As a kid, Hot Wheels cars were the holy grail. Before Pokemon cards, these were the sought after collectables. Seeing which ones your mates had, comparing the sick paintwork, trying to faff about with those fiddly water transfers to put a skull on your Bone Shaker. Comparing them, getting limited editions, and there was always that one friend who left his cars in the garden to get all messed up and still wanted to trade.
Then there was the racing side of it. If your parents had the money, you had the tracks. Clipping together those banking corners, loop-the-loops and speed boosters (that ate batteries) to make some of the sweetest tracks. Or, if you were poor like me, you used to drive them up walls and create your own awesome, imaginary courses. The imagination knows no bounds when you have a bitchin’ Hot Wheels car.
Now, thanks to Hot Wheels Unleashed, players can do all of that. You can make the sickest of tracks, as far as imagination (and track space) will allow. But you’re not confined to plastic tracks, you can also race through vents, skateparks and skyscrapers, all complete with danger and excitement. Heck, it’s even got a story mode to it too!
A kart racer that pays loving tribute to the coolest miniature cars of all time, is this a perfect trip down memory lane or is it just nostalgia-tinted glasses clouding my opinion? Start those die-cast engines and we’ll find out.
Out Of The Box
Avid readers of the site will remember my preview coverage a while back. Long story short, I gushed about the game on my stream and then put it into words. Nothing has changed, except there’ll be more words in this review.
At its core, Hot Wheels Unleashed is a pure kart racer. No fancy weapons – just boosts, speed traps and drifting. The case could be argued that seeing plastic wheels and glittery chassis would look cool being destroyed, but it doesn’t need weaponry. Hot Wheels is exemplifying how fast flame stickers make your car go, and I am all for that.
Pelting under office chairs, zipping over pool tables and avoiding a fifty floor drop is the name of the game here. Clipping a Rip Rod or a Motorsaurus out of the podium finish for the best time is a joy until itself. The other element of happiness comes from admiring the cars themselves.
With every iteration of Gran Turismo or Forza, gamers are in disbelief at the level of detail developers put into their mighty machines. Well, so has Hot Wheels. They may be miniature, but they haven’t cut down on the details.
Show Me Your Bits
Unless you’re asking an avid collector, chances are most people couldn’t recall ten named Hot Wheels cars. Perhaps not even five, but will remember vaguely what they look like. Well, how about sixty six?
That’s how many different vehicles Hot Wheels Unleashed has on offer, all available through progression. At the start of the game, players will be offered three rudimentary cars to get to grips with. These are pretty basic, offering a standard amount of stats: speed, acceleration, braking and handling. They are the default, the game says, to see which ones you get on with.
And like any good game, the best is saved for those that earn it. Through story mode progression, or earning in-game currency from standard racing, or even via loot boxes, more cars will become available over time. Don’t fret, they’re in-game currency loot boxes too, thank common sense. But just wait until you see what’s available:
Bad to the Blade, Rocket Fire, the Roller Toaster, Tanknator and many more from the brand are here. But that’s not all, there’s some very recognisable, famous cars in there too. The Party Wagon from TMNT makes an appearance, as does the DeLorean made famous in its Back to the Future modifications. Batman’s Batmobile from The Animated Series is unlockable too but for me, the biggest surprise was KITT. I may not have been the most avid Knight Rider fan, but seeing this as my first “guest” unlock was grin-inducing. You know what really sealed the deal though? When drivers use boost, it makes that classic “wumm-wumm” noise that the lights on the front grille did in the show. Ask your dad, he’ll remember.
Yet what makes Hot Wheels Unleashed magical is not the quantity of car on display here, but the quality.
Under The Plastic Hood
In the past, like many toys-to-video-game spin-offs, Hot Wheels game has gone for the more arcade approach. Whilst not inherently bad, we’re beyond that now. I say this now without any exaggeration or sales pitch: Hot Wheels Unleashed has quite possibly some of the best car graphics I’ve ever seen.
If you said to someone, who hadn’t seen this yet, that the cars look realistic, they might think that they just look to scale or just very nice. No, these cars look realistic. As in, you can see the plastic mold lines, the fake alloys with the pin-for-an-axle, the same material for windscreens that they make LEGO bike helmet visors from. The attention to detail is insane, and it doesn’t stop there.
Say you’ve got a duplicate car from a Blind Box, and you want to distinguish it from your base one. Well, you can. Don’t like the boring matte plastic body? Players are welcome to switch it up to a metal one, or even a glittery one. Think your hot dog wagon needs a cool sticker to accentuate the wiener atop it? Go absolutely nuts. The secondary nature to that is being able to share your livery designs to the community, or even download someone else’s if, like me, you lack the creativity for it.
Not only cosmetics, racers will be able to upgrade certain cars when they can afford it. Rather than let you pick one individual stat, each upgrade just adds a “blanket upgrade” to every stat. It makes it easy enough to understand for the youngsters, as well as a quick enough feature that doesn’t require much dwelling over.
Yet that while it’s not as in-depth as Project Cars and the like, it doesn’t mean it’s lacking. Collecting and maintaining some of Mattel’s best looking cars over the years and maxing out their stats is a hobby in itself. That you then get to fling upside down and out of dinosaur’s mouth makes it all the better.
Back On Track… And Then Off It, Up The Walls
Rather than be replicas of tarmac racetracks and whatnot, the tracks here are pure Hot Wheels. By that I mean, “those plastic, fluorescent orange ones you immediately recognise”. The beauty here is that every level, be it the Basement, Skatepark or Skyscraper (or variation of) looks like someone has built it.
