At its finest, Hot Wheels Unleashed is fast-paced entertainment with a nostalgic twist. At its worst, it’s a low-budget racing game concealed behind the aforementioned vintage veneer. Milestone’s latest racing game has an abundance of promising concepts that remain unfulfilled due to inadequate polish and poor design decisions. At moments, Hot Wheels Unleashed is a decent racing game that delivers high-speed thrills and everything your inner kid desires from a Hot Wheels game, but it also has a strong resemblance to the middle-of-the-road licensed games of yore.
Unleashed is without a doubt the greatest Hot Wheels game to date. More arcade racer than racing sim, it’s quick and flamboyant and captures the essence of Hot Wheels and what a Hot Wheels game should be. However, it is not always playable in the manner in which a Hot Wheels game should.
Simple to learn
The title finds a great mix between being simple to learn and challenging to master. This is facilitated by the control scheme. Acceleration is controlled by the right trigger, while braking and reverse are controlled by the left trigger. This is accomplished while steering with the left stick, which is also utilized – in conjunction with the right stick – to control your vehicle while in flight. Finally, but certainly not least, is the Boost button, which is assigned to the “X” button. And, as you would expect from a game called “Hot Wheels Unleashed,” using boost properly is critical to reaching the podium and conveying the sense that you’re really playing a Hot Wheels game.
To control your boost efficiently, you must be as adept at drifting, which is not only how you retain speed and momentum through corners, but also how you rapidly generate boost. As a result, Hot Wheels Unleashed sometimes seems more like a puzzle game than a racing game as you figure out the best way to drift around each twist and curve.
Loops and obstacles
Additionally, a degree in boost administration is required to combat gravity. Numerous courses in the game include loops and obstacles that simulate zero gravity. If you drive too slowly, you will be unable to pass through certain sections of the course.
A subpar physics and collision system undercuts this combination of strategy, input expertise, and reasonably smooth driving mechanics. It’s not gratifying to crash into a wall, slam into another car, or land after a time of flight. None of it has a significant effect, which implies the result is insignificant. This is a significant flaw in almost every racing game, but it’s particularly galling while playing a Hot Wheels game. Every kid who grew up playing with Hot Wheels and racing them will eventually crash and collide. This cannot be recreated in Hot Wheels Unleashed.
While not every aspect of Hot Wheels Unleashed’s gameplay will pique your memories, the game’s Track Editor will. You may theoretically put yourself in the shoes of a 9-year-old construction manager and build the rails you imagined as a kid. The Track Editor in Hot Wheels Unleashed is robust and equipped with all of the necessary tools, but creating the track of your dreams will require patience, as the track-building tools aren’t as intuitive as they should be, and you’ll need to grind the game to unlock all of the special pieces you’ll inevitably want to use.
In terms of development, this is an area where Milestone made too many sacrifices for the sake of player retention. You begin with three of the game’s 66 vehicles. This is terrible enough on its own, but what makes matters worse is that you do not get to choose between these three cars. It is totally arbitrary. If you’re going to a cheap Hot Wheels game in 2021, it’s because you listened to your nostalgia, not your intellect or even your gut. Much of this game is based on rekindling memories, but you may start it and play for hours, as I did, without earning a vehicle you wish to use since vehicle unlocks are tied to in-game money, which can be used to purchase cars in a revolving item store or loot boxes. Everyone is cashing in on nostalgia in 2021, but hiding it behind grinding and unpredictability is, at best, ill-advised. You are not required to pay anything to unlock all of the vehicles in the game, nor are you have to invest JRPG-like hours in the game, but it is still much more effort and trouble than it should be.
Singleplayer and multiplayer
To churn out cars, a number of modes are available, including single-player with a little storyline, multiplayer, and split-screen. Meanwhile, not every race will be against other players; there will also be a time-attack option, which will be addictive for experienced players but difficult for newcomers. In this respect, the game is rather conventional, providing a large amount of content that does not reinvent the genre but will keep you occupied as you race through a metric ton of courses set in six distinct settings that work nicely with the nostalgia. And if you tire of racing, you can spend countless hours customizing your favorite vehicles, which not only allows you to role-play as a Hot Wheels car designer, but also allows you to enhance one of each car’s five self-explanatory stats: speed, acceleration, braking power, boost fuel, and handling.
The audio is when Hot Wheels Unleashed‘s nostalgia is compromised. Not only is there a dearth of smaller auditory elements that contribute to the realism, but I can hardly recall any of the game’s music as I type this. Meanwhile, a dearth of graphic improvements results in a cross-generational game that appears far more last-gen than next-gen.
Hot Wheels Unleashed — in all capitals and bolded letters — is a decent arcade racer that stands out from other middle-of-the-road racing games owing to its commitment to nostalgia and several excellent concepts that were sadly not fully realized due to apparent financial constraints. If you’re itching to get behind the wheel of your beloved Hot Wheel, this will satisfy your need, but not much more.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is available on Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox One S. The publisher supplied a PlayStation 4 review code, which was tested on a basic model PS4.