As a boy who grew up in America, there’s a pretty good chance that Hot Wheels cars were a staple of your childhood. The joyful amalgamation of plastic and die-cast metal melded together to resemble cars that you’ll normally see walking down the street; or a horrific combination of mythical beast and extreme muscle car.
Hot Wheels cleverly captures the wildest of imaginations and puts them right along side sports car aficionados in perfect tandem. Hot Wheels Unleashed is the latest attempt at making a feasible arcade racer with the all too familiar toy line.
Crafted by Italian game company Milestone, creators of the better known racers Ride and MotoGP, Hot Wheels Unleashed provides a pretty competent racer at the core of the package. Unfortunately, that foundation holds a house that’s somewhat cobbled together by ideas that aren’t nearly as fleshed out as I would have liked.
Hot Wheels Unleashed
Platforms: Windows PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S (reviewed)
Release Date: September 30, 2021
Players: 1-2 (online)
Price: $49.99 USD
For starters, there’s only six different types of rooms you can pick as backgrounds, so once the novel idea of having a giant track in a single space gets old, it’s almost distracting from everything else you’re looking at. Most of the time it felt like I was playing a Micro Machines game more-so than a Hot Wheels game.
Despite the large rooms, only the basement is customizable, and the tracks certainly never lends much to the environment they are in – they just simply exist in it. I feel like putting the rooms in as background for scale does more to hurt the presentation than it does to help it.
Let me expand on that: The cars themselves are absolutely fantastic looking. It’s downright ridiculous to see how well these cars are modeled. Everything looks exactly as you remember, as if you were holding the car in your hand and pushing along the plastic track yourself.
Cars can be customized to look however you want from a color scheme. So if you pull a car that’s got an ugly base color, you can either go customize it yourself, or you can choose from a healthy selection of player created customizations available simply by pressing a button and applying it.
If there’s anything Hot Wheels Unleashed absolutely nails, it’s the look of the Hot Wheels themselves, as well as the tracks or their hazards. Dropping out of the mouth of the T-Rex or racing through the volcano escape set is pretty damn cool to see the first few times.
As great as the cars look, it’s almost understandable why they don’t take damage when they crash or bump into each other. But that level of detail would have done a lot more to increase immersion.
Once you get past the visuals, you’re left with a pretty generic racer that has some touchy physics; that are just off enough to cause you more frustration than fun as the tracks progressively get harder.
Track packs with disasters like the scorpion or the spider have hazards; such as webs that will freeze you in place for a moment requiring a boost to escape, or scorpion venom that drains your boost and prevents you from building the meter while poisoned.
Neither of those are even remotely as frustrating as getting slightly too much air off of a jump, and not being able reduce your speed so you don’t go flying out of bounds. Realistic, perhaps, but in this type of setting you’re already suspending disbelief considering you’re racing on tracks that are upside down while relying on magnetized lightning to keep you from the clutches of unforgiving gravity.
Instead of having a way to control yourself while airborne, you can instead opt to do generic camera tricks such as flips or barrel rolls; which are not only disorienting, but add absolutely nothing to the play style. Adding a reason to do tricks would have made this process far more appealing.
While I do feel like the single player campaign is ultimately star of the show for Hot Wheels Unleashed, the races become pretty repetitive rather quickly. Even the boss races barely feel much different from the normal races. Turning up the difficulty makes things a little bit more interesting, but ultimately you’re going to stuck hoping you pull a legendary car from the blind loot boxes.
Speaking of which, car collecting is the real star of the show here. Spending coins to unlock blind boxes, or saving the coins to buy from a retail store that shows each car in the little package; just like if you were to grab it off the shelf at the store.
The store updates every few hours, so it’s easy to hopefully stumble across what you’re ultimately looking for – but if you want a certain vehicle such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles‘ Party Wagon or the Back to the Future Time Machine (cause clearly they couldn’t get the rights for the DeLorean brand) – you’ll likely be refreshing the store for quite some time.
Thankfully, the loot box system is only earned by playing the game, rather than dropping $100 for an in-game credit and gears pack. The gears are used to update the cars rarity from common up to Legendary. This provides a bit of a stat increase, and a change to the boost (which is determined by the game, since you can’t customize it).
There’s a full on track builder included if you’re super creative; but a majority of what you’ll find online are super basic loops or straight race stretches that were only ever crafted for the purposes of getting the achievement for validating tracks. I’d guess this is the part that will likely appeal to the younger players.
Even so the UI for it is a bit of a mess, and it’s a lot more complicated than it should be just to simply create. You can also unlock stuff to update the basement, though I have no idea what reason there is to do so. But hey, it’s there if you want it. That’s a lot of how this game feels online as well.
There’s 12 player online lobbies, but across my play time I rarely found more than 3 players who were actually racing. It was just people sitting idle to farm more coins and achievement progress. Disappointing, especially when you consider that quick races are the only online option.
Also disappointing: The terribly generic soundtrack that sounds like Dollar Store toy knockoffs of well known songs; such as Thriller (Michael Jackson) or Treasure (Bruno Mars). There’s also not a single spoken word anywhere except for a weird “checkpoint” voice.
At a $50 USD price point, Hot Wheels Unleashed is a decent pick up for younger kids and parents who want something that isn’t painfully terrible to suffer through, like most games aimed at children are. Hot Wheels enthusiasts and collectors will likely have more fun trying to get all of the 60+ cars available, but it’s still a hard sell at $50 USD.
$25 USD to 30 USD would have been a considerably better impulse purchase price, given how repetitious the gameplay feels. It’s not a great game, but it’s not bad either.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is an almost painfully “fine” game, in the same way that WWE Battlegrounds was. Good ideas that were never fully fleshed out, and ultimately make the whole package feel rushed and unfinished.
Unfortunately, while Hot Wheels might be the superior toy brand being far more beloved than Matchbox or their other competitors, it never has garnered any real success in the video game world in spite of putting their name on a
bunch of shovelware healthy amount of games.
I’m still adamant that the best usage of Hot Wheels was the DLC pack in Forza Horizon 3, but that success only came because it was built into an already excellent racing game. This is a passable at-best racer, but it damn sure ain’t anywhere near Forza.
Hot Wheels Unleashed was reviewed on the Xbox Series X using a review code provided by Milestone. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.