Back in the latter part of the 1990s when dungarees were legitimately cool and "social media" meant sharing your CD Walkman, the AFX Vertigo slot-car race track came tumbling into my life. The thing was properly incredible, a tangled mass of loop-the-loops, hairpin bends and unbridled joy. Nearly 20 years has passed and those heady Vertigo days sum up my experience in the high-octane world of miniature slot-car racing.
So, it is with overly nostalgic but eager expectations that I come to write this Anki Overdrive review, the seven-year-old me being an internal conscience throughout, asking "is this really any good? My AFX is surely mega better!"
In short, hypothetical younger Jack, you are wrong: Anki Overdrive is great fun, highly intelligent, slightly impractical but undeniably cool.
What is Anki Overdrive?
An evolution of the innovative Anki Drive, the Overdrive is a 'robotic and artificially intelligent' slot-car racer with no slots, raced on clever, flexible cardboard tracks by cars brimming with built-in techy wizardy, where Bluetooth-connected smartphones take control.
Phone-wielding players race the retro-styled plastic vehicles against each other, or against the computer, using the phone to judge speed and 'shoot' virtual invisible weapons, all while the cars whizz around without falling off the track because of its all-important artificial intelligence smarts.
Scalextric for the smartphone generation, you could say. A laudable crack at making 'real', physical toys a viable plaything for young and old, in the face of ever-growing competition from kids playing video games or....watching other people play video games on Twitch.
Who's it For?
People with quite a bit of floorspace. I live in an average-sized terraced house and could fit a relatively modest track set up using all of the living room's floor. People who happen to live in an abandoned warehouse shouldn't think twice.
Beyond that, anyone from small kids, stroppy teens, young professionals, adults and the elderly would surely raise a curious smile and want to have a go at Overdrive's uncanny gameplay. It has been billed as 'the future of gaming', which is a bit much, but it definitely feels future-forward.
The Starter Kit (£150) that I had sprawled out on my living room floor will be the same starting pointing into Anki's ecosystem that most people will meet, and all in it's an impressive set-up.
Getting a quality in-situ picture of the Overdrive in action at home proved disorientating, as seen in the picture above; it's hardly illustrative I admit. So, instead, here's a press shot showing some grinning millennials playing in a fake front room in a giant US mansion house.
The whole kit looks and feel high quality. There's a definite boy's-toy feel to the cars, track and app; flames and lightning bolts abound. Chunky orange tongue-and-groove teeth on the ends of track segments magnetically clip together with 'ha, see, I didn't need to read the instructions' ease.
A cause for concern could be the tracks' sturdiness: they are made from millimetre-thick laminated cardboard that, while resistant, wouldn't survive a war. Overly boisterous players, whether young or old, will do well to avoid heavy handling, or generally screwing up the beautiful, shiny race surface; it's advised that the track is kept as pretty and clean as possible for the cars to do their thing.
However, as the track segments are so thin they can (to a degree) be safely, gently bent; for instance, popping a shoe under a stretch to create an instant raised bump for the cars to race over. With this flexibility, even the base set, before you start considering available add-on track pieces, can create a wide variety of different track styles.
Once the boring analogue process of clipping together the track is complete, the fun really begins.
Cars and phones are synced on the iOS or Android app, vehicles placed on the track, and then the first sign of the smarts that power the Anki Overdrive kit starts to show. The cars set off and methodically do a slower lap, taking in their surroundings, then zip off around the track for a faster second time, before pulling up at the finish line all smug like – no human interaction. It's practically uncanny, and definitely brought a grin to our faces playing. This allows the cars to learn the parameters of your created track, which helps them to stay on the barrier-free roads (though, crucially, doesn't rule out the destructive fun of an ill-advised high-speed turn that sees your car get bashed off the course).
So after the cars have clocked their surroundings, they zip around the track automatically; no steering is done with the smartphone, beyond tilting the phone to either side to strategically change lane.
This does keep the learning curve relatively small, opening up Anki Overdrive to all players, but can at times feel like watching toys race beyond your control. A degree of speed and steering assistance is turned on by default in the app, but pro drivers can dial this back a tad, giving slightly more control over the cars. In fairness though, most of the fun is had in shooting various 'weapons' that come with each car and knowing when to slow down, overtake and swap lanes. Trying to do all that and fully steer would be impossible.
The phone controls comprise lane-change tilting of the phone, a speed slider, weapon blaster toggles which react to different types of tap, and a pause button. It takes a while to get the hang of what the weapons do, but like any good game beginners can button-bash and get on pretty well.
Here's an Anki run-down of the cars and their assorted arsenals:
SKULL – The car’s Pirate Core lets it sail across the track at high speed while its cannon rips through enemy hulls.
GROUNDSHOCK – Its PowerStation Core electrifies the track with split-second manoeuvring and lightning-fast attacks. Don’t get in its way.
THERMO - Its Magma Core engine is old-school meets future. Using hyper-charged internal combustion, it not only burns up the track, it projects fire at anyone in range.
NUKE - Its Fusion Core can be charged up to unleash ultra-high energy blasts that tear through normal shields. Its cool exterior masks an unstable explosive interior.
GUARDIAN - The car’s Siren Core keeps the pursuit of victory going at full volume. Its piercing sonic attacks go right through armour and cause challengers to lose control.
BIGBANG – This armour-plated heavyweight’s Graviton Core creates massive shockwaves that send foes flying off course.
Keeping the cars juiced up is done with a suitably naff-looking charging platform that would have looked completely in-place next to my AFX Vertigo. The deck plugs into the wall and the cars are simply charged by slotting them onto one of four stations. Over the dozen or so play-sessions so far, I haven't needed to recharge the cars during races and battles, which is good, as the cars have easily kept juiced from the docking deck.
- Loads of smarts. From the cars doing their automatic track scan to shooting down opponents with variable weapons, it's clear that there are brains under Anki's bonnet (and, well, there are: Anki was founded by a bunch of boffins from a prestigious US uni).
- Quick and relatively painless set-up. The tracks can be built intuitively on a small learning curve, while also having potential for lots of customisation madness.
- The dock presents the only wire, so the set-up is tidy and there aren't lots of small bits and pieces to lose, break or step on and then cry over.
- It takes up a lot of space. The length and girth of the Anki Overdrive tracks means that people in smaller residencies would struggle to get much expansion out of it.
- The Anki app is pretty intuitive but it does stutter. It often confused new matches and ones already passed, thus causing a fuss with syncing and player patience.
- The thin cardboard track is reinforced by plastic bumper parts, but should be stored away from anything or anyone stronger than a spring breeze. Failing that, stump up for booster track-packs (£10-£30) when things go awry.
- A dozen or so laps on one track design and the action grows stale. Bigger, more elaborate tracks using the jumps, rails and bank-turns would mitigate that, but obviously comes at cost of space and cash beyond that initial starter kit price.
- Some loop-the-loops would make it win over the AFX Vertigo hands down.
Should You Buy It?
Highly recommend it. There's nothing much like Anki Overdrive on the market. It's a bit pricey to get started, at £150 for the Starter Kit, but not hugely dear to develop (if you have that all important space I keep banging on about).
It's a clear contender for this year's coolest Christmas present.