Cars leave track and often can’t find their way back.
Expansions seem to confuse the A.I. steering.
Anki’s latest connected car-racing experience is lots of fun right out of the box, but the expansion kits disappoint.
Connected toys have upped their game and are hitting the mainstream hard this holiday season. Sphero’s BB–8, for example, charmingly enhances the earlier smart ball design to give you a Star Wars droid of your very own. And now, Anki is back with a brand new release that massively expands 2013’s Anki Drive, its modernized take on slot cars.
If the name isn’t a dead giveaway, Anki Overdrive takes the previous experience to awesome new levels. Gone is the fixed track mat, which you’d unroll and then place the app-steered cars upon—now you can build your own custom tracks using pieces that easily snap together on the ground. And it’s expandable, with an array of add-on segments that allow you to execute the epic living room racetrack of your dreams.
That’s the promise, at least. I had a blast with Anki Overdrive right up until I tried embracing that notion of larger, increasingly complex tracks and more frantic showdowns—at which point this smart idea left me scratching my head.
What’s especially impressive about Anki Overdrive is just how easy it is to set up and use. The Starter Kit comes with four straight segments of track and six 90-degree curves, all of which snap together with a satisfying magnetic click. In fact, my 2-year-old son—who is now properly obsessed with Anki (“Go get car mats, daddy”)—put his train track-building skills to immediate use and started building courses with little assistance. And if he can figure it out, then so can you.
Unlike traditional slot cars, these very thin, plastic tracks aren’t electrified: it’s the cars themselves. You get two with the box, and they’ll need about 10 minutes on the included charging dock to be fully juiced up; they run upwards of 20 minutes once charged. After connecting to the Anki Overdrive app on your iPhone, iPad, or Android device, they’ll do a slow lap or two around the course and learn the layout.
And then they’re off—quickly, too. Anki’s little sprinters are impressively speedy as they auto-accelerate around the tracks, constantly scanning the infrared markings on the pieces to maintain position as they zip along. It’s so cool to see them whip around the course for the first time, but you’ve got a job to do. You’ll lightly steer the car by tilting your phone or tablet, so you can lean into turns or position yourself behind a rival. The latter point is important, since Anki Overdrive has a secret, unseen weapon: weapons.
No, they’re not physical projectiles or attacks (I can dream), but rather virtual volleys that resonate within the app. If you’re hit with a tractor beam, for example, you’ll slow down and the foe who zapped you will blast ahead. Other weapons might stall you on the track for a couple seconds, weaken your armor against further attacks, or show your momentum with machine gun fire. Your phone vibrates, the cars light up and slow down, and it gives the game a Mario Kart-esque allure. It’s impressive stuff.
In fact, while the physical components make Anki Overdrive feel like a video game come to life, the Overdrive app itself really propels the experience. It’s the home control panel that lets you set up events, customize your virtual driver, and see which cartoonish opponents inhabit the A.I.-controlled cars you’re battling against. It also provides sound effects, spoken dialogue, and music, adding a crucial theatrical element to the experience.
But the app also enriches the experience in two other key ways. First is the campaign mode, which delivers a series of increasingly challenging races with just enough of a storyline to drive your ascent in the futuristic racing league. It loops through races and combat-centric battle events, and while it’s not the most enthralling quest, it provides a bit of context so you’re not just repeatedly running plain races when friends aren’t around.
More importantly, the app provides a sense of progression: you’ll earn experience and in both campaign and standalone events and level your car up, which allows you to tap into upgrades. Small speed and shield boosts help your car on the track, as do the customizable weapons that open up along the way. That’s a very cool benefit that shows the real potential of connected toys: it’s not just about replacing an RC remote with your phone screen. There’s more to it.
And it all comes together really well with the Starter Kit. You’ve got enough track to build eight course layouts (with risers for looping designs), plus two cars for head-to-head battles or races against an A.I. opponent. At $150, it’s an ideal family gift this holiday season, with everything you need to set it up within minutes, have some fun, and then scrap the track and build it all over again.
That said, they’re pretty compact courses, and the urge to do more kicks in before long. You’ll surely be tempted by the images of additional cars and extra track pieces. But then you’ll look everything up online and perhaps gulp or break a sweat, because none of the add-on stuff is cheap. Two extra pieces of common track? $20. A single plus-sign intersection track piece? $30. Extra cars? $50 a pop.
Building an elaborate home track for four-player showdowns will easily cost hundreds of extra dollars beyond your initial purchase, but I figured expansion was the key to prolonging and amplifying the Anki Overdrive experience. Armed with a bundle of extra track pieces and cars, I set to work building a track with a wild jump, a plus-sign intersection, and plenty of curves. It looked amazing, but once the cars got running, it turned out to be a real mess.
Sadly, Anki Overdrive can’t seem to handle all of its own expansion kits. The $30 Launch Kit, for example, vaults the cars off of an elevated track—but even with the risers in the right locations, I couldn’t get the cars to land properly on the other side and keep going more than one-third of the time (Amazon buyers report much the same). They’d crash or fall short and then try driving under the track, or just spin around in place. It’s terrible, and an absolute waste of money.
The intersection piece, meanwhile, is called the Collision Kit, and it’s designed to create looping, crash-em-up scenarios. But the biggest thing I noticed is that cars regularly drove off the track after driving through it, like they got confused and lost their position. And at that point, all you can do is run over and put them back on; this happened a lot. Anki sells optional rails that fit along the edges of the tracks to help keep cars on the track, but the sheer premise is maddening: making sure cars stay on the tracks shouldn’t be a premium add-on feature.
Anki Overdrive loses its appeal quickly when you’re babysitting the cars instead of racing them. The more elaborate track pieces and cars I threw into Anki, the more they randomly zipped off the course and the less fun I had. It was only when I pared back down to the basic track pieces that I enjoyed it again. But that doesn’t say much for the potentially hundreds of dollars you might spend expanding your track options, not to mention your dashed dreams of an apartment-spanning super track.
Even with those notable issues, Anki Overdrive remains one of the coolest connected toys available today. The Starter Kit is well priced and has everything you need—besides a smartphone or tablet—to enjoy the action, and it really shows the benefits of an app-enabled toy. But tread carefully with the expansions: many only seem to diminish the fun at great expense.
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