‘Hot Wheels Unleashed’ Review: Fast & Plasticky
Hot Wheels Unleashed brings the famous toy cars to all consoles and PC in a big way, but how big of an offering is it?
The famous Mattel-owned toy franchise is no stranger to video games, with titles flourishing all over since the 90s, but they never really stuck the landing. For most gamers, Hot Wheels had never fully taken advantage of the gaming medium… until now.
In many ways, Hot Wheels Unleashed feels like a shameless celebration of the property and its inherent silliness, with loopy Trackmania-like tracks that often lack coherence and car balance which doesn’t feel as important as you’d expect from a competitive racing title. The game revels in the possibilities toy cars (and their microverse) bring to the table, and its game modes and flexible options double down on the idea of letting Hot Wheels fans play with their cars however they want.
As packed with options as it is, Hot Wheels Unleashed never feels daunting or convoluted — many racing games often throw too much too fast at players, resulting in them losing interest quickly and/or not experiencing the whole package. In this occasion, I felt the tutorials were breezy, and veteran developer Milestone doesn’t hold your hand for too long. First of all, you’ll learn all there’s to know about successfully driving your way to victory — it involves a lot of drifting and boosting in the right moments, so you don’t end up constantly hitting the tracks’ walls or even falling off. Then, you’re free to explore the game’s different modes and customization options at your own pace.
City Rumble is the main single-player offering of Hot Wheels Unleashed, and the main source of steady rewards, plus it effectively introduces drivers to the different possibilities the tracks offer — this experience is quite valuable later if you’re planning to create your own circuits. Like in a toy commercial, you’re quickly told “the city is under attack” for some reason, so your mission is to drive to victory in a number of races and activities such as time trials; it makes no sense, and it’s just an excuse to build a campaign of sorts. And that’s fine.
The game defaults to Easy AI, which might feel too easy in regular races (Boss Races are longer and harsher), but I think it’s a nice way to experience the game for the first couple of hours, as it’s way more demanding than something like Mario Kart. Of course, there are no power-ups here, but the driving is easy to understand and hard to master; Crash Team Racing comes to mind, another arcade-like racer with a surprisingly high skill ceiling. Bump the difficulty setting to Normal and you’ll be constantly fighting for that top spot until you’re a proper master of drifting, and you know what waits above that level.
Most players will want to spend the majority of their playtime racing online and showing off their customized vehicles, but Milestone hasn’t forgotten about those who are into offline races or local play. Hot Wheels Unleashed wants to keep all of the old-school elements around, and knows many diehards of the franchise aren’t that competitive anymore. Even if you’re not planning to face against other human players in (very smooth) online competitions, this is a sizable package with lots to offer… if you’re a creative person; the editors included are quite intuitive, and the entire process of creating and sharing new tracks or vehicle skins is mostly seamless.
You see, this isn’t a deep game. That was never the point. Like a Hot Wheels toy car, it’s easy to pick up and play with. But there are more than enough possibilities to take it quite seriously, and that goes beyond the breakneck speed of its gameplay or the precision that some tracks demand of new drivers. Part of the beauty of playing with toys was building our own adventures or arenas; Mattel and Milestone wanted to honor that — new objects, colors, and a variety of decorations are constantly unlocked to customize and share cars, basements (bases of operations and scenery), and tracks. Even lootboxes make sense here, as unpacking random cars feels like those “magical moments” that we felt many times as kids. In-game currency is used to buy these small toy boxes or specific cars that are always on rotation in the Store. Furthermore, these toy cars can be upgraded with mechanical parts that raise their rarity level and stats. This might all sound microtransaction-heavy, but that’s not the case.
It seems like Mattel and Milestone are planning to make post-launch money to support a steady flow of content with a mix of in-game seasons (quite common nowadays), free content drops, and meatier expansion packs. Everyone’s getting more cars, objects, and tracks regardless of whether they’re willing to pay up or not, so Hot Wheels Unleashed might end up becoming a huge toybox for folks who grew up building impossible tracks for their thumb-sized vehicles.
The attention to detail in the toy models is astounding, and so is the sound design, which is punchy without never forgetting these vehicles and tracks are supposed to be small and made of plastic. I must also note how cool the music is — it simulates a radio which goes faster, slows down, and even stops depending on your speed. Moreover, the game’s physics play a huge role in selling the “toy feeling,” as the cars can easily be sent tumbling or even flying. Some traps, based on existing real-life track parts, don’t even try to completely take racers off the road, but instead simply make the flimsy miniatures much more unstable. Look out for malefic user-created tracks which are the opposite of fun, though those competitions are often hilarious because no one knows what they’re doing.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is an appealing package for anyone into racing games who’s looking for innocent, fast-paced fun which also can be customized to their liking. It’s welcoming and demanding at the same time, but it also effortlessly adjusts to different playstyles, and there’s something in it for every type of racer, especially if they’re into collecting stuff. I believe there was more than enough room to expand on some gameplay ideas and maybe twist the base formula with additional game modes, but I’m also expecting those demands to be met later down the road. For now, I’ll be putting pedal to the plastic in my shiny DeLorean.
Hot Wheels Unleashed launches today on PC (Steam and Epic), PS4/5, Xbox consoles, and Nintendo Switch for a recommended price of $49.99, with additional, more expensive versions that grant access to (existing and upcoming) DLC pieces also available.
Thanks to Koch Media (publisher) and Tinsley PR for the PS5 review code.
Francisco J. Ruiz is that guy who has watched Jurassic Park a thousand times and loves Star Wars. His hunger for movies is only matched by his love for video games. He graduated in English Studies from the University of Malaga, in Spain. As he keeps writing about what he enjoys (and doesn’t) for websites all over, he’s continuing his studies.