As someone who loved Micro Machines and Hot Wheels growing up and put many hours into the PS2 entries all those years ago, I was pretty excited to see what a modern version of that concept could do. As it turns out, Hot Wheels Unleashed is a great little racer and one of 2021’s hidden gems thanks to its fast-paced racing and addictive, nostalgia-inducing car-collecting loop. It can be a little bloated and repetitive in long play sessions, and has a blind box issue that slows things down occasionally but it’s perfect for short bursts of arcade fun.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is exactly what you’d think it is from hearing the title—an arcade racer based on the die-cast collectible cars, similar to the PS2’s Hot Wheels: Beat That, although with a modern flair and budget. The first time you’ll see that flair is in the cars themselves. As a Hot Wheels game, one of the key things it needs to get right is the cars, and thankfully they look great here. They’re embraced as the toys that they are, complete with see-through plastic bits, different types of die-cast metals, and even what looks like little fingerprint smudges. They genuinely look the part.
Unleashed also has some pretty great-looking locations for you to race in. Rather than having tons of unique worlds and levels, you’ll be racing with five distinct areas as a backdrop, ranging from a basement to a college campus, and even to a skyscraper construction site hanging over a city. The tracks are then built in wildly different configurations around these areas—much like the tracks you may have dreamed of creating yourself when you were a kid—and actually use the environments in creative ways, such as weaving through vents or having you drive off the track and onto the elements of each area. It’s a shame that the soundtrack can’t keep up with the great visuals though, as it’s mostly just a bunch of techno noise mixed in with the unending acceleration noises. Maybe I’m getting old, but it’s better to stick your own Spotify playlist on over it.
Thankfully for a game all about toy cars, Hot Wheels Unleashed has a pretty great roster of over 60 vehicles. You’ve got silly ones like food and dinosaur-based cars, but you’ve also got real-world vehicles like the Fiat 500. The most interesting of all of these are the ones based on licensed properties like the Batmobile or the DeLorean from Back to the Future. Every car is an actual Hot Wheels car, however, which really amps up the excitement when you unlock one you may have had in real life.
Hot Wheels Unleashed Review – Car Collector
Collecting these cars is great fun and done through using in-game coins on blind boxes, or through completing specific challenges in the single-player mode. There are just enough vehicles in the game to keep you collecting for some time, although I did admittedly find my interest drop a bit once I’d unlocked the Batmobile. Why are you ever going to use anything else? Yes, the Hot Dog car is great, but it’s hardly a Batmobile, is it? That moment of Batmobile earning was pretty great, though. Thankfully, each car is also upgradeable, so if you do fancy yourself a bit of a Fiat 500 megafan, you can make it a vehicle worthy of Bruce Wayne.
Saying that, even if you do upgrade some vehicles, there’s some that are categorically better to use. I was waiting for what felt like the whole game for the Ninja Turtles van, but its boost is rubbish compared to other cars, it’s slow, has low acceleration and poor braking power. Some of the vehicles are just objectively better in stats, even fully upgraded, and it’s a shame to see some vehicles become useless really fast.
The blind box approach is made a little sourer by the fact that you can get duplicates, and there’s also no way to control what cars might appear in the in-game store. That means if you’re desperately wanting Snoopy like me, then you’re going to just have to hope and pray whenever you open a blind box. They can be pretty expensive on that in-game currency, which means you’re going to have to be grinding out races to start with or selling cars to have just one more roll in the hopes of getting the vehicle you want. That’s probably a null issue if you’re not obsessed with the licensed vehicles, but it does make collecting the cars a little more annoying.
Beyond some annoyance with duplicates and the difficulty in getting some of the more interesting vehicles, Unleashed does manage to nail one of the key tenants of the Hot Wheels experience. I only wish that there were even more cars so you were constantly being surprised, which is really more me being greedy than a comment on the roster here.
Hot Wheels Unleashed Review – Fancy a Race?
That just leaves the racing part of the game to be good, and thankfully it’s a lot of fun, if pretty simplistic. Unlike most racing games, Unleashed is purely focused on racing and doesn’t have any offensive capabilities. To get ahead, you’ll need to master drifting and boosting at the right time, and that’s pretty much it. This may sound easy, but Unleashed is such a fast-paced racer that you’ll start off practically kissing the walls of the first few tracks you race in. It’s an inherently bumpy racer and one that’ll see you slamming into stuff pretty much at all times. Even 10 hours in and having mastered the drift, it’s not easy to go a race without hitting the sides.
I don’t think this level of skill would have worked so well with weapons added to the mix as well, but their absence feels like a bit of a double-edged sword. Although you won’t be seeing anything like red shells randomly ruining your day, there aren’t that many comeback mechanics or ways to get ahead. You simply need to master drifting and boosting, and that’s about it. The skill-based side of me thinks this is great, but it can also lead to races getting boring if you’re too far ahead, or being too difficult if you fall far behind.
To that effect, some of the track elements can be even more annoying than a red shell to the back of the head. Some of the tracks employ special pieces like a toy spider that spits webs at you or a dinosaur that closes its mouth periodically. These are a massive pain, with the spider having pinpoint accuracy and the dinosaur having no clear tell and mostly being left up to luck. It’s possible I’m taking the tiny toy car racer a bit too seriously by being annoyed at these attempts at mixing it up, but it’s never fun to have something feel unfair. It feels pretty awful to have an excellent Time Trial run come to a screeching halt because the whole track is webbed up.
Playing ahead of the actual release, it’s hard to guess how the multiplayer shakes out in a live setting, but the random nature of some of the track pieces and the lack of much to stop one player just steamrolling ahead has me a bit hesitant to play much more than single-player. Thankfully, if that’s what you’re here for then you’ve got a ton to do.
The single-player campaign has you working your way around a level select-esque map and completing time trials, races, and special boss events. The races and time trials are pretty standard, but the further into the map you get, the more creative the courses get, which is really cool to see since some of the early tracks don’t do much beyond staying on the track. The boss events are a lot of fun too, basically putting you on a much longer track that has hazards unique to the boss, such as ice patches or tornados. They’re thankfully easier to deal with than the normal track hazards that can pop up elsewhere.
The single-player mode is where I got the most fun out of Hot Wheels Unleashed, and it’s satisfying to slowly make your way around a map unlocking cars, track pieces, and more. It’s a little bloated and can get repetitive considering you have to do most tracks in a Time Trial variant and Race variant, but there’s still a lot to enjoy here, so much in fact that even after beating all of the bosses and putting 12 hours into the mode, I’m still only 70% complete. There’s also a ton of really well-hidden secrets. So hidden, in fact, that I’m still not sure how most of them unlock.
This brings us to the final arrow nocked in Unleashed’s bow—its track editor. To preface, I am absolutely awful with creator systems and definitely didn’t get properly stuck in here—however, it’s very clear how much potential there is. Like the single-player races, the tracks are built within the assorted environments, which means you can create races that jump off the tracks, through objects, and loop over, under, and every which way around the area. It’s hard to describe how impressive the creator is, other than to say it fulfills that childhood dream of making the most amazing Hot Wheels course you can imagine around your entire basement. I’m sure players will come up with some wicked stuff.
Despite some balancing issues and some issues with how cars are obtained, Hot Wheels Unleashed is still a ton of fun thanks to its breakneck-speed racing, a detailed track editor that would make your inner child jealous, awesome collectible cars, and packed single-player content. Add in the nostalgia for playing with Hot Wheels cars and tracks as a kid, and you might find it to be one of 2021’s hidden gems.
Hot Wheels Unleashed review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS5. For more information, please read our Review Policy.
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