I Can’t Beat That (No Can Do)
HIGH A solid and accessible arcade racer.
LOW Bizarre unlock system for new cars.
WTF The look on my partner’s face as I peruse the Hot Wheels section at my local Target.
Very rarely have I played a licensed game and thought “Wow, this genuinely feels like I’m in the world of the existing property.”
It’s hard to capture that feeling if a game is trying to adapt a TV show or movie, but toys are more reliable when it comes to transporting players to their world. In this way, Hot Wheels Unleashed offers one of the better licensed experiences I’ve had thanks to capturing the spirit of what made its titular die-cast vehicles a hallmark of my family’s Christmases.
This arcade racer is, of course, based on Mattel’s Hot Wheels brand of car toys and sees players driving different vehicles around a variety of tracks in a third-person perspective. What struck me about this was the attention to detail in making things as authentic as possible.
For example, the rendering of the material that makes up the ‘toy’ cars is similar to their real-life counterparts, even down to different types of plastic and metals. There are also no drivers in the seats, further suggesting that the concept is kids racing toy cars. The courses are made of the iconic plastic orange tracks that came in the building kits. The authenticity and presentation here are nostalgically incredible.
The environments are varied, ranging from a college dorm room to a skyscraper under construction, and of course, each level does an incredible job of showing just how small the player cars are supposed to be in relation to the ‘real’ world they’re in – it’s a rarity for a title to successfully instill this sense of scale.
The racing itself is enjoyable thanks to some pleasantly loose handling and a great sense of speed. I also appreciated how accessible it felt due to the ease with which players can perform drifts around tight corners. Every drift also fills a boost meter that gives a burst of acceleration. While it’s nowhere near as complex as a racing sim, it does what it does well. It was fast, and dare I say, a bit furious?
In the single-player mode, City Rumble, players select different events on what looks like the rug of a child’s bedroom. Each one is straightforward — race here, get the best time there, and beat a boss to unlock certain items. Ultimately, each event boils down to a standard race, which is fine because the core gameplay is solid.
Certain events on the map (like boss races) trigger a dialogue box that offers a small bit of story. It’s laughably bad and feels tacked-on, as if the devs really needed to give narrative motivation for a game about racing die-cast cars. From what I gathered, players are trying to save Hot Wheels City from supernatural forces like giant plastic spiders or dinosaurs, though it never feels significant.
Naturally, the story isn’t the reason to play through the singleplayer mode. No, it’s really about the rewards that unlock after each race, like gold coins to buy cars, gears to upgrade them, and the occasional blind box that offers new rides. Unlocking vehicles can be done in one of two ways — buying them via in-game store that offers a rotating mix available for a limited time, or acquiring loot boxes. players getting duplicate cars have the option to sell for upgrade parts or gold.
While this is a fairly common setup, I did find the inability to purchase whatever car I want to be a bit upsetting. A game like Hot Wheels Unleashed should be the ultimate car collection title, considering its origins in real toys. The publishers have promised free (and paid) DLC down the road based on existing properties like DC Comics, Street Fighter, and even Peanuts and I’m excited to see what’s in store, but the fact that the collection aspect incentivizes grinding and/or buying a season pass kind of bums me out.
At least there’s the track creator, which made me feel like I was crafting my own incredible and personalized toy room. Parts can be unlocked through singleplayer, such as giant plastic monsters that act as stage hazards. Tracks can be shared and raced online, as well as locally in split-screen. Players can also add cool designs to each car with elements they either unlock racing or buy with coins. The sense of creativity and community does a great job of recreating the Hot Wheels experience.
Overall, I can look past the grind of obtaining new cars thanks to everything else Hot Wheels Unleashed does. I loved its commitment to the memory of racing around my bedroom floor, and for those looking for an accessible arcade-style racer full of personality and flair, look no further.
Disclosures: This game is published by and developed by Milestone. It is available on PS4/5, XBX/S/O, Switch, and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the XBS. Approximately 10 hours were spent in the single-player and the game was not completed. No time was spent in the multiplayer.
Parents: According to the ESRB this game is rated E. It’s just racing. Nothing objectionable for young kids here.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Subtitles and on-screen instructions cannot be adjusted but audio is not needed to enjoy this game, thanks to the abundance of visual cues. This game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: Yes, the controls are remappable.