Hot Wheels Unleashed review

By Luke Albigés,
After a headline appearance from Hot Wheels in an excellent DLC pack for the equally excellent Forza Horizon 3, the popular toy brand is always going to struggle to escape the shadow of that cracking collaboration when it comes to future gaming ventures. Now, any new standalone Hot Wheels game can't help but be judged by those standards, and while Hot Wheels Unleashed certainly offers some of the most accurate digital depictions of the micro motors, save for a few cool moments and features, the rest of the game around them just feels largely unremarkable. And when brash, bold designs and crazy looping courses are your bread and butter, 'unremarkable' actually comes across as a pretty damning criticism.

hot wheels unleashed

Let's start things off on a positive note, because the car models in Hot Wheels Unleashed are an absolute delight. Painstakingly accurate all the way from basic materials and accurate assemblies to mould lines in plastics and minor imperfections in metallic finishes, these pretend toys look just like the real thing. Even down to things like trademark text and model numbers moulded into the bases of each vehicle... they all just look the part from every angle. In a neat touch, you're also free to change things up with most cars by making your own custom liveries, with plenty of paint jobs, decals to layer up if you're feeling creative, and even material types to alter which can make your custom version look and feel like a completely different car. Special licensed vehicles (like, say, the Back to the Future DeLorean) are the only ones exempt from this creative endeavour, but for the rest, you're free to go crazy with funky new designs, even sharing your best (or worst) creations for the community to enjoy or grabbing some of the best user-made liveries for when you tire of your own efforts and the stock ones. It's a bit of a shame that these cars are absolutely indestructible, as the way a lot of the toys are assembled would make for some pretty novel (and awesome) destuction mechanics, plus how ace would it be to roll up to an online race with your own well-loved favourite, replete with all its chipped paint, dinged bumpers, and missing wing mirror from one too many stunts that didn't go quite according to plan?

In keeping with those super-authentic cars, the courses too play into the theme brilliantly. It's all spiralling plastic track pieces assembled in adventurous and experimental ways around suitably massive real-world environments, and while some liberties are taken to champion the playful over the realistic (most sections of track just kinda hover in place), it still sells the idea of miniature extreme racing taking place around the home and beyond. While there are only five unique locations (slightly more if you count the customisable nature of the Basement setting and the largely bare test chamber that can be used for custom courses), each houses a number of different track layouts that will take you all over the well-realised real world backdrop. This is where we see the first sign of wheels wobbling for Unleashed — the nature of the circuits all being largely built out of individual sections of plastic track mean that almost all of them look alike and many blur into one, which can be a bit confusing and makes it feel like the game has less to offer than it does. The slightly more interesting courses (track width being largely fixed does quite a number on variety, too) actually free you from the confines of the winding orange line for sections that explore floors, surfaces, furniture, air ducts, and whatever else, although sadly, off-road racing isn't exactly Unleashed's strongest suit. Replacing wall-lined roads with open space and marker cones makes some sections incredibly hard to sightread and follow well, and that's always a concern considering messing up getting back on that comfortable orange will likely spell the end of your race. A few of the courses even have blind jumps back onto the track which prove to be more luck than judgement, although the game also offers plenty of other opportunities to leave the track and lose all hope for a decent finish.

hot wheels unleashed

You see, these little cars love to jump. While a lot of the bigger death-defying leaps are built into the tracks naturally (to varying degrees of success), the ones more likely to kill a race are far more innocuous. You'll likely find your greatest enemy to be the simple on-ramp, and that slight slant when getting back on the track will almost always lead to a surprising amount of airtime. Combine this with rife opportunity for user error (best be getting those approach angles just right, and know that boosting back onto the track is playing with fire) and the wild variable that is having eleven other cars on the course (one little nudge is all it takes...) and you should start to see how hazardous rejoining the road really can be. All too often, you'll find yourself popped up and just over the low walls that line the actual track, unable to rejoin naturally in most instances and forced to respawn on the main route and wave goodbye to the rest of the pack on anything bar the easiest difficulty. Any undulation in a course can have much the same effect with the right (wrong?) bump or boost timing, and it's genuinely surprising that a game that looks and feels so playful can be so strict — honestly, leaving the track might as well be an instant fail state in most instances, as you'll only ever be racing for a consolation prize if you have to respawn and continue. As an extra kick in the face, there's even a cooldown on the boost so you can't use it for a moment after respawning, making it even harder to salvage your position after a crash.

