We must have seen the Internet Explorer 8 advert getting on for twenty times during a single episode – and it even plays the same advert twice in a row, back to back!
In the end, then, Kinect National Geographic Season Two is an entertaining, and educational set of programs that any parent whose children have a even the slightest of interest in wildlife should consider looking into – providing you already own Kinect, you have enough space in your living room to cope with the minigames, and you have a rock solid internet connection that should be able to stream the programs without breaking a sweat. Sadly let down by a dodgy reliance on “always on” networking, Kinect Nat Geo Season Two is still worth a look.