Connected toys have upped their game and so are hitting the mainstream hard this holidays. Sphero’s BB-8, for instance, charmingly enhances the sooner smart ball design to provide you with a Star Wars droid of your own. And today, Anki is back with a whole new release that massively expands 2013’s Anki Drive, its modernized undertake slot cars.

If the name isn’t a dead giveaway, Anki Overdrive takes the prior experience to awesome new levels. Gone may be the fixed track mat, which you’d unroll and place the app-steered cars upon-now you can build your own custom tracks using pieces that easily snap together on the floor. And it’s expandable, with a range of add-on segments that let you execute the epic living room racetrack of your dreams.

That’s the promise, at least. I had a blast with Anki Overdrive till I tried embracing that notion of larger, increasingly complex tracks and more frantic showdowns-at which point this smart idea left me scratching my head.

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Accessible action
What’s especially impressive about Anki Overdrive is merely how easy it really is to create and use. The Starter Kit includes four straight segments of track and six 90-degree curves, which snap as well as a satisfying magnetic click. Actually, my 2-year-old son-who is currently properly enthusiastic about Anki (“Go get car mats, daddy”)-put his train track-building skills to immediate use and started building courses with little assistance. And if he can figure it out, then so is it possible to.

Andrew Hayward
The magnetized track pieces snap together.

Unlike traditional slot cars, these very thin, plastic tracks aren’t electrified: it’s the cars themselves. You get two with the box, and they’ll need about ten minutes on the included charging dock to be fully juiced up; they run up to 20 minutes once charged. After connecting to the Anki Overdrive iphone app on your own iPhone, iPad, or Android device, they’ll execute a slow lap or two around the course and learn the layout.

And they’re off-quickly, too. Anki’s little sprinters are impressively speedy because they auto-accelerate around the tracks, constantly scanning the infrared markings on the pieces to keep up position because they zip along. It’s so cool to see them whip around the course for the very first time, but you’ve got employment to accomplish. You’ll lightly steer the automobile by tilting your phone or tablet, so that you can lean into turns or position yourself behind a rival. The latter point is important, since Anki Overdrive includes a secret, unseen weapon: weapons.

Winning races and battles nets you upgrades for your weapons and cars.

No, they’re not physical projectiles or attacks (I could dream), but instead virtual volleys that resonate within the app. If you’re hit with a tractor beam, for instance, you’ll decelerate and the foe who zapped you will blast ahead. Other weapons might stall you on the track for a couple seconds, weaken your armor against further attacks, or show your momentum with machine gun fire. Your phone vibrates, the cars light and decelerate, and it gives the overall game a Mario Kart-esque allure. It’s impressive stuff.

Connected fun
In fact, as the physical pieces make Anki Overdrive feel just like a video game become more active, the Overdrive software itself really propels the knowledge. It’s the house control panel that enables you to setup events, customize your virtual driver, and see which cartoonish opponents inhabit the A.I.-controlled cars you’re battling against. In addition, it provides sound files, spoken dialogue, and music, adding an essential theatrical component to the knowledge.

You do not actually drive the cars manually. They scan the track to understand the route, and during the race they are able to identify their put on the track, in addition to the other cars.

But the iphone app also enriches the knowledge in two other key ways. First may be the campaign mode, which gives a number of increasingly challenging races with sufficient of a storyline to operate a vehicle your ascent in the futuristic racing league. It loops through races and combat-centric battle events, even though it’s not the most enthralling quest, it offers somewhat of context so you’re not simply repeatedly running plain races when friends aren’t around.

More importantly, the iphone app offers a sense of progression: you’ll earn experience and in both campaign and standalone events and level your vehicle up, that allows you to utilize upgrades. Small speed and shield boosts help your vehicle on the track, as do the customizable weapons that start on the way. That’s an extremely cool benefit that presents the true potential of linked toys: it’s not simply about replacing an RC remote together with your phone screen. There’s more to it.

Expand? Eh…
And it all all fits in place effectively with the Starter Kit. You’ve got enough track to build eight course layouts (with risers for looping designs), plus two cars for head-to-head battles or races against an A.I. opponent. At $150, it’s an excellent family present this holidays, with all you need to create it up within a few minutes, have some fun, and scrap the track and build everything over again.

Having said that, they’re pretty compact courses, and the urge to accomplish more kicks in in a short time. You’ll surely be tempted by the images of additional cars and further track pieces. But you’ll look everything up online as well as perhaps gulp or break a sweat, because none of the add-on stuff is cheap. Two extra bits of common track? $20. An individual plus-sign intersection track piece? $30. Extra cars? $50 a pop.

Andrew Hayward
You are looking at $350 worth of Anki Overdrive, like the Starter Kit, extra ramp, intersection piece, extra track segments, and two more cars. And you could add a lot more, too.

Building a more elaborate home track for four-player showdowns will easily cost a huge selection of extra dollars away from initial purchase, but I figured expansion was the main element to prolonging and amplifying the Anki Overdrive experience. Armed with a bundle of extra track pieces and cars, I set to work creating a track with a wild jump, a plus-sign intersection, and a good amount of curves. It looked amazing, but after the cars got running, it proved to become a real mess.

Sadly, Anki Overdrive can’t seem to be to handle most of its expansion kits. The $30 Launch Kit, for instance, vaults the cars from an elevated track-but despite having the risers in the proper locations, I couldn’t get the cars to land properly on the other hand and keep going a lot more than one-third of that time period (Amazon buyers report quite similar). They’d crash or flunk and try driving beneath the track, or perhaps spin around set up. It’s terrible, and a complete waste of money.

Andrew Hayward
The more track pieces I added, the much more likely cars were to go off-track, flip over, or find yourself stuck on a plastic lip.

The intersection piece, meanwhile, is named the Collision Kit, and it’s made to create looping, crash-em-up scenarios. However the biggest thing I noticed is that cars regularly drove off the track after driving through it, like they got confused and lost their position. And at that time, whatever you can do is stepped on and put them back on; this happened a whole lot. Anki sells optional rails that fit along the edges of the tracks to keep cars on the track, however the sheer premise is maddening: making sure cars stick to the tracks shouldn’t be considered a premium add-on feature.

Anki Overdrive loses its appeal quickly when you’re babysitting the cars rather than racing them. The more elaborate track pieces and cars I threw into Anki, the more they randomly zipped off the course and the less fun I had. It had been only once I pared back off to the essential track pieces that I enjoyed it again. But that doesn’t say much for the potentially a huge selection of dollars you may spend expanding your track options, not forgetting your dashed dreams of an apartment-spanning super track.

Bottom line
Despite having those notable issues, Anki Overdrive remains among the coolest linked toys on the market. The Starter Kit is affordable and has all you need-besides a smartphone or tablet-to benefit from the action, and it certainly shows the benefits associated with an app-enabled toy. But tread carefully with the expansions: many only seem to be to decrease the fun at great expense.