Review: Anki Overdrive

Slot cars meet IoT with a sprinkling of Mario Kart – this is tabletop racing as you haven’t seen it before

The first slot cars to hit the mass market were reportedly produced by Lionel.

This American manufacturer, best known for 70 years of producing electric model train sets, featured the earliest record of what can be termed a slot car – a miniature vehicle guided by a rail on a track, according to the 1965-published Complete Book of Model Raceways and Roadways. However, the technology only really took off in the latter half of the 20th century, and those of us who grew up in the 1990s would no doubt have played with or owned a set of their own at some point.

Now, in the internet of things (IoT) era, we have an AI- and app-driven modern equivalent: the Anki Overdrive.

Anki Overdrive Overview

The Anki Overdrive Starter Kit comes with two Bluetooth-connected model vehicles, a charging port, ten separate track pieces, a four-car charger, two risers and a tire cleaning kit.

Anki Overdrive Starter Kit
The Starter Kit includes: 2 supercars, 6 curved track parts, 4 straights, 2 riser parts, a 4-car charging dock and a tire cleaner

Set-up is, in theory, very simple – download the iOS or Android companion app, connect the thin track modules – which have both corner and straight sections that can be configured eight ways with the Starter Kit – through simple magnetic clips and you’re good to go. The game can be played solo or in groups of up to four, which is far more entertaining. All players need to be on the same Wi-Fi network to participate.

There are four gameplay modes in Open Play. You have the basic Race mode, which lets you do 15, 30 or 45 laps; Battle, where the first car to register a fixed number of confirmed hits wins; King of the hill, in which the player who spends most time in the lead wins; and Time Trial, where you can try and beat the track record with an individual vehicle.

Nuke
Each vehicle has its own design theme. Nuke isn’t included in the Starter Kit, but it looks pretty awesome

Playing with different vehicles unlocks different perks in an RPG-like reward system that lets you choose weapon and vehicle upgrades. Thankfully, you are free from the terror of in-app purchases; everything can be unlocked through pure skill rather than a purse.

At #GNTECH, we were lucky enough to get a few extra track bits to the Anki Overdrive Starter Kit. Taking full advantage of an empty workplace on a Thursday evening, we put together a mammoth raceway. Then, we put the mini supercars to work.

Overdrive track tech

The track is coated with a special ink and utilises optical technology to ensure the vehicles you are piloting stay on course. Each track piece is thin and flexible enough to allow a range of creative configurations. These include hills, curved corners, bridges and even jumps.

Before you commence a race on a newly constructed track configuration, you get to watch the vehicles moving single file down the path as they scan and map it out on your smartphone. When they’re done, they automatically converge towards the starting line. It’s a pretty cool experience watching the supercars line up, reminiscent of races from an early Fast and the Furious film. When the race begins, the cars’ AI automatically follow the track’s path.

Overdrive Anki track scan
The tracks been scanned by two cars, including bridges, curves and underpasses

For the player, the game lies in knowing when to push forward, slow down, fire and – most importantly – switching lanes at just the right moment, both offensively (lining up behind a rival to blast them with a virtual plasma cannon) and defensively (dodging a bullet fired by a racer behind you). Switching and changing speeds are fluid and responsive, partly thanks to the ink on the track as well as the tech built into the vehicles themselves.

Two parts for making a bridge are included in the Starter Kit, but what’s really cool about the Overdrive track is when you get creative with random objects around the house. A big matchbox makes a perfect hill. A pair of cardboard toilet rolls can transform your track into an Excitebike tribute. We did this ourselves by using piles of evenly spaced old GN Publishing magazines.

Overdrive car nuke underside
The camera under each car scans the material on the track 500 times per second. Each rear wheel has its own motor

Each car is equipped with a 50mHz CPU, separate rear-wheel drive motors and an underside iPhone camera, which Anki tells us scans the surface 500 times per second to minimise time for lane switching. Practically speaking, this takes getting used to. This is mainly because you aren’t actually steering the vehicle, just choosing the lane in which it drives and controlling the throttle.

Does this sound boring? It might well have been, if not for the other element of Anki Overdrive: battle.

Fight!