Not in a programmed sense, I mean like someone has literally built a Hot Wheels racetrack during their construction break. Who says builders can’t enjoy Hot Wheels too? You really feel like you’re playing out someone’s fantasy racetrack as you navigate through vents, under halfpipes and all that jazz.
Racers aren’t restricted to gravity, though. There are electromagnetic strips available that will let cars climb walls and access new areas. Whilst players will be become familiar with these circuits over time, especially for time trials, the sheer scope for something so inherently small to race through is staggering.
I know each time I raced a new area, my reactions were all of wonderment. I don’t want to spoil what they are, but when you try this for yourself, you’ll have that same awe too. Of course, players aren’t just limited to the tracks that Milestone have created.
If You Build Them, They Will Come
What kind of game would Unleashed be if it allowed players to customise their cars, but not build their own wacky tracks? Fortunately, that’s not the case here. Those creative types, the Trials veterans, will be in their element here. And much like livery sharing, I am all about downloading new tracks from the community to play on.
The only caveat is that it doesn’t give you full access to the toybox straight away. Much like all of the awesome, limited edition cars, Unleashed wants players to put some in before they get back. Take note, though, that you don’t have to have a piece unlocked to race it on someone’s downloaded track. That would just be extremely unfair.
Now, I’ve tried with level editors. I attempted a level on LittleBigPlanet once, only managed about 3% of the level. Same with Trials: I have a vision of what I want, but the action doesn’t agree with the thought. However, like the aforementioned, I respect the creative freedoms that other players have to build such amazing sights. And for those that like it, Unleashed is a veritable buffet of potential.
But how do you unlock the awesome set pieces, livery pieces and all the flair for your customisable locations? Well, a large part of that comes from the Story Mode.
Let’s Get Ready To City Rumble
It’s not uncommon to have a Story Mode in racing games, so this won’t come as a massive surprise. Cynics could call it a trite way of padding a game out, and sometimes they’re right. But here, it works. Going through cups in F-Zero is alright if you enjoy that kind of thing. Yet sometimes, we like variety.
This is where City Rumble comes in: as you can see, it’s a map littered with progressive events. One minute a race, the next a time trial… or better yet, a boss fight. Admittedly they’re just flashier races, but there are some nice customisable pieces to earn from them. There are even secret events dotted around that require special requirements to unlock. I could be aloof and vague about what they are, but the reality is I haven’t unlocked any myself. Not through lack of trying though.
Outside of City Rumble, there’s your standard suite of racing options. There’s Time Attacks, if you want to best your old times. Multiplayer comes in both offline and split-screen flavours, because this is a game that needs showing off to anything that comes round.
Lastly, there’s your Basement. Well, it says Basement on the main menu, but it covers the other areas too. At first, it looks like you’re just changing the décor in a Sims-style fashion around the house. Seems a bit pointless, I thought. But then you realise that this is the location you’re racing around in. That’s right, what you buy and decorate locations with is represented in the game. Which, honestly, was such a mad little detail I didn’t think I needed.
In Perfect Condition
Let’s run down the mental checklist: Story Mode, insane amount of cars and customisation, as with the track building and community element. An in-game currency system, garnered by skill and not through insidious paywalls. Damn near photo-realistic car models and rendering, with flashy particle effects to boot. Hell, there’s even couch play too, for the old school crowd. There’s got to be a catch, right?
Err, no. There honestly isn’t. I wouldn’t go as far as to call this my sole Game of the Year, but it’s definitely up there. Deathloop is, so far, and even that wasn’t perfect. To quantify that statement, no game is perfect, as gaming is subjective. What I take away from Hot Wheels Unleashed may be different to another. I found the not-Skrillex menu music to grate after a while, so I turned it down. Whereas if you’re hosting a little get together, it’s jovial enough to lighten the mood.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is, in a strictly subjective sense, a perfect kart game. It’s not a perfect racing game, because that gamut is long and broad. However, syphon that down to “racing games based on fun and little cars” and this is absolutely cracking. It doesn’t have anything nefarious up its sleeves, bar a season pass and some preorder incentives. Much as I don’t like the practice, in this instance, it doesn’t detract from the core game experience. What a rarity, eh?
There isn’t really much more I can say about Hot Wheels Unleashed that won’t turn into nostalgic gushing. I would link the stream of my little face lighting up at the cars on offer, but sadly it’s gone. Needless to say, it was like that perfect Christmas moment of joy and wonderment. When you’re a kid, I mean, not when you get another pair of socks.
I have had the best time with Unleashed, and I’m excited to keep playing it. I could take or leave the whole PS5 controller gimmick stuff, as this will play well on any console. That I did get it on PS5 to review is a bonus, as it looks absolutely incredible in 4K. Milestone have made a name for themselves with their other realistic racing games, I wouldn’t expect the level of detail to be any different here.
Go in expecting the wonderful evolution of the kart racer, and you will be grinning from ear to ear when you see what they’ve done to the coolest car collection of all time.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is how you make a toys-to-life video game. Milestone have taken some of the finest collectables and made them photo-realistic, unleashing them on racetracks that will blow your mind with the level of detail and craziness in equal measure. Exemplifying the “kart racer” genre, it is the natural progression of why we fall in love with this type of racing game over and over. This is a love letter to both Hot Wheels and arcade racing fans.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is available from September 30th on PlayStation 4 and 5 (reviewed on latter), Xbox One and its Series S|X consoles, Nintendo Switch and PC.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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