I love a bit of powersliding around a corner. You don’t really see enough of that in games these days. There was a time, back before this website existed (and I expected before some of you were born) where you couldn’t see a single cover-based shooter through the dense forest of arcade racers. They sprouted thicker and faster than a TV-dad’s afternoon shadow, and then they just disappeared. Kazunori Yamauchi Thanos-snapped his fingers and most of them were wiped out of existence. I was sad.
So, it gives me great pleasure to report that Hot Wheels Unleashed, from Milestone, a game developer known these days for sim racers but who originally cut its teeth on a string of tremendous arcade racers, nails the powerslide. Getting it right in Hot Wheels Unleashed, watching your chosen mini car skid perpendicular to the corner’s apex before straightening out like it’s being driven by Jason Bourne, is a thing of real beauty. It is, on its own, reason enough to give Unleashed a try.
Top marks to Milestone for nailing this most wonderful racing game mechanic, then. But what of the rest of the experience? In truth, I’m somewhat torn over the direction the dev chose to go in, even though it makes perfect sense given the license it’s working with.
Hot Wheels, if you’re not familiar, are little toy cars. I used to buy them for my son from Poundland (a shop in the UK where everything wasn’t actually a pound, despite what the name suggests), and he built up quite the collection. They are lovely, dinky things, and often come in truly brilliant design variants, such a toilet on wheels or gorgeous tie-ins to other properties, like Star Wars or Mario Kart.
Collecting the cars is part of the whole Hot Wheels scene (a fancy name for what I did, buying cheap toys in a discount supermarket), but track building is the other side. The brand is synonymous with bright orange, plastic track, often with outlandish designs, such as loop-the-loops or giant dinosaur heads. Is a child who hasn’t built a track that runs from the kitchen to the living room even a child? Well, yes, of course they are, but building such a thing is a classic Hot Wheels thing to do.
On the car side of things, Hot Wheels Unleashed does an excellent job. There are 60+ iconic designs included here, unlocked through the game’s single-player mode. A map must be worked through by completing events, which are mainly lap or course races, and time trials. Sometimes you unlock vehicles directly via Gacha-style blind boxes, but coins earned can be spent on vehicles in the shop or to buy more blind boxes.
There’s some great variety here, although sadly most of the branded vehicles are being saved for the DLC, which is going to cost extra. You only get a handful of them here, covering Batman, Back to the Future, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and more.
To get every car released is sadly going to end up costing a fair chunk of cash – something not unexpected in a modern video game, but a bit of a shame in a game targeting younger players. Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled got a fair bit of bad press over its microtransactions, but in that game you can more or less buy everything via in-game currency, even if it is a grind.
Cars, then, are great with a DLC blot. Tracks are another matter. The decision was made to make the tracks be almost entirely as if built using the plastic track pieces and associated add-ons. This is a great nod to authenticity, but it’s resulted in an aesthetic that feels a bit samey after just a short while.
These plastic tracks are built in six different areas, including Skycraper, Basement, Garage, College Campus, Skate Park, and Track Room. These locations are the backgrounds to the tracks themselves, with the occasional break away from the plastic to race along a portion of the environment itself. It’s neat, but I can’t help but think that it stifles the look of the game. Unleashed isn’t a bad looking game by any means, but rarely do the visuals dazzle.
For one, these environments are based entirely in reality, so they aren’t particularly exciting as locations go. Secondly, it’s easy to ignore the backgrounds almost entirely as you focus on the orange track you’re racing around on. I cast my eye back to games like Re-Volt, which used real world locations in much more exciting ways, or even the old Micro Machines games.
Track building is part of the package here, which to me was fiddly in the extreme but well featured. You can pretty much design tracks that rival those created by the dev team if you put in the time, but this only highlights the lack of spark seen in them. With this brilliant handling model I’d have loved to be taking in more exotic, creative sights. But it wasn’t to be.
Online multiplayer for 12 players and split-screen for two (four would have been better) make this a fun game to play with friends or to create new rivalries online, although the implementation is pretty basic, and there’s a decent livery editor allowing you to customise your rides. You can also customise your basement (the idea that Hot Wheels collectors have a lavish underground entertainment cave is quite wonderful) with items unlocked through the career mode.
I enjoyed playing Hot Wheels Unleashed a lot. The racing is straight up fun thanks to a top notch handling model that really makes the most of some impressive powersliding mechanics. But I can’t help but wonder what could have been had we not got a game brimming with DLC and tied, to its detriment, to uninspired track environments.
Disclaimer: Tested on Xbox Series X, with a copy of the game provided by the publisher. Also available on Xbox One, Xbox Series S, PS4, PS5, PC, and Switch.