As a kid, I had boxes full of action figures and other similar toys, ranging from Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers to a Beetlejuice figure whose head was interchangeable. What I didn’t have, though, were Transformers and Hot Wheels. Well, for the most part. Although I may have had a couple of toy cars given to me, I never sought them out or had any of those special orange loop tracks that were always advertised on TV. Cars just weren’t my thing.
I started this review of Milestone’s Hot Wheels Unleashed this way, because I wanted to preface things by noting that I don’t have much of a nostalgic or personal attachment to this property. As such, I went into this experience as an old curmudgeon who never grew up with the digitized property. That said, this old fogey is a big fan of racing games, so there’s that. I may not have grown up caring about cars, and may still feel the same despite working in the auto industry two times in the past, but I do love my arcade racing games.
For those who haven’t been following it, Hot Wheels Unleashed is a relatively big release from the folks at Milestone and Mattel, who’ve teamed up to bring childhood dreams to digital reality. It’s a fast-paced, balls to the wall, arcade racing game, which feels like a faster, non-combative kart racer. Did I mention that it’s fast?
The general idea is that the player is both a collector and a fan, who must save a city map from bosses and blockades. You do this by entering the game’s City Rumble campaign, and making your way from one point of the map to the next. Think of it like a mixture of quick races, time trials, boss challenges and secrets laid over-top of one of those old school traffic mats. If you were like me you may have had one as a kid. Mine was limited in comparison to this cityscape, but both were similar in thought.
The developers tried to make things more challenging and more interesting by creating multiple different paths. Some go for a while, but others end abruptly at unlocks or secret riddles. The key is to complete as much of the map as possible, en route to finding and beating all of the bosses. The more you do the better, though. Plus, some secrets are mandatory, because it’s impossible to progress without completing at least one. The game doesn’t tell you this, but I found out the hard way.
Being that this is kind of a kids game, you’d think that all of the secrets would be pretty simple, but they’re annoying riddles that aren’t always obvious. For example, one says, “Legend has it that a ghost blocks this pathway,” or something to that extent. Most of the others are more obvious, but some are more decipherable than others. The easiest ones will tell you the name of a race or time trial event, then which car should make an appearance there. If you’ve unlocked that event and have that car, all you need to do is win said event with it.
As a completion-minded person, I did my best to complete every event. I wanted all of the unlocks, all of the chests and all of the general rewards. This meant going above and beyond what some players might do, and honestly led to some repetition and a bit of boredom. Although I originally really enjoyed this game, it did end up getting pretty repetitive after a while, despite the developers’ efforts to keep it fresh by always introducing new and even crazier tracks.
Due to the above, I recommend playing Hot Wheels Unleashed in short bursts. It may be Milestone’s best game yet, taking Gravel‘s place in my personal ranking, but it can get tedious if played for hours at a time.
Since this is a Hot Wheels game, the tracks are pretty much what you’d expect: orange, blue and other coloured plastic pieces put together to create zany courses. Sometimes you’ll be doing three laps around, while at other times the goal will be to complete one single lap. This is always the case with time trials, of course, but I was talking about the quick races before. Time trials simply let you loose on a specific track, and task you with coming in under at least one of two times. The slowest is what you’ll need to beat to progress, while the faster time is a bonus goal; something that appears on every event. Of course, the bonus goal isn’t a set time on quick races. It’s just first place, since you only need to podium to progress.
Completing both of an event’s goals earns you extra in-game currency and creation materials for when you design your own tracks. This is important to note, because a lot of this game is based around a light gambling scheme that has you earning coins by racing, selling cars you don’t want and buying new boxes. Each of these boxes contains one Hot Wheels car, but it’s all randomized. The only way you can buy the exact car you want is if you see it in the limited time offers marketplace, where several unique vehicles are chosen and sold at random. Does that make sense? No? Well, the idea is that this limited time offers marketplace resets every number of hours, allowing for a completely new set of vehicles to go up on offer.
