Like many other kids around the world, I remember spending afternoons watching cartoons and playing with Hot Wheels in my living room. I still fondly remember my “suitcase” full of the miniature cars, which I carried from room to room and friend’s house to friend’s house as we built courses and raced. It wasn’t the biggest part of my childhood, but I remember those cars fondly—a feeling that Hot Wheels Unleashed really taps into. It may not be the best racing game of the year, but it’s crafted with passion and provides players with an exciting, breezy suite of small-scale yet larger than life races.
Hot Wheels Unleashed takes players into the world of Hot Wheels racing—which, in reality, is just our world but from a smaller point of view. Players will take the wheel of familiar cars from across the years in races through varied courses set in colleges, basements, and garages—you know, like they should be. Courses are made up of classic orange, yellow, and striped pieces, like they are in real life. Cars and courses are presented cleanly, making it clear that the developers are passionate about the property and products that inspired the game. There was a big smile on my face every time I opened a “blind box” and was surprised with a car that I recognized.
The racing itself is very much in the arcade style; fans hoping for an ultra-realistic toy racing sim are going to be a bit disappointed by that. The game relies on a balance of acceleration, braking for drifting, and using boost to get across the finish line as quickly as possible. This loop is quite addicting, as I found myself often chasing the perfect drift—and sliding around a corner without hitting the wall before hitting the boost on a straightaway still hasn’t gotten old. The racing is, for the most part, fast, responsive, and exciting.
Now, there are a few smaller elements that feel somewhat clunky in their execution, mainly in-air controlling and some of the rolling physics. Occasionally, you’ll find yourself launching off a ramp or bouncing on uneven platforms, and the game allows players to control their car in the air to ensure a smooth landing. However, due to the speed of the races, it never feels like there’s enough time to grapple with midair controls—I often was back on the ground and rolling over before I had a chance to think of the controls and alter my car. It’s nice to include the ability to control your car in the air, but I almost feel like it would be more befitting the property to allow for tricks in midair rather than focusing just on balance. As it stands, this system just seems slightly out of tune with the rest of the racing and pace of the game.
Hot Wheels Unleashed has a small suite of modes available to players: a “campaign” mode where players partake in a bunch of races, time trials, and more to earn rewards, standard online multiplayer (both online and local!), a track builder, and a “basement editor,” which allows you to customize the ultimate entertainment room. The campaign mode is the best place to start for players, giving them ample opportunities to familiarize themselves with courses and mechanics against AI racers. Races are straightforward, while time trials allow you to refine your skills and focus on the accelerate/drift/boost combo. The local multiplayer is also a very nice touch; this is an ideal couch co-op game, and it’s heartening to see developers include this feature (it’s sad that splitscreen has become a praiseworthy feature, but that’s where things are at, sadly).
The online multiplayer is another big draw, but this mode seems noticeably less refined than others. The lobby system is a bit clunky and confusing with players voting on an area and then a course. The game’s netcode also seems a little off, with most matches starting with other cars not moving at all or rubberbanding ahead of you suddenly. It’s just not a very refined experience, especially when compared with the rest if the game. Hopefully these issues get ironed out in future updates.
The game’s track builder is also a nice feature to have, though your mileage will vary with it. In order to unlock pieces of track to use, you have to complete races and unlock them. While this is a smart way to incentivize play and seeing the campaign through, it is a bit of a bummer for players who want to build their own wild courses from the get-go.
The game’s basement customization mode is an oddity. While it’s fun to decorate your dream nerd den, it doesn’t serve much of a purpose for the wider game. If you want to show off some cool digital collectibles and unlocks, then it’s nice—otherwise, it just doesn’t contribute much to the test of the experience.
With an expansive DLC roadmap already laid out, including plenty of collaborations for new cars and tracks, the future of Hot Wheels Unleashed looks promising. As it stands now, it’s a great time, too. The racing is fast and frenetic with a catchy gameplay loop, and it’s a delight to take control of some old favorite toys in a new way. For fans of arcade racing experiences, Unleashed seems like a no-brainer. If you want a no-frills experience, you will get that here—but fans of more detailed, intricate experiences may end up flying off the tracks.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.]