Anki Overdrive blends robotic racing with video game hooks

Back in February, Anki gave us a sneak peek at Anki Overdrive, the second generation version of its robotic race cars. It's introducing new toy vehicles, new gameplay mechanics, a new app and new modular race tracks that let players design their own custom race circuits. Today, Anki has announced that Overdrive will start shipping to retailers on September 20th in the US, UK, Germany and Canada. It also offered more details about the new cars and revealed two more game modes called Time Trial and King of the Hill. I had a chance to play around with Anki Overdrive at the company's office in San Francisco, and while I can't say it's perfect, I was impressed at how much simple toy cars could give me the feeling of being in a video game.

And that's no accident. For almost a year now, Anki has been hard at work at reimagining its robotic race cars as more of a video game. It hired Joby Otero, the former creative director for Skylanders, as its new chief creative officer. It also hired a slew of talent from gaming companies like EA and Activision to work on art, sound, writing, character development and mission design. "You can think of Anki as a game studio within the larger robotics company," says Mark Palatucci, Anki's co-founder and Chief Product Officer. "We wanted to bring the richness of the video game world to a physical place."

It's why the company introduced the idea of AI Commanders last year, which are essentially in-game characters that you assign to an opposing vehicle. You're then supposed to challenge and defeat them in order to progress through the game. The characters all have different voices and personalities, which come through in the course of gameplay. Indeed, Palatucci tells me the company even hired voice actors for each of them, and they each have their own individual storylines. In Tournament mode, the commanders get progressively difficult after each challenge, just like a regular video game.

As for the game itself, well, much of the Overdrive gameplay is really unchanged from the original Anki Drive. As before, all you have to do to "drive" the cars is simply to put the Bluetooth-paired vehicles on the track and it'll drive on its own. The corresponding app essentially lets you controls its speed, a bit of the steering (whether it veers left or right) and the firing of weapons. Everything else is handled by the car's robotic smarts.

There are a few distinct changes from the original Drive, however. After you've assembled your custom race track from the modular pieces, you'll have to place the cars on the course in order for them to "learn" the circuit. As the cars drive around the course, you can actually see the track being drawn on the app in real time. Also, as we mentioned, the app has been completely overhauled to mimic a video game experience. Speeding up the cars will trigger the sound of an engine revving; background music will get increasingly dramatic as the race ends; and the AI Commanders actually yell and whoop at you as they pass you by.

It all adds to excitement as I was playing the game -- these were no longer just race cars; they were living, breathing characters. I found myself thinking, "Oh no way am I letting this asshole AI beat me" as I raced against it. At one point, I triggered a power boost as I was driving my little Thermo car around a corner, causing it spin out and jump off the track. Everyone in the room laughed, and despite myself I found myself having a pretty good time.

That said, I didn't think the gameplay was perfect. I found it a little tricky trying to split my attention between the app and the race track, especially as I was waiting to make sure I was close enough to the rival vehicles before deploying my flame thrower weapon. The problem, of course, is using a touch screen for the controls -- I had to look at the app to make sure I was doing the right thing. Anki tells me that there is some audio feedback and players do get used to this over time, but I couldn't help but feel that physical controls would make it so much better. Palatucci did say to me, however, that the final version of the app will incorporate vibration feedback to make it easier to feel your way through the controls, or at least get a better sense of when you've been hit or maimed.

As for the new gameplay modes, well, they're pretty self-explanatory. Time Trial is you racing to beat the clock, while King of the Hill encourages you to take down your opponents and see which one of you can be the leader once time runs out. There are also six new cars -- Skull, Groundshock, Thermo, Nuke, Guardian and Big Bang -- all of with unique weapons and characteristics. Skull and Groundshock are included in the Anki Overdrive Starter Kit, while the rest can be purchased for $50 (£49.99) each. Like we mentioned in February, the Overdrive Starter Kit will retail for $150 (£149.99) and also includes ten of the aforementioned modular track pieces. Additional track pieces can be purchased separately for anywhere from $10 to $30 (£9.99 to £29.99) depending on the pack. Oh, and don't worry if you already have older Anki cars; they'll be compatible with Overdrive after a software update.

What's perhaps the most welcome news, however, is that Anki will finally have cross device play. Yes, that means both Android and iOS devices will finally be able to play together. Before, only iOS could play with iOS devices (and the same with Android) because Android didn't have Bluetooth LE capability for phone-to-phone communications -- Android users had to play with each other over WiFi instead. Now, that's no longer an issue -- both can play together over Bluetooth.

Anki also gave us a sneak peek into what it's planning for the future: it wants to build a community of players. Not only to share tips and tricks, but also to share photos of that crazy custom track you just built and get instructions on how to recreate it.

"There's a type of heightened emotional reaction that you can get with a physical object that's smart and coming to life," says Palatucci of the fusion of video games and physical toys. "When you do it well, when you get it right ... there's magic."