Anki Drive review

When you were young you probably played Scalextric. It was a lot of fun and while you would no doubt pick up a trigger and squeeze it today given half the chance, there is a new challenger in town: Anki Drive.

Anki Drive doesn't require you to place the cars back into a slot when you crash, nor does it use a plastic trigger controller or build-it-yourself track. This is the modern world, after all, and instead your iPhone or iPad is used as the controller to pit against an in-built artificial intelligence that's out to whoop your sorry nostalgic arse.

First demoed on stage at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in 2013, it's taken the game a year to reach UK shops, but has it been worth the wait and is the new wave approach really that much better than the old? We've been playing Anki Drive with the kids to find out. 

The track

The track in the Starter Pack measures 260 x 107cms, so it's large and not designed for the small cottage lounge in any way, shape or form. The pack also includes two cars, although the game can cater for four cars total.

Large though it is, the track also scores big on being the clever bit of the set. It might just look like a big loop, but the vinyl mat has been printed with thousands of instructions that the cars can read in real-time. That means the system knows exactly where the cars are in relationship to not only the track, but also the other cars racing, right down to the speed those cars are going.

With the track being a single piece of material, it is easy to roll out and roll back up again at the start and end of a play session. It also doesn't need to be completely flat for it to work, which adds to the fun if you've got a rug in the way to add a bump to the course. Or the more adventurous could create a curved bank with some books or a cushion - and it will still work.

On the downside the track can get dirty fairly quickly, especially if you've got kids that don't realise the importance of not walking over it. The dirt, even dust does have an effect because the car wheels can get clogged and the experience is therefore slower. To combat this you get a sticky pad to clean the wheels, which makes a difference, and the vinyl can be wiped clean. Something to bear in mind but, ultimately, you will rarely have a problem. 

The Starter Pack is the only track available right now in the UK, but two more - Bottleneck and Crossroads - are expected in the future. One is a figure of eight configuration so those up for a bit of crashing action or more of a challenge on the steering front will be happy. However, the new tracks will cost extra and require the Starter Pack to work. If you were thinking about the modular nature of Scalextric then think again: Anki Drive isn't about build-it-yourself design, it's a toy that's all about physical simplicity and more complex behind-the-scenes gaming.

The cars

You get two cars in the Starter Pack. One is yellow, the other silver, but Anki Drive collectors will call them by their proper "Boson" and "Kourai" names we're sure. They certainly look the part; a cross between Knight Rider and the Batmobile in miniature plastic.

They are charged via a dedicated docking station, which itself connects to a standard micro USB cable connection. Also included is a special three-in-one cable so you can charge up to three cars at a time, and it takes around eight minutes to fully recharge.

From that charge you'll get around 20 minutes of continuous racing. That's not loads, but with games only lasting a couple of minutes at a time (you can race 15, 30, or 45 laps) you can fit in plenty of races before powering the cars again.

Savvy racers are encouraged to buy more cars at £50 each - sounds more like rich racers, then? - and charge those while you race the others. If you don't have a spares in the garage, so to speak, then the charge time can break the flow of play - but during our gaming sessions with young kids it's not been a major problem.

The cars themselves are the so-called dumb part of the experience. Although in reality they are anything but: they work by using an in-built camera to scan the track, while an on-board microprocessor helps them act accordingly. The artificial intelligence "learns" from each race and that's where Anki gets its name from - it means "learn by heart" in Japanese.

It means the cars rarely come off the track, will automatically tell you how many laps you've got left via the app and also show where you are currently placed (1st through to 4th).

Skills and weapons

But that's not all. The game, in a kind of real-world nod to Mario Kart, also means you can use weapons that will improve your own car or help your chances of winning by affecting the others. Earn more experience points and you can improve your car over time too.

Different cars bring with them different weapons. These range from a tractor beam to pull other cars closer so you can (virtually) shoot them, through to a shield to protect yourself, or a boost to speed up and get you out of trouble.

Shoot your opponent enough times and their engine shuts down allowing you to speed past. Of course there are payoffs to your gun toting antics and doing so uses energy so you can't go as fast. What a dilemma.

iPhone controls the action

The whole system works via an iPhone or an iPad running iOS 7 and with Bluetooth active to communicate with the cars. There's no Android or other operating system compatibility at the moment.

Once connected you can then either opt to play the artificial intelligence or other human players by hosting a game and waiting for them to join your setup. It is very easy to do and we were racing within seconds rather than minutes.

Once you've started a race you can control your car by tilting the iPhone or iPad like a steering wheel. There are software-based buttons on the device's screen that control speed and weapons.

But there's more than a strong dose of help from the Anki Drive system. So much that you can almost set the speed, place your iPhone on the floor and walk away to get a cup of tea and still be in with a chance of winning a race. Although we were playing against a six-year-old.

That's great if you are playing kids as they effectively can get away with doing virtually nothing, but does mean the game can tire if you don't really interact with it.

The more involved you do get, the better, as you'll have a whale of a time. The controls are responsive, the action is, well, it's action-packed, and it can get quiet rowdy depending on how competitive you happen to be.

We've also found that by simply putting obstacles on the track it makes a huge difference to the challenge and variety.

Racing against the track

One of the cool things about all this computer assistance is that you can race against the "computer brain" artificial intelligence rather than having to convince your friends, brother, sister, Mum, Dad, Granny, etc, to play with you all the time.

You can have up to three other AI-controlled cars on the track at any one time and the system allows you to set the skill level of those individual cars to easy, medium, or hard. Hard is surprisingly difficult, and in some cases some of the extra cars you can buy won't let you take control of them until you've beaten them - tough, huh?

In practice - and whether you are racing against two other humans and one AI car or three AI cars - it is incredibly good fun and brings extra challenge to the experience. We wish we had ghost cars in Scalextric 30 years ago.

Growing with the system

With the whole system controlled, monitored and run by software you can see that there are bags of potential for where Anki Drive could and probably will go.

Already in this version you can play to earn experience points which can then be used to upgrade your car, just like you do in video games, but here in a virtual-meets-real-world capacity. There are already further cars and track options for sale in the US and when those translate to the UK market there will already be more to explore.

While we don't have any specific information at this moment in time, Anki Drive has already publicly stated that it hopes to add more gameplay modes in the future to mix things up, but that seems to be just the start. We can't imagine for a moment that the company is done with what is possible.

Verdict

If you like the idea of Scalextric, but don't want to go through the rigmarole of setting up the track each time, hurtling off the track on the first corner nine times out of 10, and then not really doing much but race around for a bit, then Anki Drive is certainly worth checking out. It takes on racing in a different way and if the racing tires then the real-world meets virtual-world crossover, including weapons and special skills, is what makes it extra fun.

It might not yet have the full creative possibilities filled, there's the limitation of one track in the UK at this moment in time, and no Android device control, but the sky's the limit in what could be around the corner. More tracks, more modes, maybe even more cars - we can see it taking off.

But there is the price to consider. At £180 for the Starter Pack, Anki Drive isn't a budget buy - plus you'll need an iPhone or iPad per human player to control it - but you can easily see where the money has gone and the magic this toy brings to any room.

That sounds cliché, but really it's not. Anki Drive a very clever bit of kit and one that, in our view, outshines any toy racing game we've seen before. We've had great fun playing it, and so have those that we've invited around to play, including our kids and their friends.



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