Daytona with Robots & Railguns: Hands-On with Anki Drive

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Back in November, I profiled Anki, the San Francisco startup developing AI-driven robots for consumers. Their first product is Anki Drive, a $200 racing game where iPhone-equipped players can take command of agile little cars that zip around on a vinyl racetrack. The object isn’t to win a race, but to gain points by disabling your opponent using weapons such as a “pulse carbine,” a railgun, and an electromagnetic-pulse explosive.

In a Facebook update plugging my November story, I wrote “If I were 10, I’d really, really want the Anki robot car kit for Christmas. Oh, who am I kidding. I want it anyway.”

I didn’t expect that my family members would see the Facebook post—really!—but they did. And guess what was under the tree a few weeks later? An Anki Drive starter kit. (Thanks Mom & Dad & Jamie & Jen!)

I’ve been having a blast with Anki Drive—so far I’ve driven my little cars 6.8 kilometers and have earned 121 medals, according to the Anki app—so I thought it was about time to follow up on my profile story with a more hands-on review. (And yes, being an occasional gadget reviewer is the coolest job in the world.)

Overall, I think Anki Drive is the cleverest and most absorbing electronic game I’ve encountered in years. It brilliantly bridges the physical and digital worlds, giving you something real to focus on—the cars—while taking advantage of the iPhone’s powerful processors and touchscreen interface to provide an experience that feels way more like a video game than an old-fashioned slot-car racing set.

Before I say more, though, let me show you this quick video. It’s a case where a (moving) picture is definitely worth a thousand words. In this sequence I’m using my iPhone 5 to control the yellow car. Software running on the same phone is controlling the gray car robotically, all via Bluetooth wireless connections. Watch as the AI car takes me out for the first time at 0:28, my car goes off the track briefly at 1:20, I come back from behind and defeat the AI car at 1:39, I successfully deploy the EMP for the first time at 2:16, and the AI car beats me at 2:26.

As you can see, the Anki app gives you buttons and sliders to control your car’s speed and position on the track. Tilt your phone to the left and the car moves toward the inside of the track. Tilt right and it moves to the outside. Your goal is to use your weapons to temporarily disable the other vehicle (or vehicles—up to four people can play using expansion-kit cars). You score a point each time this happens, and the first player to reach 5, 10, or 15 points wins the game.

Finishing in 1st place and winning medals, for things like scoring the first point or coming back from several points behind, bring extra bonus credits, which can be used in the app’s “garage” to purchase new weapons and other equipment.

Generally, I’ve found that you want to stay behind or beside your opponent, the better to strike with projectile weapons or explosives. If you’re playing solo—that is, against the AI—the other car automatically senses your speed and position and tries to outmaneuver you so that it can fire back.

And the AI is pretty clever. I’ve gotten good enough at the game to outwit the robot car almost every time on the Medium setting, but it still licks me most of the time on the Hard setting. I don’t feel too bad about that—Anki collects anonymized data from players via the Anki Drive app, and it says the AI car wins nine times out of 10 when set to Hard.

After dozens of sessions, I’m still enjoying Anki Drive, and I have to hand it to the company for sidestepping one of the big pitfalls of game design: creating game mechanics that are either too easy or … Next Page »

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