Anki Drive review: Racers are next-gen slot cars...with lasers

Anki Drive
Look closely and you can see the faint infrared markings, like grooves on a vinyl record. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The cars can't be used nor the game played without these markings, so take care to keep the track clean and in good condition.

The app and gameplay
The Anki Drive app is required to run the hardware and is available for free in the iOS App Store as of October 23, 2013. We were able to download an early release of the app for testing and to spend time playing against the AI and other local players in our San Francisco office.

The after launching the Anki Drive app your iPhone will automatically seek and pair with Anki Drive cars in the area via Bluetooth Low Energy. Up to four cars can be used at a time and up to four drivers can play together, each with their own device. If left to idle for too long between games, the cars will automatically shut themselves off. Players can reactivate them by tapping small grey buttons on the vehicles' undercarriages.

After selecting a play mode, players will then be asked which of the available vehicles they would like to command. Any cars not operated by a player can be assigned to the Anki Drive AI (artificial intelligence), so you'll have competitors, even if you choose to play solo. AI difficulty can be adjusted between "easy," "medium," and "hard" to match the player's skill level.

Gameplay is basically laser tag on wheels. The object of the game is to race around the track, disabling your opponents' vehicles with "pulse blasts" fired by tapping the paired iPhone. Thanks to the infrared track codes, the cars can steer themselves around the track, leaving the player to control vehicle speed, lane changes, and weapons systems by swiping, tapping, and tilting their iOS device. Meanwhile, the other human players and AI players will be shooting back. The first to a predetermined score (5, 10, or 15 disabled opponents) wins the game.

Anki Drive cars
Vehicles have transmitters and sensors at the front and rear end that work like virtual weapons. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Anki says that this "Battle" mode and a "Practice" mode where the AI players don't shoot back are the only gameplay types available, but also states that it will add more game types via app updates over time. For example, our app had a placeholder for a "Race" mode that is "Coming soon…"

Each Anki Drive car has its own strengths, weaknesses, and support items. For example, the included Boson and Kourai cars are designed for balanced gameplay and feature tractor beams to pull other players in for the kill, but the red Rho car (sold separately) has attributes skewed toward defensive play including enhanced armor and shields.

At the end of each race, players will gain "points" that can be used to upgrade their car's attributes and add virtual weapons. Players can, for example, upgrade their car's virtual armor, make its weapons more deadly, or upgrade the steering and top speed of the car. Interestingly, upgrades to steering and top speed are reflected in the real world, so it will be fun to see the physical car getting faster thanks to these software unlocks.

Vehicle upgrades are permanent and tied to the physical car for its lifetime and weapon upgrades are tied to your Anki Drive account. New virtual weapons and upgrades will be released over time. Obviously, the cars have physical limits on how fast they can accelerate or corner, so I expect most of these upgrades to be of the "virtual armor and weapons" variety. However, nothing is stopping Anki from releasing more cars that are physically more capable than the current crop -- at an additional cost, of course.

I found the game to be very easy to play, but difficult to master. Even on the easiest difficulty, I ended up losing most of the games that I played during testing to the AI (usually, the heavily armored Rho). The cars really whip around the track at surprisingly high speeds, which made tracking my car versus the AI cars a tricky affair. I was grateful for the cars' ability to stay on track, but I was most impressed with how well the AI was able to negotiate passing maneuvers. I was able to force the occasional collision by weaving in front of an AI car at the last possible moment, but you'd be surprised by how well the AI dodged my erratic weaving back and forth across the track -- slowing its speed, calculating, and then quickly passing.

Small collisions and spins that left the cars on the course were quickly compensated for by the AI. Even if a car ended up pointed the wrong way, the computer could negotiate a lightning quick U-turn to keep the race going. In the event of a major collision that left a vehicle overturned or off-course, the app would notify me to place the car back on track and give it a little push to get it going again.

The vehicles seem to lack any onboard sensors besides the infrared reader pointed down at the track and all of the collision detection happens remotely in the smartphone app. So, while they're remarkably good at dodging other AI and player cars that are linked to the app, they can't tell when non-player obstructions are on the track and will plow happily right into a hand, foot, or housecat on the track, bouncing harmlessly away thanks to their low weight. They're not quite fully autonomous Google cars, but -- for kids' toys --they do a serviceable imitation within the constraints of the game.

Accessories
I mentioned earlier, we received a third car in addition to the two in the starter kit: the red Rho. Additional cars can be purchased for $69 each, allowing more players (real or AI) to play at a time or giving the player access to unique attributes. I counted five variants, including Kourai and Boson, which are included in the Anki Drive starter kit. The starter cars feature balanced attributes, while Rho and its twin Katal are designed for defense, as stated earlier. There's also a limited edition car called Corax available that sacrifices defense for double the offensive capability. Presumably, there will be more variants and special editions to follow.

Anki Drive cars
Each car type is unique. This Rho, for example, is designed for defensive play. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Where the old slot car courses were reconfigurable, Anki Drive so far is limited to just the one oval course. While Anki hasn't explicitly stated this, but I'd frankly be surprised if more courses weren't offered at a later date for an additional cost. I'm not sure how much these tracks would cost.

Pricing
The Anki Drive certainly attracted more than its fair share of attention around the CNET offices; it seemed that everyone wanted to have a go. It's certainly an impressive bit of tech, but most were more interested in learning how it worked than they were in playing with it. However, once they'd figured it out, the novelty of the Anki Drive wore off after a few minutes.

Anki Drive bridges the gap between the advanced, on-screen racing games that I love and play for hours at a time today and the physical, crashable slot cars that I loved as a kid. But in bridging those worlds, it creates one pretty big compromise: a loss of variety. Where a digital racing app can feature dozens of tracks and courses and where my old slot car segments could be almost infinitely reconfigured, Anki Drive has -- so far -- just one track configuration that runs in just one direction. If the Anki Drive system came with more than one track mat, could be run in reverse, or had reconfigurable tiles like my slot car segments, it would have held my attention for longer than it did.

That said, I really enjoyed the few hours of enjoyment that I got out of the physicality of Anki Drive racers, but I probably have a deeper interest in games and toys than is appropriate for someone my age. On the other hand, kids, at whom the Anki Drive is targeted, will probably be more than thrilled to play with the Anki Drive this holiday season.

The Anki Drive starter kit retails for $199 and includes everything you need to get playing head-to-head with a friend or the AI. Additional cars are $69 each, so you're in for a maximum of $337 for the full four-player experience.

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