I bet, like many parents, I remember playing with remote control cars and race tracks as a kid.
Perhaps that’s why I was so excited when a big box arrived at our house this week containing the brand new Anki Drive toy, which launches in the UK today. I should start by saying that Anki Drive is so much cooler than the toys I played with back in the 80s…
So what is it?
The Anki Drive starter kit consists of a large racing track that you can unroll and place on the floor or table, plus two speedy little cars that race on the track. There’s also a charging set, and a little gadget to clean your cars’ tyres so they race better. It’s available from today at the Apple Store at £179, plus £49 for additional cars.
Before you start playing you need to charge the cars inside their little charging pods (the lead will charge up to three cars at a time). This takes 8 minutes and gives 20 minutes race time.
A couple of things make Anki Drive different from the racing games you already know. First, you control your vehicle via a free app on your iPod, iPad or iPhone. That process is fairly simple – you just download the app, and set it to connect to your chosen car, and then you have a simple screen that allows you to set up races, and control your car. The app also relays all the sound effects from the race.
Second, Anki Drive comes with some fairly clever AI technology built in. Each vehicle (designed by the guy who designed the 1996 Batmobile, fact-fans) has its own distinct personality, strengths and weaknesses – and will race accordingly. As you race each vehicle, it learns more and gets better – with the help of upgrades that you can earn by racing, and apply using the ‘garage’ feature in the iOS app. The robotics bit also means the cars can constantly ‘read’ where they are on the track, so they shouldn’t keep driving off – although the first day or so we played, they did. Updated to add: We have since been told we had a faulty car and we’ve been given a replacement. Apparently it’s not typical for the cars to go AWOL, which is good news!
Third, you can race up to four cars on Anki Drive – even if only one child is playing. Your child sets up the race, and drives their car – while the in-built AI drives the other vehicles, making them respond to what the child’s vehicle is doing. Flea thought this feature was AMAZING, although she is convinced all the other cars are evil and keep trying to bump her off the road.
Anki Drive is marketed at kids aged 8+ but what I thought was interesting about it is that the app doesn’t actually steer the car – instead you maintain your car’s speed using on an on-screen throttle, and the lane position, by tilting your device to the left or right. This makes it really easy for kids to race against adults since it levels the playing field quite a lot.
Another cute thing about Anki Drive is that it’s not just a race – it’s a battle. Each car comes equipped with one weapon which you can ‘fire’ at an opponent to slow them down or knock them off course. Over time you can earn better and more powerful weapons, or add to your armour so that your car is less vulnerable to attack. We especially loved that you can use a tractor beam to slow down the car in front and bring it into firing range. This game has a high potential for evil that pleases me, frankly.
It sounds complicated but actually it’s a piece of cake to get up and running and there’s a fantastic 5 minute tutorial once you load the app – narrated by Patrick Stewart, which excited at least one member of our household. Over time, Anki says it will be able to add new features and race challenges to the game via the app, meaning it shouldn’t get boring. I think that will help to justify the price – which sits somewhere between a racing game and a gaming console.
Our verdict on the Anki Drive:
- The mat is large – 3.5 x 8.5 feet. Yes, it rolls up for storage but make sure you’ve got space to unroll it and play with it.
- The app is really simple to use and the game is very simple too – the lack of steering control might be an issue for adults, but for kids, it’s perfect.
- Once you’re playing, the controls are very simple, and great for kids.
- The battle mode might put off some parents but Flea found it really fun, and it really adds another dimension to the game.
- Adding an AI car to a race makes it much less predictable, and about a thousand times more fun.
- The cars themselves look incredibly cool. Flea already has a favourite, and likes to play with them off-line as well as on the track.
- On the downside, we found the AI controlled cars do have a habit of spinning wildly and driving off the track for no reason – it can get a little bit frustrating and you’ll spend a lot of time picking them up and putting them back during a race.
- Updating cars via the app is really simple, and we found it worked seamlessly – but do check compatibility, as the app worked fine with our iPhone and iPad Mini, but not our iPad or iPod. Full details are on the Apple website.
Flea and I will be attending the launch of Anki Drive in the UK this evening at the Apple Store on Regent St, along with the team from Anki – if you’d like to come along, you can reserve a seat on the Apple website.