It has been four years since Hot Wheels first appeared in Forza Horizon 3 and it was only a matter of time before a standalone game was created for the franchise. Now the 53 year old company has delivered with a true arcade racer in Hot Wheels Unleashed.
The task of recreating Hot Wheels in the gaming world went to sim-racing specialist Milestone. An Italian development team that have specialized in motorbike franchises like MotoGP, Ride, MXGP, and Monster Energy Supercross. However this has really paid off and it might be one of the best racing games released in 2021. It starts with an incredibly high pressure situation: you must open a handful of blind boxes to start building your garage of official Hot Wheels cars, honestly I have probably never sweated so much the first few minutes into a game. As for the racing experience it isn’t quite a simulation but rather an enjoyable arcade experience, you only need to concern yourself with accelerating, drifting, and boosting. It will take you a little time to find and get the nuances of your preferred vehicle and to get a handle on the controls but once you are set, you are good to go!
For example once you get to grips with drifting, every perfectly taken corner makes you feel like a maestro. Certain tracks are perfect for drivers that love going sideways. Another great feature is you can really feel the difference in vehicle types, too, allowing for plenty of testing to find your preferred ride. Hot Wheels Unleashed is limited to in-game currencies for purchases and upgrades, and while Hot Wheels cars are as talismanic as ever–and look stunning in 4K, whether on the selection screen or in races themselves–the act of collecting them plays second fiddle to its finely tuned racing action. When it comes to the cars you will find current cars, classics, and some incredibly fun licensed stuff, think DC cars from Superman, the Batmobile, and many more. Another fun aspect is you can see the material, whether it be glitter, metal, or plastic, as well as the imperfections—scratches and plastic cuts.
Boosts are at the very core of the experience: you bank them from nailing your timing in the start-line countdown and charge your meter up through drifting, as well as Wipeout-style strips on the track. However you must always remember the advice from Jonny Tran “Too soon Junior”. If you nail your turns, you’ll have nitro ready every four or five seconds, and on medium or hard difficulty, you need to use it as often as you can. There are a lot of white knuckle moments on offer, and while some of them come from the fact that you will always have another driver glued to your tail, a lot of it is just from how insanely the tracks are designed. On your first time around a track, there’s an awful lot there to surprise you.
In its desire to ease gamers into the action, Hot Wheels Unleashed underplays its hand with several vanilla tracks that don’t showcase what it’s capable of. Some time trials, in particular, feel dull and don’t scale to your chosen difficulty or choice of car–there are 32 in all, each with two target times, and longer tracks (two minutes and above) can be a little time consuming. However, as the game unfurls across the city map, circuits become more experimental, exciting, and downright devious, distracting from the relatively basic racing formats. Chief among these are the so-called “boss” battles, where you unlock famous Hot Wheels playsets by making the podium in long, incredibly designed circuits. Sadly, there are only five of these races throughout the career mode, but they were good fun while they lasted. Speed traps, dividers, bridges, car-flipping magnetized sections, and more combine to offer some of the most inventive racetracks you’ve ever seen.
The amount of content is impressive. There are 66 cars ready to be unlocked, separated into four categories based on rarity. There are a mere five attributes making each one unique, which isn’t a lot. But you can also spend Gears to upgrade common cars up to legendary status. The core career mode, Hot Wheels City Rumble, offers the bulk of the action, helping you unlock the game’s four-dozen or so tracks. Its races, time trials, “bosses”, and secrets, reward you with cars, gears (for upgrades), cash, and various ways to decorate your basement–your own private space that doubles as a host for the game’s track builder mode.
Of course, Hot Wheels Unleashed isn’t just restricted to what it gives you–its deluxe track builder mode is one of the most comprehensive creation suites out there. It really is only limited by your imagination and piece limits, and you can weave around and even incorporate five zones’ worth of surroundings, or go old-school in an empty room. Sculpting turns or long sections of track is surprisingly easy. Once you’re happy to test your creation, you can hop in a heavy tractor to survey it–this initially feels annoying, but from a UX perspective, it’s entirely understandable, as it ensures even the slowest cars can navigate all sections. In a matter of months, one can only imagine how much incredible user-generated content will be available on its servers.
One of the only downsides however is the soundtrack. The background music during races is certainly impacted by your driving and when switching between songs it could be a lot smoother.
However, Hot Wheels Unleashed gives you great value. You have a huge career mode, livery editor, two-player local and 12-player online multiplayer, licensed vehicles, arcade racer that’s perfect for players of all ages and skills–and thanks to its track builder, and thanks to all the soon to be fans getting their hands on the game it is only going to get bigger and better by the day as you can download other players tracks and liveries.
In the end Hot Wheels Unleashed takes the traditional toys and brings them to life in a fun, easy to play, and highly enjoyable arcade racer. It looks terrific, it feels great, and the track design is extremely well done. Hot Wheels Unleashed arrives on PS4 and PS5, Xbox One and Series X/S, Nintendo Switch, and PC on September 30th.