Microsoft's has just launched two games under the Playful Learning initiative: the co-op Kinect Nat Geo TV and single-player Kinect Sesame Street TV. These games aim to both educate and entertain, much like the long-forgotten edutainment titles of yore. Is the combination of live-action footage and motion-controlled minigame interaction a good way to learn? Yes, but with a few caveats.
Kinect Nat Geo TV consists of eight interactive episodes that last about an hour each. Each one revolves around a particular wildlife theme, such as black bears or owls. They are hosted by a true nature lover, as he apparently married an actual bear. Or maybe the bear attended his wedding, I forget. The primary episodic content is entertaining and informative, though it skews a bit younger than traditional National Geographic episodes.
At three points throughout each episode, large and easily noticeable animal prints appear on screen. That’s the cue for players to yell out “Tracks!” and embark on a ‘side track’ from the main episode’s content. It works much like the Picture-in-Picture special features seen in many Blu Ray movies. Only here, every side track asks players a couple of questions to keep them involved. When playing in co-op, one player answers for the group. You have to make educated guesses at the answers as the host doesn’t necessarily tell you everything in advance. For me, the questions are a bit on the tough side, but I suppose the quiz element is fun enough.
Every episode also has breaks for three minigames themed around that episode’s subject. For example, in the Bears episode you’ll dig through rocks for moths to eat or swat at attacking hornets. The display makes use of augmented reality, placing animal heads and arms on top of the player’s own and decorating the Kinect’s video feed with outdoor elements. It’s quite amusing to watch.
The actual quality of the minigames is something of a mixed bag. Some, like the one in which you play as owls protecting their nests from invading birds and snakes, successfully capture the show’s theme in a fun way. I also loved catching river fish as a bear. You just maneuver your body to where the fish are going and your digital bear head chomps them down, gaining precious Omega-3 acids in the process.
Truly the stuff of nightmares
Unfortunately, several ill-conceived minigames revolve around rapid flailing of your arms. These might cast players as bears digging through rocks, or rams fighting each other with their hooves. Flapping your arms madly and repeatedly at nothing is actually pretty bad for them, not to mention overly exhausting. My first episode left me sore for a couple of days – and not the good kind of sore, like when you’re sore because you beat up a guy who was trying to steal your car.
Some of that muscle pain can also be attributed to having to replay the minigames several times in order to get the best rating. The score goals are so strict, if you make even one mistake you’re likely to fail the level. Considering that the game is aimed at kids and the inherent lack of precision in Kinect controls, the stringent score requirements feel much out of place. That said, if you’re not concerned with Achievements, you can make do with a lower rating and still complete the episode.