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Chasing down Skylanders and Disney Infinity by turning toys to life on its head, Anki Overdrive’s exquisite toy cars create miniature racing battles on the floor. Paired with app-based car modifications, controls and fully voiced campaign, Anki Overdrive is a well judged fusion of real and virtual.
Slot car racing both fascinated and frustrated me as a child. I enjoyed the speed and skill required to beat my brother round the track but hated not being able to change lanes or make contact with his car.
Anki Overdrive debuts September 20 to solve this and more. Robotic cars automatically keep themselves on course round a slot-less circuit, leaving players to use its app to find the ideal racing line and trigger all manner of weapons, gadgets, and maneuvers.
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Setting up Anki Overdrive is simple. Snapping together the track has that same confidence-inspiring snap of a MacBook magsafe power connection. The Starter Pack ($150) includes six curves and four straights to offer eight different circuits, but add one or two expansions (from $20) and the combinations soon become endless.
On a flat surface it’s fast and fun to construct different circuits to race. You soon realize that Overdrive’s flexible track go up coffee tables and down around soft furnishings. Winding in and out of furniture, the courses take on a life of their own.
Smart cars learn each track
Place the smart cars on the new construction and they slowly “learn” the circuit with a few test laps. Here, you discover whether the slopes and bends you make are too ambitious. Some tweaking is usually required to get things just right, but again, this becomes part of the fun.
Once the cars have scanned the track they position themselves automatically on the starting line. Seeing them take off after the first race countdown is something of a surprise, as they fairly rocket round the circuit.
Skillful racing without the spills
This is where the real skill begins as you learn to tilt the Anki Overdrive app to steer the cars into the ideal racing line. Sometimes this is hugging the near-side of a bend to avoid coming off. Sometimes this is slamming on the air brakes to pull up behind a competitor before letting rip with an autocannon. Sometimes it’s hitting boost just as you leave a chicane and hit the straight.
As you can tell, it’s not just about racing. With a touch of Mario Kart, although through a Minority Report lens, the cars each have a set of weapons. Each vehicle’s armament is added to as you complete challenges. At the same time, the car’s top speed, armor, and energy are also powering up.
A few hours in, you find yourself making tactical decisions about which weapon load-outs to take into the next race. Because different cars have exclusive weapons, sometimes this means picking a particular ride to take down the next opponent.
Proper video game mechanics
Here the experience hits its video game sensibilities. A full campaign mode pits you against a series of competitor drivers. These are selected from a team of commanders each with their own racing style, personality, backstory, and voice work. Taking down the early commanders is quick work, but later on, they present a real challenge — and take on a personality all their own.
With the Starter Pack, you get your first two cars. This enables you to work through the campaign with enemy commanders being loaded into the other vehicle. Add in another couple of cars ($50 each) and the multiplayer aspect of the game really takes off.
Here you can challenge a mix of three other human or commander opponents to modes that include Race, Battle, Time Trial, and King of the Hill. Again, with a real video game feel, these modes offer a wide range of challenges.
Most novel is King of the Hill, where players must avoid running out of energy by being shot. Taking down the “king” in this way makes you the next “king” target. You must survive for 60 seconds to win. This not only offers some variety but also suits different styles of tracks, with jumps and cross-over sections to create new ways of staying out of trouble or chasing down your opponents.
Anki Overdrive has an impressive set of video game features, beautiful cars, and super-functional track. But more than a bag of clever bits, it becomes a coherent whole in the hands of players of all ages. The cleverness fades into the background to leave a real sense of racing battles against intelligent opponents with real personality.
What You Won’t Like
It’s not cheap
If I have a complaint about Anki Overdrive, it’s the price. While the $150 Starter Pack offers good value, to really get the most out of it, you need another couple of cars at $50 each and a few expansions that start at $20.
This prices it beyond other toys-to-life video games that typically offer a Starter Pack for around $60, although it’s perhaps comparable with other toy-centric products like Scalextric and Real FX. Although, last year’s version (which lacked the clip-together track) sold out, it feels that the cost may keep Anki Drive from the mass market numbers of Skylanders and Disney Infinity.
Currency conversions compound this for those outside the U.S. In the U.K., for instance, the Starter Kit price is £150 ($232), which moves it well into the luxury end of the consumer technology market.
Offsetting this, it’s good to see that you can upgrade last year’s Anki Drive cars to work in Anki Overdrive with an automatic firmware upgrade. This support for families who have invested in the Anki ecosystem will be important to keep the user base growing.
It needs more modes
The number of available modes are also a little limited at launch. Anki seem to be, understandably, focusing on quality rather than bells and whistles. However, I’d like to see some more modes for the real racing enthusiasts rather than just younger players.
Some endurance racing with pit stops to offset degrading performance over time would be a welcome addition in my book. Or how about the risk-reward of fuel management being included.
After Anki Drive’s success last year, it’s good to see as much ambition and innovation as this in Anki Overdrive. The clip-together tracks are a real gamechanger, opening up not only new circuits but also another whole aspect to the play mechanic.
The ongoing improvements in both the quality and depth of opponent characters and car designs underline that Anki Overdrive is much more than just a toy. This is a product that not only turns the toys-to-life experience on its head but does so coherently with high production values across the board.
Anki Overdrive releases September 20. Anki provided the Overdrive app, Starter Pack, three extra cars, and expansion packs for the purpose of the review.
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