Besides a key few, I think it’s been some time since someone has truly captured the blistering speed, the leaps and bounds, and the wholesome fun that is all inherent to arcade racing. It’s a mantle that Need for Speed quickly relinquished for Forza to snatch up, but the open-world format that has permeated every genre has stolen focus from good old-fashioned racing. Originally conceived to be the cool alternative to Matchbox, Hot Wheels has built its entire identity on imagination and fantasy. To vroom a flame-emblazoned hot rod through a loop, the marriage of die-cast and plastic, is to leave the reality of rubber-meets-blacktop behind.
It’s that spirit that Hot Wheels Unleashed captures.
There are countless real-world Hot Wheels models on offer, starting with the likes of Twin Mill and building up to more recent, and more fantastical releases like Street Beasts which featured the Motosaurus. It was a pleasant surprise for licenses like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to feature also, it became like a real treasure hunt trying to unearth all of the unique cars on offer in the game.
That said, I do wish Milestone found a better unlock scheme for the game’s roster of cars as I don’t think Blind Boxes, which serve the same purpose as any regular loot box, are a concept we should be introducing young children to. With an overworld map of events that serves as the game’s so-called story, I feel a number of the game’s desirable cars could have been peppered throughout that as rewards.
Hot Wheels Unleashed captures the high-octane fun of other track-based racers, like Trackmania, while making terrific use of the license. Milestone, who are known for their pedigree in the racing genre, has condensed all of the fun kids have with Hot Wheels down into a tight, blistering experience that transforms these small, weightless toys into the souped-up machines kids imagine them to be. Some effort has gone into ensuring there’s a noticeable difference between many of the cars, for example, the Camaro feels flighty and responsive while the school bus, while not sluggish by any means, feels more cumbersome. Cars, which are either unlocked or bought with coins, are sorted by rarity and can be upgraded using gears which has a two-pronged effect of souping up what the car has under the hood while increasing its rarity.
While this provides a great way to pump up the tyres of lower-tier favourites and make them competitive against the legendary tier cars, it does diminish the excitement that should be felt unlocking the rarer cars.
Unleashed nails all of the fundamentals a track-racer should, it handles like a dream while including all of the staples like boosting, drifting, and adhering to the magnetic tracks to defy gravity itself. It’s fast and fun, and I honestly believe it captures the sense of excitement inherent to Hot Wheels. There’s a lot of variety in track pieces, but the animated segments, which are brought to life through wonderous imagination, are a highlight. Kaiju-scale spiders and scorpions ensnare and disrupt through web and acid pool traps that’ll infuriate with great frequency.
While the spirit of Hot Wheels is well and truly on display with Unleashed, I feel the game is a little content bare on the whole. There are a few dozen tracks spread across six distinct, yet tonally defunct, levels. There are time trials, lap races, and sprints, which helps provide a bit of variety within the game’s City Rumble mode thankfully. It’s also hard to identify at times just who Unleashed is for, offering up a frequent challenge while remaining joyous fun. I think it’s clear that the game’s longevity is going to rely heavily on the multiplayer and editor modes.
There isn’t a tremendous amount of depth on offer in the game’s multiplayer suite. It’s bereft of modes and is propped up solely by the fact user-generated maps cycle through, gifting the game legs it wouldn’t have otherwise. I hope Milestone has a few ideas for post-launch support because there’s another arcade racer bearing down in a month’s time that’ll swiftly make it a moot point. That said, the track editor is easily the coolest thing to play about in Hot Wheels Unleashed. It extends creative freedoms like few track builders can while remaining easy to use. You’ll stretch and distort lengths of plastic at will and, if nothing else, it’ll give you an appreciation of how well realised the developer’s tracks are.
Hot Wheels Unleashed tinkers with scale in a lot of fun ways, so much so that it measures the player’s cumulative drift in centimetres. The small, noticeable imperfections on the screen, the particulate dust coursing through the air, and fingerprints all speak to beautiful, nostalgic attention to detail. But as thrilling as it was to zip beneath desks and across leather sofas, it felt inorganic as we went from a basement dweller set-up to a literal skyscraper under construction. There wasn’t a great deal of creative cohesion between the locations, and while it was fantastical, it felt jarring.
Though undoubtedly pretty, Unleashed does suffer from a lot of pop-in any time a track loads in with every pre-event flyover fast becoming a showcase of one of the game’s few technical shortcomings. Once it’s all rendered, the textures are great and the game rarely hiccups, holding frames throughout every blistering turn.
Hot Wheels Unleashed piles licenses on top of licenses when it came time to compile a roster of cars for the game, but sadly the soundtrack was somewhat of an afterthought. Rather than being a curated playlist of the year’s hottest pop tunes, it leans into original electronica and dubstep for the most part. It’s all in all forgettable, though serviceable to the game’s want for speed. One aspect of the sound design I truly loathed was the way the soundtrack inexplicably speeds up, as though hit by a chipmunk filter, to mirror a car’s boost. The result is far from pleasant.
Hot Wheels Unleashed does all of the things a track racing game should do, it serves up a fast-paced, exciting experience that is always fun thanks to a variety of iconic cars and well-designed circuits. The game is let down ultimately by its on-disc content, there aren’t enough modes and the low effort story mode does little to mask that fact. Fortunately, the creative license given to players and the game’s eventual community to shape and craft content of their own through a really good track editor should be the game’s saving grace long-term.
It’s no surprise given Milestone’s pedigree that Hot Wheels Unleashed is a mechanically sound and confident racing title as it boils down the true essence of Hot Wheels and puts on a showcase exactly why they’re a beloved pastime. The bloated story mode does little to obfuscate the game’s skeleton crew of modes, though I think the game will find resilience through a community of online racers and their wonderful, imaginative creations.
A fast-paced and fun brand of arcade racing
Track editor should draw in a great community of creators