Introduced in 1968, Hot Wheels has long been a household name no matter your age or interest, and even in 2021, Hot Wheels is still going strong with a constant flow of new vehicles, for both new and old-school collectors to enjoy. Something that hasn’t quite flown off the shelves or mustered as much traction as the physical die-cast toy cars is the digital gaming representations of this beloved franchise.
With no new entries since the disappointing arrival of Hot Wheels: World’s Best Driver back in 2013, and no shortage of quality racing games available in recent times, you’d be forgiven for expecting to see the Hot Wheels franchise sticking to what it knows best with physical die-cast cars only, but if there is a team capable of breathing new life into the gaming side of the franchise, then there are few you’d trust more to deliver with the publishing and development than Milestone.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is at its core a classic take on the 3D arcade racer. Rather than worrying about the precisions and timing of a simulation experience, here players have to worry about nothing more than steering, the occasional drift, and slamming your accelerator all the way to the floor with the aid of a boost every now and then to help push you to the front of the grid.
Depending on the difficulty selected, with Easy the standard option and Extreme the max difficulty on offer, racing can be as simple or as challenging as you’d like it to be, ensuring that everyone can enjoy the racing on offer, although if you wish to have any sort of challenge at all you’ll want to push it higher than the easy option almost immediately.
Most of the racing you do within the world of Hot Wheels Unleashed will take part in the Career mode type offering, Hot Wheels City Rumble, although multiplayer options for online racing and split-screen are both present. Within City Rumble, players will take on events such as Quick Race, Time Attack, Boss Races and Secret Races with a checklist counter at the top of the map screen to show you just how much progress has been made. The goal of the game is to complete every event on this screen, of which there are more than 80, and each of these race events are linked together in a web-like fashion with the event next to the one you choose to play unlocking upon completion of your current race. Players are given mostly free will to choose the route to completion.
The race types on offer are pretty self-explanatory, besides perhaps Boss Races which are nothing more than a full 3-lap race rather than the usual One- or Two-minute races seen elsewhere, whilst Secret Races are nothing to be overly excited by as they are simply standard Quick Races that have a few extra requirements to unlock, such as a completing a certain event or using a particular car.
Whilst the race types don’t really offer all that much excitement, the racing itself is enjoyable. With shortcuts to look out for, boost pads to utilise and some fairly competitive opponents should you have switched up the difficulty a little, there is rarely a time in which you’ll be able to look away as the slightest mistake can see you reeling behind at the back of the pack in no time.
Unfortunately, like many other similar racers, rubber-band A.I. is indeed a thing here, and can bring own the excitement slightly as whilst each individual car comes complete with its own stats for things such as Acceleration, Speed, Boost and so on, there is no real impact these seem to have on the game thanks to the nature of rubber banding, ensuring the A.I. can still catch up and stay competitive no matter if you’re driving the fastest cars in the game, or a clunky bin lorry.
The tracks you’ll be racing in are of course a highlight, especially given the malleable orange strips are what make the franchise stand out, and I’m glad to say that the tracks included offer plenty of variety through each of the 6 environments they cover such as the Basement, Skate Park, Garage, Skyscraper, and so on. Sure, you’ll find a loop-de-loop or tilting and gravity-defying turn to join the many jumps as you progress through each track, but there is enough there to ensure nothing feels samey and you can easily recognise you’re racing on something different each time.
Of course, the overall goal of each race you take part in is to win, but results are not only important for a matter of being the best driver out there, but also for the rewards they offer. In any given event, players can earn scrap which can go towards upgrading your current car collection, then there is the Hot Wheels credit currency which can be used to buy Blind Boxes, or you can earn the Blind Boxes on occasion direct from events too, whilst some events may even see you earn an additional track customisation piece for use later on in the track builder.
Blind Boxes are exactly what the name vaguely implies, and any gamer with any serious time on the big-hitting titles of recent years will be shuddering at the thought of loot boxes being a part of the game. However, let it be known that Hot Wheels Unleashed has possibly the nicest version of loot boxes we’ve seen yet.
Each Blind Box contains a new vehicle and for players to unlock more of the fantastic roster of 66 strong Hot Wheels vehicles available within the game at present, they will need to open numerous random boxes of vehicular greatness.
These can be purchased with currency earned in-game, and there is no option insight of any real-world money being spent on these to open up new vehicles, with the credits required to open them usually coming in healthy amounts upon a successful race result. It doesn’t take long to find yourself with enough coin saved up to splash out on numerous boxes, with the random element proving surprisingly exciting when there is no real-world money element attached to things, and should you not like something you’ve opened, then you can always scrap it for parts towards upgrading the favourite vehicles of your roster.
One of the biggest focuses of Hot Wheels Unleashed is that of its track builder with players given a huge variety of customisation options to create and publish the Hot Wheels track of your dreams. With the option to span multiple rooms, and incorporate a large number of twists, turns, loop-de-loops and much more thanks to the inclusion of a generous points-based system to govern how much can be placed on a track, with each item given a points value. There are also some classic Hot Wheels set pieces here so there is very little you can’t achieve should you have an idea in mind, and with the option to publish finalised tracks online for others to enjoy, there is no reason to hold back on creating something truly wacky, although, with no way to search through available creations besides going onto someone else’s profile, it certainly isn’t the smoothest of ways to promote online community content.
There are other options for customisation besides track building such as the liveries upon your Hot Wheels whip, and the option to customise your basement – albeit with no real purpose, but the track editor is where Hot Wheels Unleashed feels like a real prize for fans of the die-cast dynasty.
As mentioned earlier, Hot Wheels Unleashed does come packing some multiplayer functionality with split-screen options for two players, whilst online options also exist for players that want to jump in with a more formidable crowd and challenge themselves, but with Quick Race proving the online mode of choice, I can’t help but feel developer Milestone has missed a trick, especially given how most other racers at least provide a Grand-Prix or Championship offering across multiple races.
That said, multiplayer does bring the option to choose between a popular community creation and some of the various in-game tracks when choosing where to race next for online play, giving a showcase opportunity to player creations when it comes to the most competitive racing of all.
Onto the visuals and audio side of things, and as you’d expect from any licensed property, Hot Wheels Unleashed certainly looks the part with incredible visuals showcased when playing on the Xbox Series X. From track decals to the environments, you are racing in, to the finer things such as car detailing and even the occasional fingerprint on car windows as if the kids of the world have been running rampant with them. There is plenty of reasons to praise the visual design of this game. As for the audio, players have no real reasons to complain with suitable music – albeit a little repetitive, unique sounds for many of the cars and dynamic behaviour with music getting faster as you go over a boost pad for example.
If you’re looking for a new way to jump into the world of Hot Wheels, Unleashed is certainly not a bad way to go, after all, we’ve seen worse in the series’ history. That said, the price point may prove steep for what feels like a more basic use of this beloved licensed property, and with very basic options for included game modes, a lack of substantial variety in race types, and no suitable way for the community to share their impressive track builds, it feels like Milestone has undercut themselves in a possibly rushed attempt to capitalise on this potentially fruitful racing franchise.Become a Patron!
This game was reviewed based on Xbox S|X review code, using an Xbox S|X console. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.