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Say hello to one of the best toys of the year

Introducing the Galaxy Zega battle tanks

The Galaxy Zega line of tanks and accessories is more of a platform than a single smart toy, and that aspect of its design is one of the best things about it ... although it also introduces one tragic flaw.

SmartX, the company behind the toys, sent me the $149.99 starter kit to try in my home, and for the past week or so, my children and I have been putting it through its paces. This is the ideal way to test a toy like this; there is no marketing bullshit and no PR people there to oversee the demo. I played with it, my older children gave it a go and yep, the Galaxy Zega line is a great set of toys.

How does it work?

You control the tanks by connecting them to your smartphone via Bluetooth, and SmartX estimates their range to be about 20 meters, which is about what I found in my testing ... although I never felt like I needed to drive them that far away from me. Rest assured that you can sit anywhere in a room and drive them around and not feel constricted.

The tanks are solidly constructed, and the threads give them pretty impressive off-roading abilities; it’s fun to watch them zip over small rocks or even short steps.

The tanks are easy to control using the smartphone app, and there is an option to try driving with a more standard single stick versus the up down, left and right configuration you see in the header image of this story. My seven-year-old had no trouble controlling the tanks, and we had great fun in the basement and on the back deck racing them and setting up courses out of objects we found in the yard.

There are no complicated mechanisms to get the tanks up and running; you just take them out of their charging pods, tap the one button on their bellies, tell the app to sync and you’re good to go. The controller application is already live on both iOS and Android devices.

The tanks themselves charge in around two hours, and run for a bit longer than two hours on a full tank. The set comes with two nice, plastic pods that hold the tanks securely and connect the included, split micro-USB cable, which plugs into the wall and will charge two tanks at once. The pods that hold the tanks for charging and display look great and feel as solid as the toys themselves, and it’s that sort of attention to detail that really helps the Galaxy Zega hardware rise above its competition. You can see the pod below, with a Dual Shock 4 for scale.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if many people just purchased the $99.99 set that comes with two tanks. They’re wonderful toys by themselves.

But what about the battlefield?

I’m getting to that! If you decide to spring for the $149.99 starter pack, or even the $99.99 standard battlefield, you get a series of magnetic floor pieces that lock together with accompanying wall pieces to create a customizable battlefield for your tanks. The core set gets you 16 floor pieces, 18 wall pieces, 12 interlocking pieces to strengthen the straight walls, 4 L-shaped interlocking pieces for the corner and a rotating piece that creates a barrier you can spin by pushing it with your tank.

You can create a good variety of battlefields with the standard battlefield, seen below:

You can also buy a few of the kits and expand the designs to make them even bigger:

And I mean, the battlefield is big. You’re going to want to clear out some space in your basement to make this all work, but it’s surprisingly sturdy once you have the battlefield set up and locked together; it won’t fall apart or break down as the tanks run into the walls, or even if a kid trips over it. The whole mess breaks down neatly into a series of boxes in the case as well, so storage is easy.

My 14-year-old son has boiled setting up battlegrounds and then putting it all away down to a science. Finding new ways to put the battlefield pieces together is part of the fun.

The game you play with both tanks is a great time. The front of the tanks light up when you fire your weapon, and there’s even a little bit of a simulated kick; every time you fire a tank, it jumps back. Each player’s hit points is displayed in green lights on the top of the tank in green lights, so it’s easy to tell how well you’re doing. When you’re hit, you lose control for a moment, and your tank spins around.

The attacks have a good range, although it doesn’t seem to stretch across the entire battlefield. You’ll have to get a bit close and be the better pilot to score a hit. If you don’t mind paying extra for the X-Base accessory, you can add collectible power-ups into the game, or if you buy two, you can play the capture the flag mode. There’s also a training mode where you can just zip around and fire at the other tank for fun.

The battlefield is neat, but it’s also enjoyable to use the natural cover and obstacles in your living room to maneuver around as you blast the shit out of the other person. You can even play team games if you own more than two tanks or have friends who also invest in the Galaxy Zega platform.

If you want to see all this in action, here are two painfully earnest individuals from SmartX talking about the tanks and the battlefield while showing off what the platform can do:

So what’s the problem?

This is a toy that wants to be a free-to-play platform. That’s not just in the fact that you can purchase more hardware to add game modes or expand the battlefield, but the software itself "upgrades" your tanks as you play.

I think it’s cool that you can unlock skills through the software that allow you to decrease the speed of your opponent or replace your hit points. It’s a neat way to increase the complexity of the game and take advantage of the smartphone as the control platform.

But you have to "level up" your tank to unlock these skills and abilities, and the game gives you a set amount of coins for playing daily, which you pay to upgrade your skills. You can also use real-world money to pay for diamonds, which you turn in for gold, which you then use to upgrade skills — and why the hell does a physical toy offer multiple currencies and a progression system?

Listen, if you purchase a $150 toy that already requires buying more hardware to unlock the capture the flag mode, you shouldn’t have to grind for currency to unlock your abilities. You can also use gold to upgrade things like your speed, attack and defense characteristics, but this means that people who have spent more time playing have an advantage over those who don’t, which is kind of ridiculous in a toy of this nature. That’s not to mention the fact that you can buy your way into telling the software to unlock basic abilities of the hardware.

I get why the temptation is there to introduce this sort of system into a hardware platform, but it’s gross. I want to use my toys and have everyone on the same playing field, regardless of how much they pay or how long they play. The abilities and capabilities should be unlocked from the start, not gated by an artificial for-pay and progression system.

It’s the worst, and I hope that SmartX removes it.

But overall?

Overall, the quality of the tanks and the battlefield is great, the whole system is easy to use and is fun to put together and play, and the tanks are versatile. They can be used in the battlefield, on your floor, in the front yard ... it’s super fun to take them places and see what they can do.

Everyone who sees the tanks wants to try controlling them and firing the virtual guns at each other, and even smaller kids will have a good time making them scoot around the floor. The tanks are also very robust; we’ve had a few drops and tumbles, but they’ve come out none the worse for wear.

But the software progression and for-pay upgrade system is one of the few downsides to the product, and it’s kind of a big one.

The Galaxy Zega platform of tanks, battlefields and accessories will ship on Oct. 5, although if you order today, you get 15 percent off the price. The starter set for $127.49 is a pretty great value, so if you’re interested? Now is the time.

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