These little cars love to roll as well, and in a game based around going sideways as much as possible to earn boost by drifting, that doesn't end well. Even the more stable rides feel a little too keen to get up on two wheels, so naturally anything with more going on up top — say, huge dinosaur spines or an external engine block the size of the entire car interior — will be even more likely to stray from the safety of four wheels during aggressive cornering. While this isn't always the death sentence that leaving the track usually is for your podium chances, the more outlandishly shaped cars may feel short-changed by a physics system that naturally makes them harder to right. I'd go so far as to say that the handling model and mechanics in general aren't really a great fit for the game Unleashed wants to be. It clearly enjoys the anarchy of your typical kart racer, but developer Milestone doesn't seem able to fully step away from the more straight-faced racing it typically specialises in to lean into something more playful. There's an immediacy to the best arcade racers that just feels like it's lacking here, and while Unleashed feels fine most of the time, it just feels like it sits in a weird middle ground between many of the greats that make their mark in one particular way or another. It never approaches the precision of a TrackMania, the energy of a Burnout, the flow of an OutRun, the mayhem of a Mario Kart... without that hook to call its own, it just winds up feeling a bit generic and bland. And once again, 'bland' isn't the kind of word you want to hear used to describe a game where cars that look like dinosaurs race upside down on the roof against others covered in skulls and rockets.

hot wheels unleashed

We should circle back to the cars themselves, actually, because while they're certainly lovely to look at, getting your hands on the ones you want (or special rare versions, for that matter) is less than ideal. The unlock system plays out as a sort of pretend loot box simulator for play money, which is sort of gross in its own right now that I think about it. Coins earned from races or the limited single-player 'adventure' (it's just a grid of normal races and time trials with delusions of grandeur) are used to buy Blind Boxes each containing one car. Not one new car, heavens no — I had two dupes in my first five boxes, and have seen many more since. It's all luck of the draw, especially since cars can rarely drop as Super Treasure Hunt variants which have better stats than their regular counterparts. Sure, there's a rotating selection where you can pay over the odds for a featured vehicle you want if and when it shows up, but until it does, you're left in a situation where someone in an online lobby may have a clear advantage over you purely down to luck, and that's not a good look. Also, imagine poor little Timmy's face when he sets his sights on that badass dragon car, opens a box, and pulls a 2014 Mini Cooper. It doesn't help that while the selection of 66 cars available is at least interesting and varied, it's also rather unbalanced, with a handful that feel like they handily outperform the rest. You can even the odds a little by upgrading lower rarity cars using Gears earned by scrapping dupes, or you might want to sell those instead. Either way, the recycling process is depicted by the departing vehicle bursting into flames and turning into resources, which seems... irresponsible. The idea that you can set fire to unwanted toys to have them turn into money is maybe not the best to put in the minds of any impressionable kids that end up playing this.

That 66-strong garage is just the beginning, too. Milestone has already laid out its plans for monthly DLC and while you'll be able to actually choose the cars you want here, it'll be coming out of your actual wallet rather than your in-game one. The base game actually looks quite tempting with its mid-price ticket, but just looking at all the extra stuff on the way — including vehicles, customisation items, environments, track editor parts, several season passes, and separate "Racing Seasons" (read: battle passes) — Unleashed could end up costing completionists a hell of a lot more than a standard full-price game. Of course, you can freely just pick and choose the bits you want, and this is more an observation than a criticism, though there will certainly be some who feel hard done by for having so much cool extra stuff buried behind a bunch of paywalls and FOMO. Oh, and don't get me started on the music. It's like an off-brand Skrillex with a short attention span blasting generic EDM noise in minute-long chunks, with tacky radio static crossfades between each brief and forgettable tunelet. It's inoffensive enough in its own right, but made unbearable by the abhorrent decision to have the pitch of the music spike every time you boost... which is every few seconds. The modulating cacophony this creates is absolutely horrendous and extremely distracting, so do yourself a favour and mute the sickening soundtrack as soon as you can.

