Hot Wheels Unleashed PC Review

When I think of Hot Wheels it sends me back to the late 80s, a time in which I was a kid playing with my Commodore 64, had a wooden CRT TV, and plenty of small miniature cars, both of the Hot Wheels and Matchbox variety. There was something joyous about owning famous sports cars in your own tiny collection. The likes of Lamborghini Countach or a Ferrari F40, and even some of the normal cars, such as the Volkswagen Beetle, and having them race around custom-created tracks from pieces of orange plastic. Let us be honest, we all tried to push them as fast as possible to see which one would launch off the track at the corner.

When Forza Horizon 3 released its Hot Wheels downloadable content it showed the potential and fun that could be had with the property. Milestone, a studio known for racing games, such as MotoGP, Ride, and some of the earlier WRC FIA World Rally Championship titles, has created a game based on the Hot Wheels licence, bringing plenty of famous cars converted into their tiny die-cast models ready to speed around on those iconic orange plastic tracks. Milestone might not have a pedigree in arcade racers, but this has not stopped them from releasing an incredibly fun racer.

On the first launch, the player is greeted with blind boxes that unboxes the first three cars to start the collection rolling. It would not be Hot Wheels without having a nice variety of cars to drive, so one of its features is the concept of collecting a diverse list of real-life, fantasy or iconic cars. Over 60 are currently available to own, with more coming in the future. Cars are key to the game, it is the brand of Hot Wheels after all. Representing real-life vehicles are the likes of the Honda S2000, Ford Mustang GT and Audi Sport Quattro. The Hot Wheels side is more outrageous, stuff like the Veloci Racer (a raptor on top of a car), the Total Disposal (Rubbish Truck) and Roller Toaster (a toaster on wheels). The last category is one that got me excited, as it features legendary cars like K.I.T.T. From Knight Rider, The Party Wagon from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and of course, the DeLorean DMC-12 from Back to the Future! The developers have teased more coming that will include such licences as Street Fighter, DC Comics and Barbie. Personally, I’d love to see James Bond’s vast list of cars, Mad Max’s legendary car, and the Jurassic Park Jeep.

Blind boxes are probably ringing alarm bells for some people, and while these do behave in a similar fashion as loot boxes, there is no real-life monetisation. The money earned from playing the game, be it from races or taking part in the campaign, can be used to buy a box, 500 coins a time, for a random vehicle to be added to the collection. The issue with this way of unlocking cars is that duplications are easy to come by. The game does let you sell cars, or convert them into gears, a currency used to upgrade the cars, but it still sucks, as once the campaign is over, the only way to get coins is to do races either locally or online.

There is another section in the shop that has five available cars, which can also be purchased with these coins. These cars change every few hours, so it is possible to get unique cars this way, but having to leave it to luck to get cars missing from your collection simply sucks. I can only imagine it is trying to replicate the surprise of getting new Hot Wheels from parents at Christmas and not knowing which, yet this is a horrid way of doing it. Using the shop as it is now would have been a good way. Elaborate on that concept, maybe stick it in a virtual toy store and have the cars hanging on the wall as you browse for your missing selection, the rarer ones costing more money.

Hot Wheels City Rumble is the bulk of the single-player content. The campaign, viewed from a mapped top-down view of a city with checkpoints scattered around representing different races types; Quick Race, Time Attack, Boss Race, and Secrets. The game happily shares how much is completed by showing the number of events and percentage complete. Beating each event offers coins, gears, blind boxes, or visual unlocks, such as new track design parts or themes. Quick Races are races that are either based on three laps or sprints that are point-to-point (think Rally), while Time Attack is how fast one person can do a lap. Boss stages are tracks that are specifically designed with obstacles. One boss has a dinosaur throwing tornadoes at cars, while another has a spider shooting web on the track that traps cars for a few seconds. There are five boss stages in total, and each one offers a distinct challenge. I wish there was more because it adds a neat diversion to the standard races.

