Hot Wheels Unleashed Review – Ultimate Track Toys
We have now reached an era where licensed games are not just cheap, mediocre cash grabs. More brands have put more thought into who gets to make their games, and the devs they chose to work with are clearly in love with the licensed IP. Not to say there are no good licensed games in the years past, but a good one is more of a norm these days, and that’s great.
Enter Hot Wheels Unleashed, a new arcade racing game for consoles and PC, developed by a team that have made racing games since the early ’90s.
Milestone is more known these days as the motorcycle racing game specialists (the annual MotoGP games and that viral clip of Ride 4 were their handiwork), but they have a history of making four-wheeled vehicles go vroom vroom, from the old days of Screamer to the off-road racer Gravel.
But what if those wheels are Hot Wheels? With the little trademark mark at the end? I’m glad to say that, despite some rough edges, Hot Wheels Unleashed is one bonafide racer, and easily the best Hot Wheels game ever made so far.
As mentioned before, Milestone has made games that look ridiculously realistic. And with Hot Wheels Unleashed, the devs poured the same level of detail to these little 1:64 die-cast toys. And yes, you’re not racing full-scale Hot Wheels-designed cars. You’re racing those exact car-shaped toys that you can grab from a shelf at 7-Eleven for less than RM10.
And they nailed that look incredibly well. If you’ve been collecting these toys, some of the cars you can race in Unleashed is something you already owned. With the exact colours, paint type, wheel, and even the same texts printed under the chassis. Most car games don’t render the underbody because you rarely ever get to see them. In Hot Wheels Unleashed, the full car name, year of manufacture and “Made In Malaysia” writing that’s cast onto the underbody is gloriously rendered in full.
It doesn’t end there. If you hit the wall too much or crash a lot, you’ll see dings, scratch marks and even the paint chipped, just as you would believe the real die-cast equivalent would have been.
Since you’re racing toy cars, you’re also racing them in a Hot Wheels track. Those orange pieces connected with three blue dot connectors are here, albeit five times wider than the real counterpart scale-wise. The loop-the-loops, banked corners, and even creature hazards are here, placed inside five different rooms.
The Unreal Engine still struggles with texture streaming sometimes if you have the game installed not on an SSD, but still, you can expect some brilliant lighting, crisp textures, and beautiful tiny toys racing around the room.
While I highly praise the visuals, the audio is… interesting. I grew up in the days where Hot Wheels Turbo Racing was secretly making kids become heavy metal fans with its soundtrack. So booting up the game with all these flashes of fire and ember to be greeted by… funk music, is one heck of whiplash.
The menu music is all funky tunes that sound generic yet familiar. And it makes sense when you discover the music can be found on Epidemic Sounds. Still, the menu music selections are oddly really good though! I don’t mind jamming to these while going through the menus.
The race music is a bit disappointing for a racing game standard, as it’s just okay. There are some dynamic adjustments to it like the music grows tenser at the final lap, but some of the effects are wonky. Boosting distorts the music into a weird, unpleasant sound, and you’ll hate it when you’re doing time trials where you’ll just be constantly boosting. Plus, there’s not enough variety in there either.
(A recent game update adjusts the distorting effect, so it’s less annoying that it was back at launch.)
I need to repeat just in case, that I don’t think Hot Wheels Unleashed’s music, and the audio in general, is bad. It’s just mediocre, and serviceable. It doesn’t get as much of a budget compared to the visuals, I feel. But work has indeed been put in this aspect.
Hot Wheels Unleashed has you race against 11 other toy cars around toy tracks built around various environments, from a science lab in a college campus to an unfinished skyscraper.
Physics-wise, it’s an arcade racer through and through. Each car can build the boost meter by drifting (which is why the tracks are extra wide) and drifting is the faster way around corners. Cars can come in two different boost types, in bursts with a press of a button or a meter where you can use boost anytime.
The camera angle does a great job selling you on how speedy these little automobiles are. The camera zoom out and blur paired with you seeing the scale of these tiny cars against the world, you feel the speed. It’s exhilarating. Also, props to camera keeping up with all the ways the track can angle. Hanging upside-down on gravity track pieces or even through the loop-the-loops can all be done with the chase cam instead of having to change to a mandatory first-person view. Without making me dizzy.
Depending on what car you use, you can feel the difference in handling. Heavier, bulkier cars are harder to steer compared to the nimble low-flung silhouettes. Interestingly, the shape of a car can be used to your advantage in ramming the opponent AI. The low front wing of a Formula Flashback can scoop a car at the front, which means cheese tactics are pretty much there for you to exploit.
