You could be forgiven if you were ready to dismiss Hot Wheels Unleashed as another shameless licensed release vying for younger gamers’ attention, but that would be a mistake. This racer offers more than what it seems. These tiny cars are fast and fun to drive.
Milestone, a developer, recognizes the nostalgic nature of Hot Wheels. He ably taps into this fondness. Unleashed doesn’t try to translate the cars into a life-sized real-world setting. Instead you will race down kitchen countertops and basement floors as driverless vehicles navigate through absurd loops and speeding straightaways. You can earn rewards and unlock different vehicles, but the core controls of your vehicle are simple, including a straightforward drift mechanic you can learn. Although the gameplay is fun and arcade-like, the environment has a playful feel. However, there’s a satisfying feeling of speed that you can use to increase your luck.
Couched in a tour through “Hot Wheels City,” the campaign features an impressive selection of A.I. Races and time trials are available, along with rewards and secret paths. The course layout, which is a combination of classics such as F-Zero, Mario Kart and other tracks, was particularly appealing to me. It features ramp jumps and silly obstacles and lots of time spent fighting against gravity. After some early and uninteresting “get-to-know-you” tracks, the later races are challenging and thrilling, especially boss races that pit you against set pieces inspired by familiar Hot Wheels tracks.
Whether tackled side-by-side on the couch with two-player split-screen, or with up to 12-players online, the multiplayer suite isn’t complicated, but it’s certainly a good time. Races offer the same excellent course layouts with the additional challenge of living opponents, and it’s easy to hop in and create a private lobby, or quick-join an existing lobby to start voting on the next track.
Track-building is an integral part of real-life Hot Wheels. Milestone made it easy to create tracks. You will need patience as you learn to build your racetrack. I’m disappointed that Milestone didn’t include a more robust way to enjoy others’ creations; as it is, other players’ tracks only show up as an option in specific multiplayer matches, and there is no way to rank them. Beyond the Track Builder, I was happy to find other systems to encourage creativity, including a photo mode, livery customization, and an exceptionally flexible basement builder, in which you can dramatically reimagine one of the game’s primary environments to your preference.
I’m pleased that the core racing experience and customization tools are on point, but not everything is up to high standards. Unleashed is a little outdated compared with the modern photo-realistic images of new-gen racers. This includes the toy car-inspired aesthetic. It is repetitive and grating, made worse by the pitch/rhythm shift that is available when you boost. The tunes stopped working after that. Gameplay lacks some of the features I’ve come to expect, like multiple camera angles for my car or tracking info on my opponents’ locations. Most of these concerns are easily overlooked when you’re coasting through a giant looping turn ahead of launching your car out of a volcano, but experienced racing fans may notice some missing pieces.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is a thrilling rollercoaster ride, but with more control over the controls. These are the Hot Wheels tracks you dreamed of zipping through when you were a kid, ramping off buildings, or accelerating through your home’s air ducts. The breakneck speeds and delightfully silly tracks don’t make this incredibly sophisticated, but it’s one of the more amusing racers to hit the starting line in some time.
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