I don’t think I can really remember a time when Hot Wheels wasn’t a, well, hot commodity. To this day, you can ask just about anyone about the popular toy line and they’ll know what you’re talking about. Not to mention you can still easily find a collection of Hot Wheels cars in the toy aisle of most stores. These metal and plastic creations are so simple, yet so iconic. Admittedly, the rise of gadgets has caused the popularity of such physical toys to diminish. Thus, it’s no wonder why Mattel has teamed up with developer Milestone to reintroduce the brand to the world of video games for the first time in years with Hot Wheels Unleashed.
Hot Wheels Unleashed seeks to replicate the physics-defying, high-octane action that the real-life toy sets achieve. Basically, it’s as if the aim is to bring to life the intense action that we imagined as kids while the cars were being propelled up, down and over furniture merely by the power of little hands and an overactive mind. In some ways, it does capture that rush, but the experience is not without some bumps and scratches along the way.
Toy chest challenge
Hot Wheels Unleashed features a variety of vehicles from different runs. Right from the start, you can tell a lot of care went into recreating them, right down to the inclusion of little scuffs and other imperfections on the models. It’s clear that the dev team is really trying to convey the feeling that these are the same toy cars that everyone knows and loves, in digital form.
Thus, the track design is reminiscent of some of the toy sets. The iconic bright orange pieces bend, curve and snake their way through five different environments (College Campus, Skatepark, Basement, Garage, and Skycraper). The key to success in Hot Wheels Unleashed is definitely mastering the drifting mechanics, as these tracks consist of a lot of serpentines. It feels satisfying to glide the car around a bend, and then rocket out just at the apex with a well-timed burst of nitro. Of course, there are also death-defying jumps, along with 90-degree inclines and even sections of track that cling upside-down from the ceiling; this is only made possible by special magnetized track parts.
Playing through the different courses kind of feels like a mix between a rollercoaster ride and a traditional race track. With this all coming from the perspective of tiny toy cars, the environments feel impressively imposing, and it’s cool how the track meanders through furniture and building fixtures. As no real humans occupy these spaces, the tracks are able to be far more larger and elaborate than a traditional toy set would be.
Yet, despite all the cool ideas and concepts on offer here in Hot Wheels Unleashed, I quickly came to realize that the toy box isn’t quite as big as I was hoping for.
Hot Wheels Unleashed clearly has some charm to it, but as alluded to earlier, the experience isn’t exactly in mint condition. Rather, it comes off like the old models you’ll find at the bottom of a chest that clearly have some wear and tear.
Going back to the track design, there are some neat ideas that have been implemented, but variety is an issue. In the game’s campaign mode, known as Hot Wheels City Rush, I lost count as to how many times the same race would appear in different events. Same track, same environment, just a slightly different event. On top of that, there are only three kinds of events: a traditional race, time trial, and a Boss Race (which there are five of in total).
Your reward for slogging through the different events comes in the form of Coins, Gears and occasional new cars. Coins can be used to buy new cars separately, from a constantly shuffling limited-time deal list, or by means of lootbox-style Blind Boxes. Getting a new car should be fun, but even this system has issues.
Many times, I found myself “unlocking” the same car repeatedly, whether it came as a race reward or in a Blind Box. Thankfully, repeat cars can be sold for coins or dismantled for the aforementioned gears, which are used to upgrade stats on other cars. But, the game oddly doesn’t even tell you that you can do this.
Cracks on the tracks
I say “cracks on the tracks,” because the race difficulty and AI difficulty are just as chaotic as the wild track designs. Easy, Medium, Hard and Extreme are the difficulty levels, but the changes aren’t properly distributed. Easy will make the other opponents seem as slow as lead blocks, whereas simply bumping it up to Medium results in their being a “chosen” car of sorts. That is, there’s always a car that’s much faster than the rest of the pack, including you (even if it’s a car that’s supposed to have lower stats).
It’s obvious because that car will pull ahead to 1st place and hold that position for basically the entire race unless you outrun it. It may make an occasional slip-up, but it seems to be programmed almost entirely different than the other AI drivers. If you do happen to get a lead on it, don’t make a mistake, otherwise, you’ll spend forever trying to catch up. Yet, I’ve been in situations where I held my lead for several minutes, only to mess up for a split-second and be overtaken. A lot of that has to do with the awkward physics system.
Milestone seems to have had trouble deciding how it wants to make these “toy” cars feel. In some ways, they have the weight and friction of more traditional cars. But, bump them into a wall and then they’ll either grind to a halt or bounce like the plastic-made models they’re supposed to represent.
That said, real Hot Wheels cars tend to keep some momentum after a collision, but that’s not the case here. I’ve had to endure several restarts, simply from getting smacked into a wall. Often, it was the result of a poorly placed boost trigger or awkward jump.
The one good thing about the aforementioned low variety of tracks is that their layouts start becoming familiar after a while, allowing you to remember tricky sections. Some tracks have inclines that’ll launch you into outer space if you press the nitro too early. Other tracks have so many curves, that you’ll be smacking into walls repeatedly like a caged animal as the physics suck your car toward the wall if it’s moving too fast. Considering the lack of any power-ups in this arcade racer, it’s as if the tracks were designed to be the equalizing factors themselves.
I mentioned boss races earlier. Though I only experienced two of them before deciding I’d experienced more than enough, I did notice that their designs were far more intricate and exciting than any of the other races in the game. They throw a lot of new mechanics and techniques at you, that genuinely require good skill and timing.
Yet, between the awkward physics and infuriating AI, they’re still not fully enjoyable. Either way, I wish these more daring designs appeared in races, especially ones that made more use of the environment. For instance, what if there was a track in a kitchen with one section over a firey stovetop where the burners have to be avoided? Or, driving through a bathroom and using the tub as a halfpipe? This is a Hot Wheels game, so the sky (ceiling) is the limit, yet the official tracks often play it a little safe. There’s even a strange lack of representation from track designs based on actual toy sets.
To make up for the lack of built-in creativity, there’s always user-generated content to look forward to, right?
This is still a Hot Wheels game after all, so it’s no surprise that a track editor is present. While it does include a decent amount of parts, the actual building experience, much like the rest of the game, is flawed.
Compared to the likes of something like Trackmania, or even the building systems of say Planet Coaster, Hot Wheels Unleashed‘s track builder feels noticeably clunky. For starters, it’s not even optimized that well for use with a mouse and keyboard. I actually had an easier time building using my Xbox One controller. This would be understandable if I were playing a console version, but clearly, I’m not. Switching between elements is unintuitive, and even editing specific parts of the track feels tedious.
Mind you, the track builder still works. But, I’m really keen to see how many patient souls brave through the wonky layout to create some more engaging designs than what the base game includes. The same is true for the livery editor; it’s passable, but it’s not nearly as satisfying as the customization in say, Forza Horizon.
No child’s play here
For all its downfalls and questionable design elements, don’t get me wrong, there’s still some glimmer and shine to Hot Wheels Unleashed.
Again, I called it an imperfect set of toys, but not a broken one. The paint is chipped, there are some deep scuffs, and one of the wheels is a little wobbly. But, you can still rocket this thing around the room. That is to say, it’s not the best arcade racer out there, but it certainly has some life in it.
All this really needs is some rebalancing. If the physics can be ironed out, the track editor overhauled and other gameplay elements get restructured, I’d dare to call this one of the most fun arcade racers I’ve played in ages.
Hot Wheels Unleashed has a lot of potential, but some folks may be a little put off by its rougher edges to give it a proper chance.