It’s time to relive the days of owning a car collection bigger than Jay Leno’s as classic little Hot Wheels cars get big screen game time in Hot Wheels Unleashed.
Emerging from developers with some serious pedigree in racing games, Italy’s Milestone, this arcade-tinged racer is quite a change of pace from their usually more serious racing sims such as MotoGP and Ride – and it’s a lot less stressful and a lot more fun for the casual player, too!
Their aim was to squish all of the classic fun of playing with Hot Wheels vehicles and their iconic orange tracks into video game form, maintaining accuracy to their real-world counterparts, and they’ve ably succeeded in achieving their brief.
Players get to race their chosen Hot Wheels vehicle on all sorts of very impressive-looking tracks, with layouts ranging from fairly basic to exceedingly bonkers. They’re all set around various indoor locations and, at least as far as we could tell, all tracks could be built in the real world – well, if you possessed enough track pieces. Stuck with just a basic straight line in your real-world collection? Don’t worry about it, as there’s a massive, fairly intuitive track editor here where you can let your wildest ideas rip.
“The tracks are fun and all, but, just like when we were kids, it’s ultimately all about the cars.”
The prebaked track designs offer several variations as you plough through them. Sometimes track disappears and you can race freely around witches’ hats, but miss the return of the more established route and you’ll venture into unknown – and time sapping – territory. The same if you fluff a jump. Then there are the classic loop-the-loops, which are always fun – well, as long as you hit them quickly enough to stay glued to the track.
The tracks are fun and all, but, just like when we were kids, it’s ultimately all about the cars. 66 are available at launch, including everything from the inimitable weird and wonderful dream cars to everyday street machines, although they’re not all unlocked to begin with. Instead, cars are hidden in random “blind boxes” (in other words, loot boxes), and in-game, race-earned coins or completion of specific goals are required to unlock them. It’s a little frustrating if you boot up all excited to let rip in the Back to the Future DeLorean only to find that it’s a distant dream that requires a lot of grinding to obtain – especially as the special licensed cars cost more than regular ones. You can also get stuck with double-ups, but these can be flogged to gain more bucks that can be put towards purchasing another blind box.
When the cars are actually unlocked, they are quite wonderful to behold. The detail afforded them is exquisite, even down to the text stamped underneath, and you could spend a whole bunch of time happily just admiring them, again much like when we were kids.
As for gameplay, think of a great kart racer and the experience of Hot Wheels Unleashed works along similar, if less unrealistic, lines. While you won’t be hurling tropical fruit or shelled reptiles about willy-nilly, you will find speedup pads dotted around that we don’t remember having on our tracks back in childhood. There are a few hazards – we may have encountered the odd spider on our track back in our young days, but certainly not as big as the web spitting ones here, or we’d likely still be in therapy.
Other than that, drifting your little diecast wonder sideways around corners will build up nitro reserves, which are applied to different cars in a couple of ways, depending upon model. Like any race, it’s not only about beating all opponents, it’s about doing it in the best times possible, so these time boosts do matter, as well as upgrading your weapon of choice gradually, using the secondary in-game currency of gears.
If you’re going at Hot Wheels Unleashed alone, you’ll spend most of your time in the mission-based ‘City Rumble’. This is where coins, gears and cosmetic enhancements for your in-game basement area – and the occasional bonus blind box – are earned, by completing races, time trials, secret events and occasional boss battles. Those last events are bonkers, hazard-riddled tracks that aren’t for the faint of heart. There’s a lot to get through in this mode, with around 20 hours of commitment required to topple all challenges. There are also dedicated ‘Time Trial’ and Quick Race’ modes.
“While you won’t be hurling tropical fruit or shelled reptiles about willy-nilly, you will find speedup pads dotted around that we don’t remember having on our tracks back in childhood.”
If you’re not flying solo, there’s a two-player split-screen mode that’s able to be assailed either locally or online against friends or random folk.
On the downside (other than the questionable blind boxes – we never bought a toy car blind when we were kids, and would prefer not to start now), difficulty levels are a bit, well, rigid. Play on ‘easy’ and you’ll likely be in the lead at the first turn, but higher levels can seem punishing one minute, and overly generous the next. Some may also find that the racing gets a bit samey after a while.
Ultimately, anybody who could while away several hours admiring and racing their shiny toy Hot Wheels collection in younger days could easily find themselves getting lost in lapping up the nostalgia and clocking up the hours with this beautifully-presented trip down memory lane.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is available now on PS5, Xbox Series X|S, Switch, PS4 and Xbox One.