by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
The Road to Nostalgia
I'm not sure if Hot Wheels cars are as popular today as they used to be, but I do know that when I was a kid, they were the coolest things this side of LEGO sets. My friends and I spent many an hour in my family's unfinished basement using a mixture of track pieces and household objects to create demolition derbies. I think my bag of cars is somewhere in my parents' house waiting for my eventual children to metaphorically get behind the wheel, and I'll always have a special place in my heart for my purple dragon and red airplane vehicles. Given the strong brand recognition that Hot Wheels has with just about every consumer demographic, it's surprising that the IP has primarily been relegated to low-quality racers and one (admittedly excellent) Forza DLC. Hot Wheels Unleashed is developer Milestone’s attempt to do justice to the brand, and it largely succeeds.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is wholly dedicated to its small scale. The game's tracks are located across a handful of large locations like "Basement," College Campus, and Skate Park, and each area brims with detail that sells the miniature size of the tracks and cars. The locations don't host only one track, however. Each one has several different courses of varying length that traverse different parts of the locale, so the races avoid becoming repetitive or visually banal. Despite the game's tracks being set among everyday items like vents, tables, and floors, Hot Wheels Unleashed also leans a little bit into the game-y side of things with magnetized track pieces that let cars drive upside-down.
Car Variety and Unlocks
The cars themselves are also gorgeous. I was concerned that the vehicles would be "modernized" or made to appear more like realistic, functioning machines, but that isn't the case. The game's visual style accentuates the plastics and metals of the original toys. Each car is a faithful recreation of real-world Hot Wheels, and collectors will enjoy each model displaying information about its initial release. Also extremely satisfying is that Hot Wheels Unleashed represents a considerable array of different car types, and there really is something for everyone. There are 66 cars included in the game at launch, and the collection covers realistic cars, pop-culture rides like the Ninja Turtles van and the Batmobile, and novelty pieces like a tank, toaster, or dinosaur car. I won't personally be convinced to drive anything except a big, goofy hotdog car, but it's great that people can stick to more lifelike rides if they so choose.
Unlocking different vehicle models is one of my few gripes with the games. There are only two ways to do it; players can either purchase cars with in-game currency or open them in loot-boxes. The first option is good in theory, but there are only a few cars available at a time, and they don't rotate nearly often enough. It's nice when a cool vehicle appears in the store, but it's largely fruitless to wait for something specific. Alternatively, loot boxes are loot boxes. They're fun to open up, but it's impossible to target a particular model. The upside with the loot boxes is that purchasing them with cash is not an option, and I hope it stays that way in the future. While I enjoyed the excitement of getting cars that I may not otherwise have intentionally worked for, I'm bummed out that I can't proactively do anything to work towards the specific vehicles that I want the most.
Minor complaints about car collection aside, the actual racing in Hot Wheels Unleashed feels solid. The pace is expectedly quick, and the car physics allows for some solid shoving without things getting too out of control. I was surprised by how relatively straightforward racing is. Cars have a boost feature that replenishes with drifting, certain tracks have hazards, and there are some boost pads on certain parts of certain tracks, but that's about it. The game set itself apart from most other arcade cart-style racers by eschewing weapons and other powerups. I will note that the rubberbanding is a little strong for my liking, but that's more an issue of taste than a flaw.
Make It Your Own
As one might expect with the Hot Wheels brand, customization is a huge draw for this game. The Track Editor is fully featured and allows players to bend, twist, and extend track pieces to build the courses of their dreams. There are already quite a few tracks and variations in the base game, but this editor is great for players looking for something new or wanting to kill some time seeing what they can design. The flexibility with these player-made tracks, which players can share online, is refreshing; while it's perfectly possible to make tight, competitive tracks, it's arguably more fun to make and race through the weirdest, most chaotic stretches possible. A particular favourite of mine is nothing but boosts and crisscrossing jumps. Is it competitively balanced? Nope. Is it fun to pick a garbage truck and knock everyone else around? Heck yes it is.
Customization extends beyond just the Track Editor to also include the cars and a basement. If the launch set of 66 cars isn't enough variety, players can customize the colours and graphics on each vehicle. It's nowhere near as full-featured as those editors found in games like Forza Horizon, but I'll admit that entering an online match with the best-looking car felt arguably more important to me than actually winning the race. While custom paint jobs are fairly par for the course in racing games these days, I found the basement area to be more of a surprise. The locale is fully customizable and lets players swap out materials and designs for everything from the walls and stairs to the stools and knick-knacks. Some of these customization options don't seem to serve a purpose, but since players can build tracks in their custom basement, the overall vibe can be a fantastic addition to tracks that players share online. It's a fun addition and made me wish that I could also customize the other available track settings. I'd also unashamedly drop some cash on a DLC pack that let me include premium moving elements like pets or people to my track areas.
I enjoyed Hot Wheels Unleashed a lot more than I expected to, and it'll likely be my go-to pick-up-and-play racer for the foreseeable future. The game plays well, looks great, and has enough customization options to keep things fresh.
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Gorgeous visuals, varied customization, and tight racing
Difficulty obtaining specific cars