Just like in Nintendo’s classic Mario Kart series, each vehicle is equipped with customisable weapons that can be used to disable rival cars in various ways. You can stop a rival for two or three valuable seconds. You could shut down their weapon systems, or slow them down. Anki says each vehicle has its own “personality”.

Anki Overdrive weapons
Each vehicle has its own upgradeable weapons. We highly recommend Groundshock’s Electro Pulse

By this, the San Francisco-based company refers to the broad range of designs, weapon configurations and differing strengths across eight cars. Caution must be observed when using any kind of boost – entering a turn too fast sent our vehicles skidding off across the carpet on more than one occasion. This can be fun though; there’s nothing more satisfying than disabling a rival racer’s vehicle before you barge it right off the track. And thanks to the autopilot that keeps cars moving on the road, it’s safe to ignore your own vehicle while you pick up a lost one and put it back on the track.

Character

For those nights your friends bail on you, worry not. The game has been designed to be enjoyed solo. After you setup a profile and enter the game’s tournament, you’ll face off against an array of increasingly difficult AI racers, each with his or her own voice and personality, which comes out to taunt you during races and battles. To start with, there’s a Texan-accented jock; a fiery female who laughs at you after blasting your car with a pulse cannon; and a C3PO lookalike who you have to race first, in the tutorial stage.

The downsides

The main problem we faced while using the Anki Overdrive was that of connectivity. Some vehicles (Nuke and Groundshock) were easier and quicker to sync with than others (Thermo and Skull). At first, I thought it may be a device problem – my HTC M9 has suffered weak Bluetooth of late – but the same issue arose with the LG G5 and HTC 10, which are both premium flagship Androids.

Thermo Anki Overdrive
It took a couple of tries to connect an AI character to Thermo (centre)

Then there’s the Anki Overdrive app, which has its own drawbacks. With the connectivity problems, it can take a couple of minutes to set up a race. Should someone call you right before the start or you switch to WhatsApp to quickly check a message, going back to the Anki app takes you to the main menu. Another problem is that you can’t reset the number of players (whether AI or human) from the vehicle selection screen. Finally, the app itself is quite heavy, at nearly 300MB. To be fair, much of that space is reserved for the huge number of audio files required for the dialog, but Anki could probably ditch the snazzy opening CGI video. That’s best reserved for YouTube, not regular users every time they open the app to race.

Overdrive overpriced or right on the money?

The Anki Overdrive Starter Kit is retailing at Dh899 at select Harvey Nichols and Virgin Megastores across Dubai.

There are both positive and cynical ways to look at Anki’s strategy.

On one hand, there are no in-app purchases to worry about over time. The brand has promised that upgrades and potentially even new game modes in the future will be free. A testament to this is the fact that you can use the more functional-looking cars from the first version of Overdrive on the new tracks after a firmware upgrade. In terms of toy prices, Dh899 may be a lot but that amount will basically land you a medium-to-large Lego Star Wars set. Besides, this can be something of a hobbyist’s toy and has a degree of longevity if you build up a collection of track parts over time.

While this looks like a toy on the surface, the company itself wants to be seen apart from the Hasbros and Mattels of this world. Anki OVERDRIVE represents a key step in a new industry still in its infancy, and an opportunity to make robotics and artificial intelligence accessible in our everyday lives.”
– Boris Sofman, Anki Founder and CEO.

This emphasis on tech places Overdrive in an interesting grey area between IoT and entertainment, just as the form of play straddles both the physical and virtual worlds.

However, the cynic in us can’t help but raise an eyebrow at the company’s pricing. A pair of straight track parts, whether corner or straight, will set you back over Dh100. The Jump and Collision (basically a crossroad) kits are even more. Because of the nature of setting up a track – everything must be a closed loop – the real fun is there to be had when you have loads of track parts.

So if you want to really go big, with something that covers the living room floor, you’re looking at an additional outlay of more than Dh1,000 for ten straights and ten corner kits. Then there’s the price of an additional vehicle, which is about Dh300.

The brand’s website lists the Crash Bundle (23 track pieces, 4 cars and six accessories including jumps and rails) for £399.99 (About Dh2,150). We’re yet to confirm whether this bundle is available in UAE stores, but will update this post when we do.