Toy cars are the lynch pin of childhood memories for a lot of us. There’s usually some point in your formative playing days where you’ve grabbed a scale model replica and pushed it around the floor making all the requisite “brum, brum, brrrrr” noises. With a bit of imagination and a few books/pens/rulers you could knock up a makeshift race course and entertain yourself for a while, though there’ll be a few out there that went one step further. Depending on which continent you were brought up last century, you’ll have either been doing what I was with Matchbox cars, or had the pleasure of Hot Wheels models that had their own shiny orange tracks to build proper courses with. Plastic wheels on plastic sections meant lower friction and cars flew along at high speeds, thrilling youngsters, as well as attracting collectors with the intricate models. It’s guaranteed at some point whoever was making the course will have probably thought “what if I had more track…” and I’m pretty sure that’s what inspired Milestone’s latest racer Hot Wheels Unleashed. Small cars, big spaces and no limits to the imagination lends itself to the arcade racing genre, so has the latest game translation managed to do the license and memories justice?
Far from being the first licensed game of the property, Hot Wheels Unleashed is the first full dedicated one in 8 years, and it’s keeping things simple. Regardless of what you did with these toys as a kid, the game wants you to focus on two things: going fast and coping with sprawling winding tracks. Set in 5 simulated real world rooms or buildings, the challenge is straight racing against 11 opponents to come in first. No weapons, no stunts and no racing lines – this is more Burnout than Mario Kart in that it comes with a boost gauge to fill… and it is possible to cause a pile up or two. There’s a story buried in the Hot Wheels City Rumble mode which has you selecting events on a map to race in, whether these are lap based or point-to-point, in order to defeat monsters that are terrorising the town. They aren’t real monsters, so don’t get delusions of taking on Godzilla in the late stages, they’re more guardians of the tracks that need to be shown you’ve the speed and skill to win. It’s a decent enough way to break up the structure because there’s no hiding it’s bare bones for a colourful arcade racer, with only quick race and time trial events to take part in.
Fortunately the star of the show is the track design. The environments offer a backdrop where the Milestone team have let their creative juices run free and imagined what they’d do if they were kids again, and could bend the laws of physics. Things start off in the early races as quite flat and easy to navigate, though soon get funky and start to twist, turn and invert, as well as chuck obstacles into the mix. Where the swooping and flowing nature of the courses lures you in, the way they’re interwoven with the room can at times be genius. There’s one set in the Garage that uses the air conditioning as a key part, and it makes you realise the verticality that comes in. It’s not unusual to be moving from floor to ceiling and back again a couple of times during an event. Loops, magnetic sections and strategically placed boost pads add to the fun, and barriers getting removed or cones being the only track marker make sure you focus on what you’re doing. Giant spiders and fire breathing dragons pop up as well to trap you in webs or melt your tyres. No two laps ever tend to be exactly the same.
Hot Wheels Unleashed AI is well balanced, and in the beginning won’t prove much of a challenge, but get halfway through the campaign and you’ll find that they’re more than a bit of competition. Each car has different stats and picking the fastest doesn’t mean you’ll be lapping the field, sometimes they lack the finesse needed to manage the track conditions and a flightier, slower approach is actually quicker. Boost comes in two flavours as well – one hit burst or progressive use. The meter is filled slowly by driving, or rapidly by drifting, and when full on the burst version you can punt yourself down the track with a couple of seconds of rocket fuel burn. In the progressive mode boost is only active when you press the button, meaning there’s more control over when and where it’s used, though it doesn’t fill quite as quickly. Deciding on which one suits the track is a surprising part of the car selection, and sometimes it’s not clear what’s the best option until a few laps are done. It’s more apparent in time trials where there’s a pass time and an Unleashed time to beat, and neither are particularly forgiving.
What about the cars? Isn’t that what Hot Wheels Unleashed is really about? Well, not really as already said, it’s the tracks that make the game, the vehicles are just what you see on them. Of course, they’re digital replicas of the actual die-cast models, and they look lovely. There’s an interesting use of
loot blind boxes where winning one or buying one with in game currency gives you a random car. This works quite well to add some intrigue in earning a new ride, but it can feel cheap when it gives the same one several times. I don’t care how nicely it’s rendered, I don’t want 5 garbage trucks which are slow AF on the circuit. They don’t have to stay slow though. Every car can be upgraded by spending gears on them, and this increases the stats so they perform better in some areas, and also ups their status. Performance changes are fixed so there’s no selecting points into top speed or acceleration, and in some cases there’ll be a penalty like reducing the amount of boost available. It makes it feels like progress is being made with them, yet depending on the difficulty setting it can sometimes not matter at all what gets taken for a spin.
A drawback of the random car collection (of which there are over 60 different unique models), is that for some of the secret events on the map to unlock you need a specific vehicle and race. If you’ve not got the right one you’ll be locked off from progress until you randomly get it. Earning cash for buying blind boxes is a bit slow, though selling unwanted cars from the collection helps a bit, and I can’t help but feel there was a microtransaction enthusiasts wet dream baked in here at some point. Likewise with the gears to upgrade and that ever increasing cost of improvement, it comes so very slowly it’s like there should be another mechanism somewhere. Just to be clear, there isn’t any way to spend real world money right now (except one DLC car), and all rewards are obtained in game through hard work and patience. It’s worth a nosey through the garage because the recreation of the toys is very, very good. There’s a lovely sense of them being models with the way the plastic and metal reflect light and the manufacturing effects are transposed on the surface. It’s hard to appreciate in the races, but seeing the 1st, 2nd, 3rd finishers really shows off that they’re not just shrunk down motors.
Keeping with the looks, the whole effect of small objects at play in the real world is excellent, and the dev team have been quoted as saying they’ve worked on a 1:1 scale. It really does come across via the screen. Performance-wise it’s very smooth and easy to pick up and play, so anyone can get stuck in. There’s also a good selection of racing tunes, though no licensed pop to get in the way of streaming rights or bump the cost of the game up. The sound effects aren’t anything special, but at least all the cars give out a different roar. It comes with the obligatory photo mode to showcase the models, though the depth of field controls don’t seem to work, and using the free camera in that mode makes you think there’s a free roam mode missing too. Every now and then you’ll whip through a section of track and wonder what’s hiding behind an object, or consider following conveniently placed platforms. They’re there for a reason – creating longer circuits for the point-to-point boss races – yet don’t half tug on the explorer strings.
Milestone have adapted to 4-wheel racing pretty well from their 2-wheel expertise, and there’s a lot of fun to be had in Hot Wheels Unleashed. It’s flashy and pretty at a glance and it’s got a bit of depth to it as well. It’s clear that all the effort has gone into recreating a pure, fun experience that’ll rekindle forgotten passions. Younglings and big kids alike will enjoy the vibrancy and variety, and with splitscreen and easily accessible online there’s no reason not to find someone to race. Single players may be a bit disappointed to have seen everything the core game has to offer within a few hours, but there’s a challenge on hand in mastering the tracks to unlock the highest rewards, and that will take some time. It’s good, uncomplicated fun and shows there’s still a few surprises left in the 50+ year old toys.
A PS4 review copy of Hot Wheels Unleashed was provided by Milestone’s PR team, and the game is available now on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Series X|S and Switch for around £40. A word of warning for PlayStation purchasers – there is no free PS5 upgrade for the PS4 version, so make sure you buy the right one for your needs to avoid double dipping.