Hot Wheels Unleashed is not a kart racer, as in it does not have power-ups. In fact, the game is more in line with something like F-Zero or Ridge Racer, a pure arcade racer based on abusing the boost mechanic, where it is more down to the skill and vehicle rather than the luck of a power-up. Vehicles have different rarities, with the rare cars having better stats (upgrading common cars improves their stats and moves them into the next tier). Each vehicles’ stats are across Speed, Braking Power, Acceleration, Handling, and Boost. The latter is more interesting because boost can come in two styles, individual pips that are fully used when the boost is pressed, or a bar that requires the button to be held down to keep the boost going until let go or the metre runs out.

Controls are as arcade as they come, only having three buttons (acceleration, brake, and boost) to learn, with the brake acting as a way to initiate a drift when tapped during a corner. The drift is the key to building boost metre. Drifting does take a while to get used to. This is not as auto-locked to the track, say like how Ridge Racer does it, as players can easily go into the corner at bad angles or at the wrong speed and drift off into the edge of the track. Vehicle weight also plays a part in the handling, with big trucks usually easier to drift, but the lighter ones often have a habit of moving too fast or are too light and launch off the track or float too high on jumps. During air time, the vehicle can be manipulated to alter direction or angle to help with the landing or adjust air momentum slightly. Overall, Hot Wheels Unleashed is a simple game to grasp, but getting the perfect lap will require skill, and the AI is no joke on the upper tiers of difficulties.

Milestone has cracked the two main critical aspects for Hot Wheels. The first one, the cars, but the other part is the track design, and oh boy, is it fantastic. There are six environments acting as backdrops to the virtual plastic tracks, but really, what matters is the design of the tracks themselves. They start simple but soon begin to throw in insane jumps, corners, loop-de-loops, insane drifts, and corkscrews. The fact that there are antigravity roads that stick the car to the track means that the designers can go all out with creativity. Tracks can even be joined with props of the environment. For example, the sofa in the basement makes up part of a track, while the floor of a garage forms another. The freedom available to the developers has led to some outstanding track designs, and they do not hold back on making some challenging tracks that will let you fly off the corners. These are some of the wildest arcade tracks I have played for some years, taking the things seen in Forza Horizon 3 to much higher levels.

The freedom available in the track designs leads into one of the most exciting elements; making your own tracks. The track editor enables some pretty great content to be created, and if you can finish your own design, it can then be shared online for other people to download and play. Everything used in the campaign is available for the editor, even the boss pieces – fancy some scorpion acid on the track that causes the nitro bar to drain and your speed to suffer, then add it. If you have the creative mind for designing, then you can make some rather radical race courses that fully utilize the tools available; jumps, loops, upside down, twists, or use some of the environment as part of the track. There is so much potential here that I would not be surprised to see someone recreating all the F-Zero X/GX tracks. Bad designers can simply go and download other peoples’ tracks.  There is an issue with grabbing tracks though, a huge oversight I feel, as you can only browse and use them for Time Attack, Online (up to 12 players a lobby), or local multiplayer (two-player split-screen), but not single player with AI races, which is such a bizarre omission. A livery editor exists to customise the skins for vehicles, although, just like the track editor, finding other people’s is done through a poor interface with no categories, such as best rated; A cumbersome system and does not promote great work.

Hot Wheels Unleashed has a distinct style aiming to replicate the shiny metallic paint and modeling imperfections from real-life die-cast models, such as the wheel inside being whole rather than having holes in it, or how the models slowly wear and tear during a race, so the victory screen has them with scratches and dints. Along with the wonderfully captured track materials, the game combines these together for a visual treat. It truly does capture everything about Hot Wheels both on and off the track, but sadly, the music or the sound effects do not match the same quality; they are forgettable and repetitive.

There is no doubt that Milestone has treated this licence with respect. The developers captured the essence of each car, which covers many spectrums of the Hot Wheels library, for some of the wackiest racing machines available, while their creativity was allowed to run wild for the game’s track designs. There are buckets of fun racing to be had through its campaign, which is wrapped up in this wondrous, unique presentation. The track editor is brilliant, enabling people to go delirious with imagination, though sadly, sharing these creations is hindered by the poor UI and filtering options. I also dislike the concept behind blind boxes, it is just not a good way to unlock more cars, too many dupes for it to be anything other than frustrating. Apart from those cons, I have good words for Hot Wheels Unleashed. This is a solid recommendation for anyone who enjoys arcade racers, especially ones that go more for skill and speed over the randomness of power-ups.

7 out of 10
DarkZero