We've raved about Anki Drive in the past and it seems consumers agree with our views, making the racing game with iOS and Android-controllable robot cars the second biggest selling toy on Amazon.com last Christmas. However, Anki has not been resting on its laurels.
It released a significant software update for the set that added characterisation to its vehicles at the tail end of 2014. And in the background it has also been busy beavering away on a bone fide follow-up: Anki Overdrive.
The relatively young company, that has more of a gaming and tech mentality than a toy one, will unveil the new, radically improved system at the New York Toy Fair starting 14 February, but it was so excited by the changes that it couldn't wait until then to show it off.
That's why Pocket-lint was invited to the company's headquarters in San Francisco to see how it plans to repeat its holiday season success. Indeed, considering how much of a massive leap forward for the series Overdrive represents, we suspect it could even better Anki's previous sales performance, with a good chance of being the number one toy for Christmas 2015 full stop.
For a start, Anki has listened to fans and critics alike and has taken on board just about every request and suggestion on how the original Drive could be enhanced. The characterisation of the vehicles and drivers has been expanded upon even more so, with the in-game Commanders being more fully fleshed out and the cars themselves given more personality.
Where the game added different characteristics to the vehicles, through the fall iOS and Android app updates, there are now different styled cars available. Two come in the launch set - which will retail for $150 (around £100) - and have their own unique artificial intelligence and individual names: Skull and Ground Shock. There will also be add-on cars available, with Thermo and Nuke also announced now and two others to follow.
Having different designs allows players to associate more with their favourite vehicle and is further evidence of the influence of Joby Otero, a former creative lead on Skylanders. Activision's game franchise has been massively successful in convincing parents and children alike that toys and videogames can work hand in hand and that's essential Anki's forte too. It makes sense therefore to follow a similar path when it comes to characterisation.
Anki Overdrive also ramps it up when it comes to the gaming element. The major difference between the second generation system to the last comes in the guise of modular tracks. While Anki Drive was great fun and easy to set up with its roll-out playmat approach, it was limited. You couldn't even buy the additional tracks in the UK that were released elsewhere.
With Overdrive you don't need to as, like with traditional toy car racing games, the tracks come in pieces that fix together. That way Anki is able to offer eight different track combinations in the starter set alone. And as each piece is made of durable and strong vinyl, they can also bend slightly to introduce bridges and banked curves. It adds an all-new element to the proceedings.
Other pieces can also be bought separately, for between $10 and $30 a pack, creating enormous tracks or different designs as you fancy. And the cars' AI will always work out the layout no matter where the pieces are placed, so you have great freedom in what to do.
It's also worth pointing out that unlike other car sets, specifically those of the slot racing nature, the Anki Overdrive track pieces are ridiculously easy to fix together. It's all done with magnets, which sounds like a magic trick and will be for kids who will marvel at how strong each link is without any kind of clipping action. This also means that it's a doddle to put away again without any fear of snapping parts or breaking something.
The modular parts also add to the gaming element as previously suggested. As well as provide the potential for things such as jump ramps and, even, loop the loops - although this latter feature is a possible rather than a definite for now - there are pieces that can introduce new gameplay styles.
There are two u-turn pieces that when the cars enter force them to turn around and head the opposite direction. But not only are these great for closing off open junctions, they also come in different colours so can be used as targets in a new game mode; capture the flag anyone?
Even the ability to change the tracks based on the starter kit opens up new opportunities to enhance the gaming-element. Two of Anki's co-founders Hanns Tappeiner and Mark Palatucci told us that the final version of the app could have different levels to progress through, each of which requiring a new track design.
Tappeiner said that the smaller, simpler tracks are actually the hardest to drive on so could be suggested for later levels. Videogame fans will certainly appreciate the idea of progression and variety in level design.
This specific concept will be unveiled at a later time as we used the original Anki Drive app to control the new cars during our hands-on session with the new cars. It worked but the new app release will be markedly different.
What we did get the feeling of though was that the new tracks will add a further layer of immersion. The AI robot nature of Anki Drive took away some of the danger and difficulty of a slot racing system such as Scalextric. Changing the style of the tracks introduces areas where you can fly off or need a greater degree of concentration to succeed. Plus, when you have sections where you can suddenly veer off in a different direction or completely turn around and go against the traffic, new skills will need to be learned. Even over conventional toy racing games.
It's early days for Anki Overdrive, which doesn't even come out until September, but we already get the feeling that this is what the company always had in mind when it came up with the idea of a racing game with artificially intelligent robot cars. And what's an even greater sweetener is that it will be pushing updates that will make the original Anki Drive cars and tracks compatible too.
That Christmas number one spot is looking very achievable indeed.
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