You might be forgiven for willing to dismiss Hot Wheels Unleashed as yet another shameless licensing release vying for the attention of younger gamers, but that would be a mistake. While the game is undoubtedly fun to share with the family, this racer is more than it seems at first glance. Thanks to the rewarding speed, clever track design, and a host of customization options, these tiny cars perform well and provide hours of racing fun through single player, multiplayer, and creation tools.
Developer Milestone recognizes the nostalgia of many people for Hot Wheels and skilfully attacks this preference. Unleashed doesn’t try to translate the cars into a life-size real-world environment. Instead, you race along kitchen counters, basement floors, and chairs in the college classroom, navigate driverless toy vehicles through absurd loops, and burn instantly. While players unlock various (often bizarre) vehicles through blind boxes and direct rewards, the core controls are straightforward, with easy-to-learn drifting mechanics to master if you want to improve your game. Although the action is arcade-esque and the environments are playful, an enjoyable sense of speed accentuated by a Push-Your-Luck-Boost button keeps the excitement high.
Embedded in a tour of “Hot Wheels City”, the campaign offers an impressive selection of AI races and time trials with a number of secret paths and rewards for the committed player. I was particularly impressed by the track design, which was inspired by classics like F-Zero and Mario Kart, with ramp jumps, silly obstacles and a lot of time spent against the unstoppable force of gravity. After some early and uninteresting “get to know” tracks, the later races are challenging and exciting, especially boss races where you compete against standard pieces inspired by well-known Hot Wheels tracks.
Whether it’s side-by-side on the split-screen couch for two players or with up to 12 players online, the multiplayer suite isn’t complicated, but it’s certainly a good time. Races offer the same great track layouts with the added challenge of living opponents, and it’s easy to jump in and create a private lobby or quickly join an existing lobby to vote on the next track.
A big part of the real-world Hot Wheels experience has always been track building, and Milestone has worked to make it easy for you to design courses. As with any level maker, it takes patience to learn how to create pleasant turns, paths, and obstacles, but you can eventually build your dream circuit. I’m disappointed that Milestone doesn’t offer a more robust way to enjoy other people’s creations; As it is, other players’ tracks are only shown as an option in certain multiplayer matches, and there is no way to rank them. Aside from the Track Builder, I’ve loved to find other systems that encourage creativity, including a photo mode, customization of the paint job, and an exceptionally flexible basement builder that allows you to dramatically redesign one of the game’s main environments to your liking.
I’m happy that the core racing experience and customization tools are up to date, but not everything is up to the high standards. Unleashed looks a bit dated compared to the photorealistic graphics of most modern new-gen racers, and even does justice to the toy car aesthetic. The music is crunchy and repetitive, an issue made much worse by a pitch / rhythm shift when boosting. At some point I turned off the melodies completely. The gameplay lacks some of the features I expect, like multiple camera angles for my car or tracking information about my opponents’ locations. Most of these concerns are easily overlooked when making a huge looping turn before starting your car out of a volcano, but seasoned racing fans may notice some missing parts.
At its best, Hot Wheels Unleashed feels like a roller coaster, albeit with a greater ability to control the action. These are the Hot Wheels tracks that as a kid you dreamed of racing off buildings or speeding through the air ducts of your home. The breakneck speeds and gloriously goofy tracks don’t make this incredibly challenging, but it’s one of the more amusing racers to line up in a while.