Anki Overdrive feels your need for speed

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Physical toys that connect to smartphone apps are a way to break free of the purely virtual world of video games, and to add a high-tech hook to traditional playthings. Recent popular entries in this hybrid genre include Sphero's app-controlled BB-8 robot and toy-based console games such as Skylanders or Disney Infinity.

Since the original Anki Drive racing system was first demod on-stage at Apple's 2013 Worldwide Developers Conference keynote, Anki has been pushing the idea of old-school remote-controlled slot cars, driven via app. The 2013 iteration featured a fixed race course on a roll-up mat, plus two cars controlled by an iOS (and later an Android) app.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The idea has now been rebooted as Anki Overdrive. The new version features a similar app-controlled set of toy cars, but now the track is completely modular. that means you can take the various curved and straight pieces and build many track designs.

The starter kit for Anki Overdrive, available from October 20, costs $149 in the US and £149 in the UK (it's not currently available in Australia). The kit includes two cars, a charging dock that can support up for four cars (additional cars are sold separately), and 10 pieces of plastic-coated track material, consisting of six curved pieces and four straight pieces.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The track pieces are flexible and have tongue-and-groove magnetic connections on each end, so you can snap them together easily. Because the plastic track flexes, you can build up, balancing tracks on books or boxes, or using the included plastic risers. Hidden in the black asphalt-like design is special printed code, which the cars see via a small undercarriage camera in order to stay on the track.

Self-driving cars

Like old-school slot cars, players don't have full control over the movement of their Anki Overdrive vehicles. It's more like an on-rails video game, where the cars follow the track automatically, and the player's job is to control acceleration and braking, and fire off various "weapons" that can disable or slow down other cars, all through the iOS or Android app.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Not that this self-driving feature prevents the cars from running off the track regularly. You'll have to watch your speed and position, or you could end up off the race course, and need to be manually put back on the track. A big part of this is tilting to use the accelerometer in your phone or tablet to steer between the left and right lanes on the track. That can put you in the inside edge of a turn or block a driver coming up from behind.

The net effect is that you never feel fully in control of what's happening, but there are also many opportunities to use the speed, position and virtual weapons to make a big difference in a race. The assisted driving also makes it easier for younger players (or older players who can't get through a Forza lap without crashing a dozen times).

If you build it...

Unlike the single fixed track design the original Anki Drive set came with, you can expand the Overdrive racecourse with add-on track packs. A pack of two straight pieces or two curved pieces costs $20, while a launch kit for jumps, with two straight pieces and a few plastic risers, is $30. The launch kit's pieces have special instructions written into the invisible code printed on the track that tells the cars to speed up to make the jump.

A few other add-ons, including a $30 four-way junction that promises big smash-ups, are also available, as are extra cars, although at $50 each for the cars, it'll be a big investment to get all the way up to four players.

Sarah Tew/CNET

We tried several different layouts, including ones with jumps and ones with levels of elevated track that passed over other tracks. Figuring out how to navigate the unique track designs is one of Overdrive's most impressive feats. Rather than forcing you to build to a preset pattern, you can arrange the tracks anyway you like. Before each race, the cars will slowly traverse the course you've built a few times, building a map of the racetrack that you can see being created in real time in the app.

Drive my car (with this app)

The Anki Overdrive app, available for both iOS and Android, controls nearly everything about the system outside of track design, but also contributes a few pain points. Both iOS and Android smartphones or tablets can race together, but if you mix platforms, all the devices need to be on the same Wi-Fi network.

Screenshot by Dan Ackerman/CNET

The app strongly suggests a series of tutorial missions against AI drivers, and forces you to sit through lengthy vignettes between virtual characters. These dialog scenes are both unbearable and unskippable. We aimed high with our first track and included a jump, but after much setup, the app informed us that the first tutorial mission wouldn't allow a jump, so we had to start over again and rebuild.

Through missions, you can level up the virtual weapons and stats on your car, but it's hard to tell exactly what effect any of it has, as the only real-world indicators are some flashing lights on the cars themselves and cars occasionally slowing down or stalling. Every game we played ended up as more about button-mashing than precision, in part because the cars drive extremely fast.

The strong emphasis on different game types (king of the hill, weapon battles, various single-player AI challenges) feels misplaced. What Anki Overdrive seems perfect for is pick up and play racing with friends. Once you go through a little initial setup and a few tutorial screens, that becomes easier to get to by clicking on "Open Play" rather than "Start" on the app.

Screenshot by Dan Ackerman/CNET

From there, one player hosts a game, while up to three others can join. The host picks a game type (a basic race was the most popular by far) and everyone can select an available car (the app will detect any charged Anki cars nearby). It took us a few tries to get the hang of setting up a multiplayer game, but after that it felt like a standard online video game lobby.

Note that the Anki apps we used were prerelease versions, so the final versions may differ slightly.

The final lap

Much like an actual race, playing with Anki Overdrive involves speedy straightforward parts, a few twists and turns, and the occasional crash.

The game makes a great first impression as a fun, fast-paced multiplayer party game. But it takes a good while to get everything put together and running, especially if newcomers need to get on the same Wi-Fi network, download the app, and set up their characters. Even after that, there's a bit of a learning curve to figuring out which parts of the experience you can directly control, and which are the cars essentially driving themselves. It can also get very expensive if you add on extra tracks and cars.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But once we got past all that, had a great track set up with multiple levels and a jump, and got four players into the game, it was incredibly fun and immediately brought out the competitive spirit of our testers.

As if to emphasize that there's still a lot of skill required, despite the assisted self-driving nature of the cars, one of our playtesters was the winner in all but one of our 15-lap races (and in the final race, he came in second place).

While the required smartphone app could use some decluttering, Anki Overdrive is a major evolution over the original version, and makes for a fun, if expensive, party game that both kids and adults can enjoy.

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