Last year, Anki released Overdrive, a customizable, modular track on which to race its smartphone-controlled cars against AI opponents. Shanghai-based SmartX has taken that idea, swapped out the cars for tanks and the AI for human players, while adding some virtual firepower, to enable combat on a configurable battlefield in competitions ranging from survival to capture the flag. New Atlas rolled up to the front line to see if war is hell or if it can be a helluva fun time.

In the simplest terms, the Galaxy Zega tanks are palm-sized RC tanks that are controlled by an app (iOS or Android) on a smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth. The Starter Set we reviewed comes with two tanks and a simple battlefield matrix that can be customized in a wide variety of ways. However, the battlefield pieces are optional as the tanks can be driven on most any flat surface like floors or sidewalks.

Setting the tanks up to work with a mobile device is a straightforward process that requires the download of the game app. After signing in the user then selects a Zega tank by holding the controlling device close to the tank to allow the Galaxy app find it in "Connect" mode. For us, this took about three minutes to set up once the app was downloaded and installed. Charging time for the tanks takes about two hours or so using the provided charge pods that allow one outlet to charge two tanks at a time.

Most gameplay revolves around either a tank-on-tank battle in "survival mode," wherein the tanks fire on one another to score hits against opponents, or in "capture the flag" type strategic battles, in which taking control of a certain point on the battlefield or having a certain number of survivors finishes play. Throughout, points or special battlefield spaces (available for purchase separately) can be used to upgrade the tanks with new skills that can give a gameplay advantage.

The tanks fire on one another with lights set on their front bumpers. If the opposing tank is in range and not obstructed by battlefield cover (walls, objects), the light will be sensed and the tank takes a hit, becoming temporarily disabled (and likewise immune to further attack). Lights on top of the tank indicate how much "life" is left and once "dead," the tank will spin around randomly and stop working. Depending on the type of battle being played, the tank's death can be temporary or last until the battle is over. This creates several strategic options for play, including drawing an enemy's fire in order to take advantage of the "recharge" time for their weapon.

The battlefield itself is made up of flat plastic tiles that are held together with magnets. Each square tile can attach to up to four others and short fence rails (measuring about as tall as the Zega tanks are in wheelbase) can be used to create walls or obstacles. A spinning center piece is included in the Starter Set, allowing two fence rails to be attached to make a spinning blockade. A set of stickers with various designs, such as start points and movement arrows, is included as well and can be used to decorate the center of the tiles.

Everything snaps together easily and my five- and six-year-old girls had little trouble creating a myriad of battlefield matrixes, jump ramps, race tracks and more using the set. The ease of use extended to the driving of the tanks – with one using a smartphone and the other a tablet for tank control, my daughters were experts at driving the Zega tanks after just a few seconds of trial and error.

Because each player can be virtually separate from the others, progress can be tracked for everyone individually. So as skill levels improve and hits and kills are scored, more technology options for the Zega tanks become available. These are either inherent when the player is using that tank or selectable by the driver, working either one time only or for a few seconds at a time with a "reset" period before it can be used again. Sidereal Shield, for example, is selectable and makes your tank invincible for 20 seconds, while Magnetic Storm is an attack mode that disables your opponent (making them spin randomly) for 10 seconds. As more wins and scores are made in-game, more points are gained to buy more upgrades. There are 30 of them in all and it should come as no surprise that some can be bought via in-app purchases rather than earned.

Further adding to the gameplay are the individual characteristics of the tanks. The Starter Set comes with a red tank named Leo and a blue tank named Gondor. Leo is less aggressive and more defense-oriented in his base capabilities, whereas Gondor is more attack-focused. In games, this means that Leo has better resistance to attack (and can even heal himself) and gains defensive upgrades faster. Likewise, Gondor is more aggressive (more powerful attack) and gains offensive skills quicker. Two other tanks are also available for purchase to support battles between up to four players: Razor is built for speed (less resistance to attack) and has more precise control, whereas Puck is very defense-focused at the expense of speed.

Putting all of this together makes for a very engaging play experience for kids and adults alike. My daughters and I took turns rearranging the battlefield or, sometimes, just dispensing with it altogether and using the entire living room as our field of competition. We used tiles to create ramps, bridges, obstacles, and whatever else came to mind. We drove the tanks around chasing the cat or battling one another (often with cheap shots and creative "armor" add-ons made from cardboard and Legos). From races to battles, the Galaxy Zega tanks provided some of the most consistent fun we've had this year.

Summing up, the Galaxy Zega tanks are interesting little RC vehicles in their own right and for very young kids, that's probably enough. As age increases, though, so does sophistication and older children and adults will find battles to be more engaging. The tanks are similar enough that no single one has an overwhelming advantage, but different enough that strategy must be employed to take advantage of each tank's individual strengths and weaknesses. As additional skills and abilities are mastered, the disparity between tank capabilities becomes more pronounced, requiring even more strategy during play.

Parents will want to note that the in-game purchases can quickly add up, but are not mandatory to gameplay. They allow some measure of boosting to speed up a player's tank development, but do not make up for the practice required to gain skill against opponents. We also note that the capture the flag play requires additional battlefield pieces ("X-bases") not included in the Starter Pack.

The Galaxy Zega Starter Set and accessories are available for pre-order now and are set for release this week. The Starter Kit sells for US$149.99 and additional tanks, battlefield pieces, and X-base additions can be purchased beyond that.

Product Page: Galaxy Zega

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