You could be forgiven for being ready to dismiss Hot Wheels Unleashed as another blatantly licensed release vying for the attention of younger gamers, but that would be a mistake. While the game is undoubtedly entertaining to share with the family, there is more to this racer than meets the eye. With rewarding speed, clever track design and a myriad of customization options, these little cars make a big impact and deliver many hours of racing thrills through single player, multiplayer and creation tools.
Developer Milestone recognizes the nostalgia many have for Hot Wheels and skillfully taps into that fondness. Unleashed doesn’t try to translate the cars into a life-sized real-world setting. Instead, you’ll race past kitchen tables, basement floors, and classroom seats, navigating unmanned toy vehicles through ridiculous loops and blazing straights. While players unlock various (often bizarre) vehicles via blind boxes and instant rewards, the core controls are simple, with easy-to-learn drift mechanics that you can master if you want to improve your game. While the action is arcade-like and the environments playful, a satisfying sense of speed, accentuated by a push-your-luck boost button, keeps the tension high.
On a tour of ‘Hot Wheels City’, the campaign offers an impressive selection of AI races and time trials, with a number of secret paths and rewards for the committed player. I particularly liked the track’s design, which seems to draw inspiration from classics like F-Zero and Mario Kart, packed with ramp jumps, wacky obstacles and a lot of time spent pushing against the relentless pull of gravity. After some early and uninteresting ‘discover’ tracks, the later races are challenging and exciting, especially boss races where you take on set pieces inspired by well-known Hot Wheels tracks.
Whether you’re playing side-by-side on the couch with two-player split screen, or with up to 12 players online, the multiplayer suite isn’t complicated, but it sure is a good time. Races offer the same excellent track layouts with the added challenge of live opponents, and it’s easy to step in and create a private lobby, or quickly join an existing lobby to vote for the next track.
A big part of the real Hot Wheels experience has always been track building, and Milestone has worked to make it easy for you to design courses. Like any level maker, it takes patience to learn how to set up enjoyable turns, paths and obstacles, but you can eventually make your dream race track. I’m disappointed that Milestone doesn’t have a more robust way to enjoy the creations of others; as it is, other players’ tracks only appear as an option in specific multiplayer matches, and there is no way to rank them. In addition to the Track Builder, I was pleased to find other systems to encourage creativity, including a photo mode, color scheme customization, and an exceptionally flexible basement builder, where you can rethink one of the game’s primary environments to your liking.
I’m glad the key racing experience and customization tools are on point, but not everything is up to high standards. Unleashed looks a bit dated compared to the photo-realistic images of most modern new generation racers, even taking into account the toy car aesthetics. The music is raspy and repetitive, which is a problem made much worse by a pitch/rhythm shift when you boost. I ended up turning the tunes all the way off. The gameplay lacks some of the features I’m used to, such as multiple camera angles for my car or tracking information about my opponents’ locations. Most of these concerns are easily overlooked when you drive through a giant loop bend before launching your car out of a volcano, but experienced racing fans may notice some missing parts.
At its best, Hot Wheels Unleashed feels like a roller coaster, albeit with a greater ability to direct the action. These are the Hot Wheels tracks you dreamed of driving through as a kid, hurtling down buildings, or speeding through the air ducts of your home. The breakneck speeds and wonderfully silly circuits don’t make this incredibly advanced, but it’s one of the more amusing racers to get to the starting line in a while.