Review: Hot Wheels Unleashed (PS4)

8.5

Great

A madcap selection of iconic Hot Wheels vehicles in an arcadey-style racer. Yes, it’s a simple premise – but one I’ve got to admit I was immediately excited for when Hot Wheels: Unleashed was revealed. Hot Wheels video games have actually been around for ages; The first title appeared on the Commodore 64 and there have been something like 45 different games since the early eighties. The last few years, however, have mostly included mobile games (as well as the odd themed DLC pack for other games like Rocket League, Need For Speed and Forza Horizon). And so, for mainly console/PC players, it’s probably been at least a few years since your last Hot Wheels outing. Thankfully, it’s been well worth the wait. Milestone (the team behind the recent Moto/MX GP titlesRIDE 4 and Supercross games) has made a game that not only boasts some proper arcade racing chops but also some great visuals that ooze nostalgic charm and lots of really fun modes and extras. And I’m happy to report that Unleashed is not just a good arcade racer but somewhat unexpectedly just generally a really great experience that I’ll be coming back to again and again.

Hot Wheels High

To me, arcade racers are all about how the vehicles feel to drive. And despite a pretty meagre tutorial and controls that I must admit take some time to get used to, once you do figure it all out – it’s ridiculously fun to fling your Twin Mill or GT Scorcher around those wonderfully orange corners and boost around a loop-de-loop. On the PS4, the default button configuration has the R2 shoulder button as the accelerator and L2 as the brake. The X button is your boost button – A kind of Nitrous tank that gets filled the more your drift around corners. At first, I found the drifting a little tough to pick up. As a big Mario Kart player, the breaking felt quite a bit sharper than I was used to. Initiating and maintaining a good drift was therefore a little harder to do, and didn’t feel very fluid. Interestingly, it was actually once I unlocked a few more vehicles and finally got one that I really could handle more easily that I then got used to how they all behaved – and it all started to feel more natural. And eventually, I was sliding around hairpins and boosting away like the best of them.

It’s ridiculously fun to fling your Twin Mill or GT Scorcher around those wonderfully orange corners and boost around a loop-de-loop.

Also, because of the variety of vehicles available (each with their own specific acceleration, speed, handling, braking stats and crucially a unique amount and number of boosts) even if you’re not the best at performing the perfect drift – the game is still quite forgiving. If, for example, you find yourself, hitting the walls and often losing speed as you exit a turn – choosing a car with a few added boosts mean that you can use those little extra bursts of speed to your advantage. Respawns are also generally your friend if you’re going off track a lot. In terms of the controls, another one of the most enjoyable features relates to the physics. Gravity often feels variable depending on what area you are in. And that’s a great thing because it means that you are able to manipulate your car in the air. And while this may not be scientifically accurate, because your spend so much time airborne (after some ridiculous ramps and jumps), you can adjust speed and direction on the fly and if you have the skills (which I don’t yet) it also means you can pull off some pretty crazy shortcuts. All features that are common to some pretty great arcade racers in the past.

Supercharged

In terms of actually getting new cars, you are quickly introduced to Unleashed’s Blind Box mechanic. A kind of mini tool-box looking item appears onscreen and along with some fanfare and flames, your new Hot Wheels vehicle is revealed. It clearly plays on that ‘new card/sticker collecting mechanic’ we’ve had since childhood. And I’ve got to admit I was rather excited every time a box would open to find out what new vehicle I had received. As you proceed through the game – completing races and time trials (as well as a few other objectives) will allow you to win a Blind Box (or two) and also earn Coins and Gears. These Coins can then be used to purchase further Blind Boxes or purchase the rarer vehicles available on a rotation basis in the store. The Gears allow you to upgrade certain vehicles in your collection – boosting their various stats. Yes, the Blind Boxes are essentially a Gacha mechanic that not everyone will love. However, it does help that only in-game currency is used. I’ve obviously spent many hours with the game and have completed the five main ‘Boss’objectives in the ‘story mode’, built my own (pretty terrible) track, customised my basement area and competed in multiplayer races and while I still haven’t unlocked everything, I already have a pretty big car collection including some pretty cool rare and special edition vehicles. And while I definitely found a few of the same vehicles coming up and that’s never fun, in my playthrough, the randomisation was kind to me. Getting doubles didn’t happen so often that I lost interest and I was pretty happy with the pace of receiving new cars and their variety.

Hearing bumps and boosts from the controller actually gave the whole experience a kind of pinball-machine-esque quality that I really loved.

