Anki Overdrive is tipped to be one of the top toys for Christmas, and for good reason as this racing game is pure fun in a box.

Santa is likely to be delivering a lot of these kits on the morning of the 25th, meaning there will be many happy little boys and girls. Big kids, aka grown-ups, who put it on their Christmas list or parents who get in on the action won’t be disappointed either.

What’s it all about?

Anki Overdrive is slot car racing with a modern twist. It’s Scalextric in that you still lay a track out on your living room or bedroom floor and race cars around it, but there are a host of changes and improvements.

For starters, there are no slots. Overdrive uses flat plastic track which the game’s computerised camera-loaded supercars can freely change lanes on.

Secondly, there are no controllers. These robot cars from the year 2046 are driven by using a smartphone or tablet app that allows the ‘commander’ to steer them by tilting the device and to control their speed with a slider on the touchscreen.

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The biggest difference of all from normal slot car racing is the weapons which Overdrive’s cars are loaded with. They are virtual rather than physical weapons, but they still have a powerful effect. Launching tractor beams, cannons, flamethrowers and the assortment of other firepower available through buttons in the app causes opponents’ cars to slow down or become temporarily disabled. It’s a game-changing element that adds both strategy and chaos.

Overdrive is basically the fast miniature racing action of Scalextric that’s thrilled generations combined with the combat of MarioKart and put into a futuristic setting.

Is it really as cool as it sounds?

Overdrive blends old and new together very well, creating something that plays great and will provide many hours of entertainment over Christmas and beyond.

Straight out of the box it starts scoring points for being so easy to set up. Unlike Scalextric’s fiddly connections that never seemed to quite go together properly, Overdrive is a breeze to set up. The magnetic ends of the track pieces click together really quickly and easily, and you can be playing within mere minutes.

From the total of 10 straights and bends included in the starter kit, eight different layouts can be constructed, including some with raised sections.

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Cars take less maintenance than in Scalextric, with no annoying underside brushes to worry about. You just need to keep the track and tyres clean.

The cars, which have been given great names such as Thermo, Skull and Nuke, need charging on the included docking station before they can race, but this only takes a few minutes too.

Before playing for the first time you’ll need to install the Overdrive app on your iOS or Android device, but obviously this only needs doing once.

Once the cars and app on each player’s device are communicating through Bluetooth, they’ll do a couple of laps to learn the track layout before lining up at the start/finish line and then you’re ready to go.

Cars move at an impressively fast pace, with race-battles quickly becoming intense and exciting as the lights and sound effects for weapon fire and damage get going.

There could be accusations of the driving being a touch easy with too much autopilot and not enough control. It is possible to stay on the same path at the same speed for an entire race, and the cars rarely come off the track even at high speed. However, this makes the game accessible to kids and adults alike along with beginners who wouldn’t normally play this type of thing. A lot of the challenge comes from using those weapons at the right times and also avoiding incoming attacks.

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The app does much more than just provide a method for controlling the cars. It acts as the main hub for the whole Overdrive experience.

It’s from the app that you can set up single-player and multiplayer races and events as well as assign new (virtual) equipment upgrades that boost the defensive and attacking capabilities of the cars.

There are four different modes in open play – race, battle (score points by using weapons against other cars), king of the hill (hold the lead for the longest time) and time trial. These can be played against up to three human opponents or on your own using AI opponents to drive the enemy cars.

Being able to call on AI drivers is a big advantage of Overdrive as it means you can still play when nobody else is around. This was always a downside of Scalextric.

The non-human opponents aren’t just anonymous bots either – they all have voices and personalities. Admittedly, these do start to grate after about five seconds but their audio and visual presence definitely enriches the experience. Hearing artificial opponents reacting through the app to what’s happening in the game helps create a great sense of immersion.

These AI drivers provide a surprisingly competent challenge which you can test yourself against through the tournament mode where you’ll meet more than two dozen characters through a series of events. Progressing through the campaign unlocks rewards which can be used to customise the cars. This is one of many ways in which Overdrive feels like a video game but one that is based in the real world.

What’s not to like about Overdrive?

This toy really is a lot of fun to play with, but it’s not without some drawbacks.

Let’s start with environment. Unless you’ve got a good sized space to set up and spread out in without getting in other people’s way or bothering them with the noise, your play time could be limited. It’s great for party settings or a spare room but maybe not so much for cramped living rooms where others are trying to watch TV.

As well as physical space, make sure you have a lot of space on your phone or tablet. The app takes up 725mb, which makes it pretty hefty. Anyone who wants to join in will need a device to play on which has the app installed.

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Pets are another potential issue. My kitten has taken a special interest in Overdrive whenever I’ve got it out. Cute as it is, it’s difficult to race when there’s an animal chasing the cars or sitting across the track!

You’ll probably want to anyway, but be prepared to take regular breaks when playing Overdrive for an extended period. The cars only stay charged for around 15 to 20 minutes before they need juicing up again. It’s only takes a few minutes but can be a pain when you’re forced to press pause on the action.

My final concern over Overdrive is the cost. The starter kit costs around £150 at places such as Argos, which will make it one of the pricier wishes on lists this Christmas. It gets more expensive still when you start adding expansions. For a couple of extra pieces of track you’re looking at £20-30 and each new car beyond the two that come in the main pack is £50. When you take the starter kit and just two or three add-ons, the cost starts getting close to a games console or an iPad – and that’s a lot of money.

The verdict

Some people may understandably baulk at the cost of Anki Overdrive but anyone with a sense of fun who plays will love it and have a blast.

This hybrid of Scalextric and MarioKart, racing and combat, older ideas and new technology, virtual and physical worlds provides something that’s fresh and exciting, easily justifying its billing as one of the must-have toys of the year.