Collect the best vehicles in the Hot Wheels™ universe, build spectacular tracks and dive into breathtaking races.
Reviewed on: PS5
Also available for: PS4, PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch
Lead Game Designers: Nicholas D’Annunzio, Mauro Indini
Lead of Gameplay Design: Emanuele Paolo Mari
I love a good arcade racer, and Hot Wheels Unleashed is pretty damn close to fully scratching an itch I can’t seem to escape. It’s got the racing and drifting on-point as tight twists around bends keep me on the edge of my seat. Of course, the Hot Wheels models themselves are a great point of interest to pull fans in, but what’s missing is a wider variety of tracks and a difficulty that makes sense for the target audience.
Although there is a ‘story mode’, it’s just an assortment of either twelve car races or time trials. Periodically you’ll come up against a ‘boss race’, but these are merely more intense tracks, with the difficulty of the AI racers turned up a notch. Primarily you’ll be racing across the Garage, Skyscraper, College Campus, Skatepark or Basement locations. Each is a static background in which a racecourse is built around using classic orange and blue strips that Hot Wheels is known for using. Even if the designs of the tracks change, these five main locations quickly become stagnant. Even if there is the promise of new locations coming in the future in the form of DLC, the game desperately needed two or three more to help keep things fresh at launch.
Fortunately for Hot Wheels Unleashed, you’re often too focused on the tight turns and overtaking opponents to worry too much about the surrounding scenery. The racing here is fast, with a focus on boosting and drifting to keep it continuously flowing. Each of the sixty-odd vehicles in the launch game feels different and can be mastered on their own terms. There are four main stats between acceleration, speed, handling, and braking. You can use gears earned from races to upgrade cars, which helps keep your favourite car racing into the late game if you don’t want to begrudgingly switch to a better one you’ve unlocked because of its design. However, I did feel like the top-heavy cars left you at a disadvantage as they seemed to tip over easily.
There’s no deep mechanics here to get your head around. Hot Wheels Unleashed is a classic case of mastering your racing track and taking each corner better than your opponent. Getting those sweet moments where my nose was an inch from a wall as I drifted around a long turn felt terrific, like I belonged in Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift, while others where I’d break too early and headbutt a wall and drop a position — I’d feel very dumb. Choosing when to boost is of utmost importance so you can get the most out of it. However, on the more intense tracks, you’ll have to learn to boost into a corner and drift out of them to continue your momentum. You’ll come across boost pads on most tracks as well, but on those without them, you’ll need to nail your drifts into a corner to refill your vehicle’s boost metre to stand any chance against the competition.
What doesn’t work in Hot Wheels Unleashed is the game difficulty. As a franchise targeted at children, you’d expect the ‘medium’ difficulty to contain a nice curvature of challenge between the regular and boss races. In the case of this game, however, the default difficulty kicked my ass. Especially at the beginning of the game, I had to check I wasn’t on one of the harder difficulties. It’s an odd design choice because this is a game aimed at kids, even if adults will play it as well, and kids, as I remember from my years as one, are very quickly turned off by a video game if it punches them in the face within the first thirty minutes. There is an easy mode here, but I don’t think most players will want to switch — especially since easy is too easy — so some balancing to the difficulties are greatly needed to make Hot Wheel Unleashed more accessible.
As you play through the story mode, you’ll earn Blind Boxes, which randomly award you a car. They are loot-boxes in looks, but you can only buy with the currency you earn in-game (at least, as of review). For a game aimed at kids, I’m not too fond of this being a mechanic introduced as an acceptable way to unlock things. I hate it anyway, as it’s not as rewarding as getting a cool car for beating a particular race or a rare unlock that’s behind the best time in a time trial.
There’s a Track Builder included as part of the Hot Wheels Unleashed experience, where you can pick any of the race locations and a blank canvas, Track Room, to start piecing together orange and blue plastic pieces, nearly however you see fit. It’s a great idea, but the execution is very clunky, and as much as I played around with it, the feature set felt limiting in creativity. You also have to play through the story mode to unlock most of the pieces, which may annoy some players.
A trophy earned for beating a race on hard tells you it’s time to try out online — but let me tell you, these racers online are a lot less challenging than the difficulty. No offence to the people I’ve played online with; you all make mistakes, unlike the AI. One thing I enjoyed most about online racing was the inclusion of player-created tracks, which led to a combination of terrible and surprisingly good results. The multiplayer lobby is a great place to sit and race, although if the host selects the ‘all cars’ option, newer players will quickly be stomped by the stronger cars available in the game. If none of the online stuff sounds like your kind-of Hot Wheels playground, you can also race against one friend in split-screen action.
The car models themselves are one of the standouts from Hot Wheels Unleashed. They’re simply beautiful and was my main point of discussion when I previewed the game earlier in the year. Thanks to the game’s photo mode, you can capture these small cars in stunning action shots as well. The finer detail on each car, from minor scratches and indents to the different material used, the way the lights bounce off the metallic surfaces — they all feel tangible, and like you could pick one up and play with it in your room.