Along with all of that, on the aesthetic side of things – the sights and sounds just enhance the experience even more. The tracks only take place in a few locations including your own basement, a parking lot, a skyscraper and a college. However, because there are track variations in each area and thanks to the fact that you are a tiny toy car in a giant world – the unique perspective of the races means each room is filled with character. The developers have clearly gone to great lengths to inject interesting objects into each room to play with the scale. There are also clever/infuriating little gimmicks within many tracks (like a Spider that throws webs at you or tiny tornadoes that appear out of nowhere) and because it all looks so pretty – I often found myself pausing the game and making use of the photo mode to get that perfect shot. The sound design is good too. The sound of different cars revving their engines is like catnip to motorheads and the music does a good job of filling the background without intruding. Interestingly, sounds also come from the controller itself. This may not be for everyone, but hearing bumps and boosts from the controller actually gave the whole experience a kind of pinball-machine-esque quality that I really loved.

Track Manga

The game includes a variety of modes. Most excitingly perhaps, is that unlike so many games these days – there is a quick split-screen mode for some local multiplayer action. And this really is perfect for this style of game – and jumping on the couch and racing a friend in Unleashed is a perfect way to while away the hours. Alternatively, if you feel more creative – there are actually quite a few things you can do before you even jump into any racing. As mentioned above, you are able to fully customise ‘The Basement’ for example. This is essentially an area where the unseen human builds the Hot Wheels tracks and you can change the wallpaper, paint the floor, decorate the kitchen and more. Further customisation options also open up as you play the main game. It’s a fun distraction and all the updates you make will then be transmitted to the races in that area. Along with that, you’ll also have a track builder and livery designer. Now, both these tools are actually quite powerful and coming up with a simple design is relatively easy. However, I have to admit that designing anything too intricate both in terms of insane tracks or truly unique liveries feels a little clunky using a controller. In the track designer in particular – certain button options rely on holding back buttons in combination with directions on the D-pad. They just felt hidden and the whole process a little unituitve – and my only design wasn’t anything to write home about. Thankfully, the community at large is great at this part of the game and once they’ve uploaded their creations you can make full use of them to don your vehicle in something a little more unique or try out someone’s madcap version of Rainbow Road Hot Wheels style.

Some respawns (particularly around ramps) were a little too punishing.

Of course, most of us will likely be interested in what’s on offer as a single-player. Right, off the bat you can jump into a quick race or time trial or jump online to play with others around the world. It should be noted that in my experience the people racing online were very skilled and the best I could manage was a second-place finish – so it may be worth getting some offline racing in first before you try your hand at anything online. That being said, I’m happy to report that my races online were all pretty stable. However, you’ll likely be spending most of your time in City Rumble – the story mode. Now, don’t be expecting some deep interlinked narrative. This is basically an overworld map of races and time trials all loosely connected to the fact that 5 giant baddies are attacking the city. For each race, you need to finish first (or at least be on the podium) or complete the course under a certain time. Doing so earns you Blind Boxes, Coins and Gears and also unlocks a few more races for you to compete in. It’s simple but a fun way of connecting a bunch of races together and the boss races always throw up something a little more interesting. I unlocked virtually all my vehicles in this mode and generally had a great time. There did seem to be a bit of a spike in difficulty about halfway through – however, there is a difficulty option toggle so if it’s ever feeling too tough or too easy you can quickly adjust this accordingly. Advance players may worry about AI rubberbanding – however, this seemed to me to be handled reasonably well in Unleashed and it never bothered me. In fact, my only real complaint was that some respawns (particularly around ramps) were a little too punishing. In later tracks, where barriers are not always there falling off the track happens a little more often. However, because you would restart so far back in some of these sections when respawning, I found it was often better to slow down to snail’s pace and slowly find a spot to drive back onto the track than respawn. And in an arcade game – I kind of never want to have to slow down that much.

Winning Formula

Hot Wheels Unleashed is, rather unexpectedly, great. It provides an addictive arcade-style racer that plays with scale and on our nostalgia expertly. However, it goes well beyond that by also providing lots of gameplay options and wildly fun racing from start to finish. And the visuals and sounds really complete the package. Sure, as always, there are some small irritations and missteps – however, if you’re looking for a game to scratch that arcade itch – you be hard-pressed to find something better than Hot Wheel Unleashed. And even though I’ve already done so much in the game, I’m still excited to go back. And I can also see myself returning to the game again and again because of its comfort-food-like quick, enjoyable racing – and if that’s not a sign then I don’t know what is.

Good

  • Addictive arcade-style racing | Fun mini-world visuals | Lots of gameplay options

Bad

  • Track builder & livery editor not super intuitive using a controller | A difficulty jump half way through | some punishing respawns

Summary

Unleashed provides an addictive arcade-style racer that goes beyond just playing on our nostalgia, by providing lots of gameplay options and wildly fun racing from start to finish.
8.5

Great

Nintendo Nerd, sharing my love of Mario with the world one pixel at a time.

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