It's easy to forget you are holding a phone.
Like most middle-class suburban kids, I grew up around "toy" race tracks. Everything from the simple Hot Wheels tracks you could assemble yourself to the hyper-realistic powered rail tracks we would all race at the local mall on weekends. Every time I've played with an Anki Overdrive kit, there's been a combination of nostalgia and surprise at how well this race kit was aimed at every age group. But I never went and actually bought a kit for myself, and never seriously considered having a space in my house set up for friends to come over and race.
For a couple of different reasons, the latest addition to the Anki Overdrive lineup has changed that. Not just for me, either. As soon as the buy buttons go live, several of my friends will be ready to smash the buy button.
More than just racing
For the uninitiated, Anki Overdrive is about the furthest thing from a model car racing experience you can have while still managing to look exactly like a toy racing experience. You assemble a track made out of flexible sections that clip together magnetically, charge your little cars on a very simple USB-powered pad, and you need a controller to be able to race your car around the track you have built.
Once you actually start racing, it quickly becomes clear this experience is unique. The cars you are racing have an AI, which handles how the car goes around turns and how it switches lanes and a ton of other things. As the driver, you control how fast the car is going and what lane you want to be in, but you're not really driving the car around the track. Which is good, because you are way too busy doing the other things Anki Overdrive cars can do.
This isn't just a racing system; it's a full combat experience. Your car has its own weapons loadout and special abilities that can be accessed from the app. You can fire a grappling hook at the car in front of you, and when it hits the AI, the other car intelligently knows to behave as though it has just been tethered. Your opponent can temporarily hack your car and send you into a spin, and your car will behave accordingly. The only thing separating this from a video game in your living room is all of the real-world parts happening right in front of you.
As much fun as the Anki Overdrive system is, this setup is very high maintenance. The individual track pieces and the cars you put on it need to be kept very clean for the cars to behave the way they are supposed to, and that can be impressively time consuming. Things like fingerprints on the track can cause your car to lose traction and spin out, and because the track itself can become quite large, it's likely many people will be setting tracks up on the floor where things like pet hair can quickly become a problem. As long as you remember to keep the area around the track extra clean this isn't a huge issue, but if not these small things can quickly come together to ruin a racing session.
Surrounded by references I don't understand, but still love
The full title for this package is Anki Overdrive: Fast and Furious Edition, and it's not hard to figure out why. The kit comes with two vehicles from the films, and the app has been visually redesigned so you feel like you're a part of the film world. There's even a movie-style poster in the box to tie together the Anki Overdrive world with the Fast and Furious world. The Fast and Furious logos are all over the track as well, so it's clear as soon as you see one of these set up what you're about to play.
One minor problem: I have never seen a Fast and Furious movie. I know who most of the actors are, but am totally unfamiliar with these characters. I know lots of people who love the franchise, though, so over the course of a week I started inviting them to play a few races with me. The response was surprisingly universal, and incredibly positive.
When you start racing, there's a campaign mode themed around elements from the movies. The first chapter of the campaign teaches you all of the racing mechanics as you race against Dom, Letty, Tej, and Hobbs. Once you've got a handle on all of the game mechanics, you can download the second chapter and things get a lot more aggressive. Suddenly the AI becomes a lot more challenging to race and battle against, forcing you to constantly adjust your strategy to pull off the win. The way Anki has blurred the lines between racing model cars and a fully formed video game is truly impressive, and bringing these Fast and Furious characters to life makes it all the easier to dive in to this experience.
It's not clear how intentional this is, but it seems like the AI for these characters extends beyond the actual race. When racing, you'll hear clips and phrases from the movies as a turn is taken extra tight or when victory seems to be at hand, but in some cases even the vehicle selection seemed to come from character preference. Hobbs and Tej would regularly choose the armored Hummer-looking International MXT, while Dom and Letty would opt for the iconic Ice Charger. If I chose the Ice Charger before Dom or Letty, it seemed like the AI would regularly choose the more traditionally racer-like Phantom Nuke that wasn't a part of the Fast and Furious kit over the International MXT. When I would share this information with friends who enjoyed the movies, they each laughed and explained how well that fit with the movie personas.
As you get better at the game, so do your AI opponents.
Campaign mode in this Fast and Furious Edition is all about earning money and reputation. In the first chapter you are unlocking new abilities and learning how to race against these characters, but the second chapter requires you to carefully spend the money you earned in those races to improve your vehicle. These improvemets are saved to your account, so when you bring your phone and car to another Anki Overdrive track you are able to bring those unlocks with you. As you increase your reputation through unlocking stars with each race, your cars level up. This is a good and bad thing for you, because the AI cars are leveling up as well while you race. As you get better at the game, so do your opponents.
By the time you've completed the Campaign mode, your Anki Overdrive cars are very well equipped and make racing against other human players a lot of fun. If you find yourself in a tough spot where the AI has started to outsmart you in Campaign mode, you can invite a friend over and they can join you in these Campaign race fights to help take the enemy down. There's a surprising amount of flexibility in this system, and it all eventually leads to full human on human races as you continue to improve your individual vehicles. Like before, Anki hopes you'll max out one car and feel compelled to buy other cars so you have lots of different options to choose from when you race.
Surprisingly fun for every age
The Anki Overdrive system has always been a blast, but the new Campaign mode and the Fast and Furious tie in really complete this package. The new software really makes the $170 starter kit feel worth it, even for someone like me who maybe doesn't get every Fast and Furious reference. Anyone can pick up the controller and learn to drive in this system, and the way the whole experience feels like a futuristic game feels like a genuine lea forward in model racing entertainment.
This is something I can sit and play with my kids or pack up and take to a friend's house over a round of drinks and get the exact same level of entertainment out of it. There aren't many other things in the world you can say that about, which makes this something truly special.