As a kid, I loved slot car racing. I didn't have my own set, mind you, so getting to play it at a friend's house was a rare treat. I can only imagine what 9-year-old Dave would have thought of Anki Overdrive.
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Anki Overdrive is slotless race car system that combines traditional racing—beat your opponent around a track—with virtual weapons that disable other cars. You can fire your weapons to slow down or disable other cars, for example. You don't see laser beams or electrical fields swirling around the cars in the real world, but you hear sound effects and see the impact of your assault on the other cars in the race.
Overdrive is a new version of the original Anki Drive, which debuted a couple of years ago and has long been a fixture at Apple stores due to the way Anki used iPhones as the car controllers. The new Overdrive amps up every part of the experience: The smartphone app is improved, it's now expandable with new track extensions, and new car options (like a crazy enormous Supertruck) make the whole thing look like a real blast for kids and adults alike.
Setting Up the Track is a Breeze
Let's start with assembling the track. On that front, Overdrive features the simplest track system I've ever seen; they snap together magnetically, and you can throw together a simple loop in literally just seconds. Make no mistake: What has traditionally been the most frustrating part of owning a slot car track is now so simple a 4 year old can do it. It snaps together effortlessly and is virtually impossible to assemble it wrong.
The Starter Kit (which costs $150) comes with enough track (four straight, six curves, and a pair of risers to elevate a section of track) to build eight different layouts. A half-dozen add-on kits let you optionally add a variety of additional track segments, which increase your layout options dramatically. A "Collision Kit," for example, lets you set up dangerous intersections, and a "Launch Kit" adds an Evil Knievel-style jump to your track.
As an aside, it's worth noting that this is a very safe toy; unlike race cars from your childhood, this track is not electrified. Instead, each section of track is just a swatch of flexible vinyl. The cars are themselves powered (and charge up in a small dock) and, of course, connect to your phone via Bluetooth. You control your car via an app on your phone; there's no stand-alone controller.
Easy to Learn, But a Few Rough Edges
Some games--especially high-tech ones--can be challenging to get started with. I can't count the number of times I've been initially excited by a new toy only to soon be discouraged by complex rules and behavior.
Overdrive is not one of those games. The whole setup process, including getting the cars connected to the player's phones, is quite straightforward, and a tutorial teaches you what you need to become confident behind the wheel, so to speak, over the course of a few races.
Just one complaint: Several times I've managed to get the game in a state after a race that my phone would no longer recognize the cars. Returning them to the dock didn't help. The fix? Just closing and re-starting the app. That always worked like a charm.
Smart Cars, Smart Racing
The cars are controlled via an iOS or Android app, and you can play solo (against a computer opponent) or in multiplayer bouts with other humans. The phone becomes your controller, with the ability to change lanes (by tilting the phone to the left or right), vary your speed, and activate weapons and power-ups. You can race as many as four cars at once with a combination of human and computer players.
The first time you race on a track, the software takes all the cars around the track for a short calibration run on autopilot. After they teach themselves the shape of the track, they line up on the starting line, ready to race.
What's almost magical--certainly, it amazes everyone who has joined me in a race--is the way the cars stay on the track even without the benefit of slots and without any kind of guard rail. For the most part, they stay on the track with uncanny accuracy, able to smartly compete with humans and navigate curves without oversteering or flying off the track onto the floor. Every once in a while, a car will encounter a problem. After a collision with another car, for example, a car might careen off the track and need to be manually placed back on. When that happens, the game recognizes the problem and directs you to stop racing and reset the errant car.
Lots of Racing Options
Thanks to the array of virtual weapons, racing Overdrive is more challenging than just zipping around the course as fast as possible. Indeed, it's often critical to maneuver your way behind opponents, where you can line up to fire plasma cannons, tractor beams, and other elements of your hi-tech arsenal.
While you can always jump right into a free-form match up against computer or human, the app also has a story mode, with an increasingly challenging campaign. It includes music, dialog, and some degree of intrigue. Not quite compelling for grownups, but it's great for kids. Similarly, there are constantly-updating "goals"--essentially, they're challenges to do specific things, like defeat a specific AI opponent or race on a particular track layout.
Moreover, there are a number of game modes; you can flat out race, or compete to earn a specific number of points to win. If you get the optional supertruck, one game mode challenges you to disable the truck with your weapons, after which you take over the truck to inflict mayhem on the track.
And to further extend the experience, you get points that you can cash in to "upgrade" your car in a virtual garage with better performance and new weapons.
A Smart Buy for Your Kids (Or Yourself)
Overall, Anki has found a way to turn an already exciting game—slotless car racing—into a multi-trick pony that doesn't quickly go stale. There's a lot of variety here that invites lots of replays, and the track itself sets up and breaks down so quickly that it'll never be a chore to haul out of the closet for a quick game with some friends.
Finally, the whole thing is surprisingly reasonably priced. With the Starter Kit clocking in at $150 (on sale for $120 as this review is going to print) and accessory tracks priced between $20-$30 each, this is a very smart buy for your kids. Or for yourself.