One of my main annoyances with Hot Wheels Unleashed came from this currency system. Simply put, it takes too long to earn money to buy these boxes. The game doesn’t offer a lot for completing events, and it’s even less if you don’t come in first. Add in the frequency of duplicates and you have some annoyance. I mean, I ended up getting the same mediocre car in two consecutive boxes. Then, after I bought the dinosaur car to complete a secret challenge, I got it in one of the next boxes I unlocked.
If you’re someone who likes to go for all of a game’s achievements, you’ll be playing this one a while, because it wants you to open 50 and even 100 boxes. It also wants you to upgrade the rarity of a lot of cars, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Thankfully I’m not that much of a completionist.
When you look at your collection in that menu, you’ll have the option to upgrade, sell or scrap most of the cars in your possession. This does not include ones that you were gifted, so be warned. It’s how you’ll earn a lot of your money and scrap, though, with the latter being what you’ll use to upgrade the specs and rarity of chosen vehicles. Doing so will not only change a vehicle from common to rare or from rare to legendary, it will also improve their skills in departments like speed, braking power and the like.
I struck gold with my fourth box, because it housed a dragon car. Fast as all get out, it came equipped with a teal and purple dragon on top of its metal and plastic chassis. This car was almost too fast, because the Hot Wheels Unleashed tracks are not friendly to those who go off course and need to reset, since doing so makes you lose far too much progress. Some tracks are also very tricky, because it can be easy to over steer or miss jumps because you weren’t going perfectly straight. Thankfully, though, these nuisances are few and far between.
We would also be remiss if we didn’t mention that not all of the aforementioned action takes place on plastic. No. As you make your way through the campaign, you’ll venture through one of several preset locations, each with their own selection of crazy courses. There’s a skate park, a neon-lit mechanical garage, a college building, a rec room in someone’s idyllic basement and an under construction skyscraper. These motifs are also present in the robust, accessible and appreciated track creator, which is much better than any of Milestone’s previous efforts at this tool. However, it still has issues, because you can apparently only find your own created courses if they come up in online lobbies. Why? I don’t know.
I particularly enjoyed racing in the unfinished skyscraper, because it added some nice verticality. This isn’t to say that the courses aren’t full of insane corners, vicious loops and the like. No, this particular course had its own unique view.
The first time I raced that track, I was taken aback when the road ended up a jump from the edge of the building presented itself. Seconds later, I was airborne, falling through the sky over top a cloudy city. Then, I landed on a piece of track that was suspended in air and continued my race around the building. This has stuck with me for days since, and that one aspect made it my favourite track.
There are also five different boss races, as I mentioned above. You’ll find them as you progress and can tackle them whenever you wish. One features some zero gravity annoyance, amid lots of boost pads that change from green to red and can slow you down. Another houses a scorpion feature, which has littered the track with lots of acidic pools, which make you unable to use your three rechargeable boosts for a period of time.
You’ll also come across a massive spider, whose webbing momentarily catches and slows vehicles who drive through it. This isn’t the only additional, non-boss hint of uniqueness, though. In fact, you’ll sometimes drive over ice, end up racing in a vent or on the floor, or along boards high in the unfinished building’s ceiling. Hell, you’ll even find yourself driving over an L-shaped couch at one point.
Needless to say, there’s quite a bit to the campaign, which has a nice amount of events to partake in. It’s fun, too, so long as you don’t overdo it and fall victim to the inherent repetition that would befall almost any Hot Wheels game. After all, there’s only so much you can do with the iconic plastic tracks and loops.
The other problem with Hot Wheels Unleashed, however, is that its difficulty modes are very uneven. Although there’s easy, medium, hard and extreme, normal will be more than enough for most players. While I consider myself to be pretty good at racing games, I struggled to continually come in first place while playing on medium, and would often end up frustrated by last minute passes or other issues. It didn’t help that the game would punish me if I was going too fast, or if its physics system had a brain fart, which did happen on multiple occasions, causing me to flip over or hit a side wall and end up momentarily stuck. Even falling off the course could be a death sentence on normal, which felt more like a hard difficulty than it should’ve.