It’s so weird seeing the developers being so fast-and-loose with how you race. They even showed in a trailer where you can cut a large part of the track with a big jump because checkpoints are so sparse. Maybe too sparse.
Now that folks have figured out massively disgusting but genius shortcuts the devs have to update some tracks to put more checkpoints.
Still, the racing is rock solid. Once you get a car with the stats of your liking you’ll be ripping through the corners, jumps and loop-the-loops in joy. It’s so much fun.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is no Mario Kart, so no power-ups here. You do have speed boosts that either fill up your nitro meter, or give you an immediate speed boost. Though the design of the nitro pads maybe not be clear- I just thought it was some random purple energy blob but only from seeing the boost pad from a high angle do I see that there’s a chevron on it.
Hot Wheels Unleashed has a campaign mode, Hot Wheel City Rumble, where you navigate an overview map filled with racing events. Some branches in the path lead to rewards, other branches require you to do specific tasks to unlock, and there are even “boss fights”.
Boss Fights are essentially special races with a gimmick. One boss will change the direction of the boost pads so you need to be changing lanes often. Some throw in hazards that will annoy you and set you back from the race. It’s a nice novelty, but I feel the first of the five you encounter is the hardest. The rest seemed a bit easier.
The opponent AI is decently challenging. I tried playing in the harder difficulties only to see myself eating dust. You will need to upgrade cars, or use better ones, in order to stand a chance against the harder AI, but their fastness feels fair.
Hot Wheels Unleashed has more than 60 cars at launch, comprised of Hot Wheels original designs, licensed cars from car manufacturers and also other IP crossovers. And that list has grown tremendously since launch, with a mix of free car DLC (they added the toilet car!), free updates (A Gucci car? Sure), and paid DLCs. Milestone plans to support three seasons of paid DLC, so that’s a lot more cars to collect if you go all-in with the season passes.
And that’s not all, some cars are allowed to put in custom liveries. It’s a robust livery editor, and definitely lives up to the likes of other big racing games with a custom livery editor. And yes, there’s plenty of realistic F1 cars and itashas, because why not.
The game includes 40 tracks as part of the campaign, but you can also create yours too. The track editor lets you turn Hot Wheels Unleashed into a sort-of Trackmania, with tons of editing options to create your custom loops.
However, it’s important to note that the editors are lacking some features to make it really great for content creation. At launch, there’s barely any search functions for liveries and tracks. And the current implementation is still a bit rough. The discoverability of user-generated content is an issue.
Without any extra purchases, you’ll already be getting a lot from Hot Wheels Unleashed. But also a lot of the same thing. Like many arcade racers, the game is rather one-note in variety. There’s only so much racing you can do in one session before it gets tiring. It’s a game that you play in bursts, not a long sitting. Unless you are into livery and track creation.
Hot Wheels Unleashed really brought me back to the happy days of having a collection of hundreds of these die-cast marvels. And seeing them accurately rendered to scale with all of its minute details really is a trip.
The game’s fundamental handling is fun. The course designs are imaginative. The extra tools you get to create your own fun in the form of the livery and track editor are a delight. It’s a great package.
With one minor flaw.
Bloody loot crates.
Most of your car unlocks in Hot Wheels Unleashed is fueled by gacha. You can earn enough in-game currency to buy a random car, which can be a duplicate. So expect going into gacha hell, getting the same dupes from loot boxes, only to burn them in fire to get back a portion of the cost to buy more loot boxes.
Granted, the loot crates are not monetised at all, and all DLC cars are gained outright. And there’s a limited-time store that refreshes its inventory so you can buy directly buy the cars you want. Like a toy store.
See, if the devs just commit to the limited-time store rather than also having a loot crate system, I would have been fine. But no, they have to squeeze in a pointless gacha system, that isn’t even making them money. So what is it for?
The pointlessness of the loot crates is the only main flaw of Hot Wheels Unleashed that I truly am disappointed at. But the many other rough edges? Forgivable offences. And since this review is posted months after the launch I’ve seen enough game updates to trust these devs that they are indeed working on polishing off those rough edges post-launch.
Hot Wheels Unleashed provides a solid, if not great arcade racing experience, for kids, die-cast enthusiasts and racing game fans alike. It has some rough edges, but this is a fundamentally well-crafted game that understands what it should be: pure, racing fun.
Review based on the PC version. Review copy purchased by the reviewer