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Review: Hot Wheels Unleashed

27 Sep 2021

It seems I’ve reached that age where my nostalgia is being pandered to. All the TV shows and movies I grew up with as a kid getting sudden reboots. Games I played in my formative years getting remasters dropped out of nowhere. And, what, can I say, I’m reveling in it. Shoot that ActRaiser remaster and iCarly reboot directly into my veins, keep bringing on the nostalgia!

I, like many others, also had a fondness for toy cars as a kid. It was to the point where my siblings and I had an entire plastic tub filled up with Hot Wheels and Micro Machines cars. I have fond memories of dumping these cars out onto the floor, picking out some of my favorites, and racing them around a rug that had streets and buildings printed on it.

Unfortunately, we never had any of those fancy Hot Wheels plastic orange tracks. You know, the ones with the launchers and loop-de-loops? An essential part of the toy car experience that I ended up missing out on…probably because said tracks were more expensive for my parents than just buying us kids more cars to play with.

It’s as I reminisce on this nostalgia that developer Milestone steps up to take advantage of it, as well as fill in the missing parts. They tossed into my hands a video game all about collecting and playing with Hot Wheels cars, presenting the racing action the way it probably looked in my head all those years ago.

But setting nostalgia aside, how good is the actual game experience?

Developed and published by Milestone, Hot Wheels Unleashed is set for release on September 30th, 2021, for all core consoles and PC. The PS5 version was played for this review.

Toys Roaring to Life

Right off the bat, I was already unsteady going in to Hot Wheels Unleashed due to two main things: this is a licensed game from a toy line, and it doesn’t hide its attempts to play to nostalgia. Now, licensed games have moved away from their “THEY’RE ALL BAD” stigma in recent years, and I can say that this title holds to that trend…while also having a lot of fun with the license.

The game is about as pure an arcade racer as you can get. Select your car, drop on to the track, and try to come in first place. You get gas, brakes, and a boost. Drift those curves (or ride the wall the entire time like I was wont to do), hit those boost pads, and cross the finish line. It’s racing fun for everyone!

Despite the basic controls, it does take a bit of work and practice to nail the driving mechanics here. Hot Wheels Unleashed is incredibly reliant on drifting, and you’re going to have to figure out your approaches and brake/gas timing on your own if you don’t want to be scraping paint on a curb. While I can’t say I mastered it during my time with the game, the few times I pulled off full 360-degree drifts perfectly just felt invigorating.

That is, when the AI wasn’t trying to constantly run me off the road.

For being a bright, fun, arcade-y racer, the AI in Hot Wheels Unleashed is shockingly aggressive. The game does give an option to set AI difficulty at the beginning, so I selected Medium, as I always use “normal” or “average” difficulty settings as a baseline for review. Then I load up my first race, make one bad turn, and the entire AI pack of drivers runs me down and zooms off into the distance.

The AI drivers tended to pack together into a massive group in every race I ran. This meant that, with one small mistake, the entire pack of opponents speeds past, making a drop from first to last a common occurrence. I can say that it didn’t seem like there was all that much rubber-banding when I was leading the pack – one or two cars would suddenly come up to give me trouble, but nothing egregious. But that one slip up, those three seconds you need for recovery…that’s when they smell blood in the water and attack.

Outside of standard quick races, the “main mode” of Hot Wheels Unleashed is “City Rumble.” Essentially, it’s a series of quick races and time trials spread out on a node map – win one race, unlock other attached to it. Working your way through this mode is the main way to unlock tracks, new cars, and in-game currency for more cars and upgrades. There are also “boss fight” races – massive twisting courses with two-to-three minute lap times that feature some of the most interesting design in the game. I wish there were more of these, though, as jumping from race to race to race on the City Rumble map gets tedious quick.

And, yes, I must address the in-game currency. There are two – coins and gears – which are earned through races and City Rumble events. The gears can be spent on upgrading cars you currently own, while coins can be used to buy “blind boxes” for random cars, or buying a new car outright from a rotating set.

My mind immediately screamed “IT’S A GACHA GAME” when seeing these mechanics, but even with the fact that it’s all in-game currency (no real money is used at all), pulling for new cars still felt like playing a stingy mobile game. Within the first hour of the game I pulled three of the same car. I get Milestone is probably going for the feel of “collecting toys,” but if they’re aiming for that nostalgia, I’d like to remind them that real Hot Wheels cars don’t typically come in blind boxes – you know exactly what toy car you’re buying when you purchase one.

Outside of the core racing and collecting, Hot Wheels Unleashed offers up an impressive amount of customization options. You can create custom liveries for each of your cars, design your own tracks in a (surprisingly powerful) editor, and customize a room environment that you can build said tracks in. All of the above can be shared online with other players…although, weirdly, you can’t apply your custom liveries to your cars until you upload them online first.

Of course, you only get what you put in to these customization options. I fiddled with the track customization for a bit, and while it gives you a surprising amount of options, it also takes quite a lot of time to build something interesting. It also struggles a bit with trying to fit so many functions on to a PS5 controller, requiring holding triggers and button combinations to switch between modification options.

I did, however, create a simple Gamer Escape livery. Well…it’s actually a shiny pink racecar with “GE” and a joystick on it, but if you want to rep your favorite gaming website, go look for that livery when the game launches.

Straight from the Toybox

If there’s one thing I don’t expect in a licensed game, even nowadays, it’s high-fidelity graphics. So imagine my surprise when I load up what I thought was a silly little Hot Wheels game and feeling my jaw drop seeing what my PS5 was pumping out.

The sheer amount of detail work Milestone put into the design of each and every car, the track pieces, and the various racing environments is shocking. Everything looks so…realistic. The cars themselves actually look like real life Hot Wheels toys, right down to the different materials used and various casting imperfections. It’s absolutely wild the work the developers put into the presentation here.

I wish they would have done the same for the soundtrack. The music here is truly some of the most generic racing action game music I’ve heard, and I tuned it out right quick. For all the various licenses this game has for its cars (aside from Hot Wheels itself, there’s numerous cars from carmaker and pop culture licenses), I would’ve appreciated if it had some licensed music too like many arcade racers on the market.

Flaking Chrome

Honestly, I really didn’t expect much out of Hot Wheels Unleashed. I was expecting a throw-away licensed racing game. Perhaps, more cynically, a cash-grab targeting nostalgic aging gamers. What I ended up getting, though, was a surprisingly solid arcade racer by a team that obviously cares about the license they’re working with.

It’s not without its quirks, unfortunately. The shocking aggressive AI racers created many moments of frustration, and I’m not a fan of the “gacha but not really” system going on here for obtaining new cars. But for fans of arcade racers, whether the Hot Wheels name strikes a chord or not, Hot Wheels Unleashed is a game worth a look.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by Milestone for PS5. Screenshots taken by reviewer.