I was embarrassed by this at first, and thought that it was my lack of skill. I’d drop down to easy for certain races, then feel guilty and bump it back up to medium. However, after reading a message board thread about this game, I realized that this issue wasn’t just on my end. Many people complained about how cheap normal was, whereas easy is far too easy. So easy, in fact, that there’s rarely any competition. I was often lucky to podium on normal, but would almost lap my opponents on easy.
This leads to a debate the player must personally settle: potential frustration or a lack of enjoyment because things are too easy?
There are other modes to be found within this game, like the expected one-off quick races and time trials, and split-screen. You can also look at your collection at will, edit liveries, head online to play with others or head downstairs to the basement. There, you’ll be able to use unlocked items to customize the look of your particular basement, including more than just the rec room. Doing so will allow for your idea of the perfect basement to appear in the background of your created tracks.
Outside of the odd kart racer, and most of the racing games I played on the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64 as a kid, I’ve rarely enjoyed playing multiplayer within this genre. At least not since online play became a thing. Sure, I’ll dabble in it for a few minutes, but I don’t particularly enjoy playing against random folks. The reason for this is that people are either insanely good and lap everyone, or they’re there to cause chaos. There’s always one or two people in every lobby and race, who just try to crash into and take you out. That’s not fun, nor does it involve skill.
Anyhow, the multiplayer in Hot Wheels Unleashed was like this. Some were there to race, but others didn’t seem as interested in the podium. That isn’t the game’s fault, though. What was perhaps its fault, however, were the strange connection quirks I experienced. You see, despite upgrading my internet about a month ago, I was told that I had an awful connection to the game. Thankfully I only noticed occasional issues because of this, but I did see some disappearing cars for whatever reason.
Hopefully that was just a blip or a bad internet day. I can’t for sure say that it’s the game’s fault, but I’m wondering.
Last, but certainly not least, are the cars and general presentation.
First, let me say that the cars look phenomenal. There are around 66 of them, without counting DLC, and the amount of detail Milestone put into each model deserves applause. I’ve been thoroughly impressed and even wowed by some of the models I’ve unlocked, ranging from toy versions of retro cars to toy versions of sports, F1 and fantasy cars, like the burger mobile, the dino-car and the dragon car that has become my favourite.
The visuals are also quite nice, even on the Xbox Series S. There’s some notable and impressive ray tracing going on, amidst what is a fast-paced and colourful racer. I also didn’t notice any slowdown or technical issues, which is good, and all of the courses and environments looked great, with lots of extra detailing.
It’s the sound that is hit and miss. Despite some very fitting and quality racing effects, Unleashed suffers from crappy to mediocre-at-best music, which is made up of very bland and repetitive synth beats and basic rock. You’ll likely want to turn your own music on instead.
At the end of the day, this is a fun and impressive, but also flawed experience. There are so many things to like about this game that its negatives stand out and hurt even more. For instance, the gameplay can be so fast and fun that the difficulty balancing issues become even more disappointing. Meanwhile, I’m not sure so much gambling is good for a younger audience. It shouldn’t take so long to earn coins and scrap, either.
If you’re looking for a good, fast, frenetic and fun racing game, Hot Wheels Unleashed can certainly scratch that itch. Just go in knowing it needs some work before it’ll shine as much as it could.
This review is based on the Xbox Series S version of the game, which we were provided with.
- Lots of tracks, events and modes
- Quite a few cars to unlock, upgrade and collect
- Fast, frenetic and fun, and nostalgic for many
- Normal is often frustratingly cheap, whereas Easy is far too easy
- Too many duplicate cars, which is annoying when the randomized boxes are so expensive
- Online issues at launch