hot wheels unleashed

One thing I've not covered yet (beyond a brief mention just above) which may stand to add further value to the game without having players reach into their wallets is the track editor, which I think might be my favourite part of the game. It can feel a little fiddly at first, but the depth is there to make some really cool courses, and as with liveries, you can drop your masterpieces on the world as well, or download some of the community's finest work. You can't go too crazy with some of the cooler pieces — magnetised track sections have only a modest pull, so any creative defiance of gravity needs to have extremely clean lines or you risk booping players into the unknown, for instance — and you're probably better off not using some of the special pieces that appear on the in-game tracks (the spider that spits webs, cycle-based snake mouth, and fire-breathing dragon can all be obnoxious), but there's certainly scope to do some great things with the toolset laid on here. It's still early days so a lot of the stuff live right now is either super basic or needlessly elaborate (like my nonsensical knot of a first attempt pictured below), but that's always the way with user-generated content, and there's some promising stuff live already. I'm a little concerned as to how DLC parts will be handled — will you need to own a part to race on levels that use it, or purely to use it in your creations? — but we'll just have to wait and see how that pans out. For now, this mode is the star of the show, bar those oh-so-pretty little toy cars, of course.

As for the achievements, it's a bit of a yawn of a list, really. It's mostly cumulative stuff and some of it will be really quite grindy, plus you'll need to at least dabble in both local and online multiplayer if you've got your eyes on the completion. It should be a pretty easy 1,000G, as there are only a handful of achievements that are actually skill-based, but it won't be an especially quick one when 100,000 Coins and 25,000 Gears are needed. Still, the list looks perfectly doable, provided you're willing to put the hours in.

hot wheels unleashed


Summary

Hot Wheels Unleashed is a decent arcade racer, if one without much to set it apart from the competition beyond some very pretty toy cars and a neat track editor. The handling and physics feel a little off for the kind of frantic action the game seems to want to deliver, meaning that blasting these little cars around the dizzying courses often ends up being frustrating rather than entertaining. Many of the courses feel very similar, and gimmick elements are almost uniformly awful bar the standard loops, but even they're not that exciting here save the odd exception — loops look cool from an external perspective, sure, but actually driving them is just like an extended straight where gravity hates you for a bit. Meaningful single-player content is thin on the ground so it'll likely be down to the multiplayer modes (as well as potentially the track builder, if we can get some kind of proper system to navigate the user-generated content) to provide any kind of lasting fun, and they're naturally unbalanced by the random car unlocking system which will leave some players with significantly more impressive collections than others. Fans of the toy line will likely find stunning digital recreations of the cars they love here, whether now or in one of many content updates already on the cards, along with a generally competent racer to use them in. Still, said fans may find that the dedication to the brand here elevates the experience to a degree, although those with less love for Hot Wheels in general might just see this passable racer as more of a slightly cynical vessel through which to peddle pretend toy cars for the next few years. Shiny and on-brand, but nothing particularly special, honestly.
6 / 10
* Luke spent around 20 hours throwing toy cars around ludicrous courses on Xbox Series X, unlocking 25 of the game's 44 achievements as he went. A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Luke Albigés
Written by Luke Albigés
Luke runs the TA news team, contributing where he can primarily with reviews and other long-form features — crafts he has honed across two decades of print and online gaming media experience, having worked with the likes of gamesTM, Eurogamer, Play, Retro Gamer, Edge, and many more. He loves all things Monster Hunter, enjoys a good D&D session, and has played way too much Destiny.