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Anki Drive update gives your robot cars new ways to brawl

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Last year, San Francisco robotics startup Anki emerged from four and a half years of stealth with its first product: Anki Drive, a real-world racing game powered by your iPhone. Matchbox cars covered with sensors race around an included track, and you control the action from a companion app on your iPhone. It's fast, fun, and challenging — Anki says that 90 percent of all players who attempt the "Hard" mode wind up losing to its sophisticated artificial intelligence.

While it's a physical game, Anki plays more like a video game. Using your iPhone as the controller, you can use turbo boosts, weapons, and other virtual accessories to get the advantage over your opponent. And on Thursday, Anki issued a software update with new special abilities for you as you make your way around the race track. One lets your car spin around 180 degrees and begin driving in the opposite direction — helpful for dodging attacks. Another brings your car to a screeching halt, which can also be an effective defensive tool. Holding down the horn will force an opponent out of your way, and an electromagnetic pulse weapon will temporarily disable one of your opponents.

It's tremendously satisfying to disable a fellow player's vehicle

Anki Drive is a lot of fun to play, and should appeal to racing fans regardless of their age. A new upgrade system introduced with the software update has added an extra element of strategy to the game, as you try to modify your vehicle in ways that frustrate your opponent. The more you race, the more upgrades you can buy, and the upgrades stay with the car even if you sell or trade it to a friend.

It's tremendously satisfying to disable a fellow player's vehicle via virtual machine gun, EMP, and tractor beam. Even more novel is the upgrade that allows you to turn on a dime and surprise your opponent by coming at them from the opposite direction, guns blazing. Anki co-founder Boris Sofman says that 70 percent of the company's engineers work on software, but that the company is also devoting significant resources to hardware. New cars are in development, he says, and it seems likely that they would be released later this year.

Anki Drive is on sale for $199.99 for a starter kit, which includes the track and two cars. The game supports up to four players, and additional cars can be bought for $69.99.