If there was ever a franchise perfect for creating a shameless cash-in video game, Hot Wheels would be it. Its audience is the perfect blend of young kids who lap up anything, so long as it’s colourful, and bigger kids who’re prime for a nostalgic tug of the balls. Picture my face, then, when I first booted the game and was met with the opening of three loot boxes. This brazen introduction would’ve made my heart sink if I had one, but it needn’t have because behind these boxes sits one of the best arcade racing games I’ve played for some time.
I’ll clear it up now, there are no microtransactions in this game. The loot boxes, or blind boxes to give them their correct name, are earned from simply playing the game but that’s not to say they’re a welcome addition. It could be argued that a Hot Wheels game is the game best suited for loot boxes. After all, their real-life counterparts are sold in little boxes, albeit with a transparent window. But even without any additional costs attached to them, this method of unlocking vehicles is the game’s weakest feature.
If you’re an avid Hot Wheels fan looking to drive your favourite die-cast miniature, you’re at the mercy of luck. If that wasn’t frustrating enough, blind boxes also contain duplicate vehicles so you aren’t always guaranteed something new. Duplicate vehicles can be melted down for coins or scrap so you never go completely empty-handed but these boxes aren’t delivered in plentiful bounds so it’s disheartening to open three bumper cars in one session!
There is, however, a marketplace that you can purchase vehicles directly from using your coins. In this case, you know what you’re getting but even that has a strange time mechanic attached to it whereby vehicles cycle every few hours and there’s only ever five of them on sale at any given time. All in all, unlocking vehicles isn’t great and it feels very “free-to-play” despite it not being so.
All of that aside, it’s clear this game has been created with a genuine passion for all things Hot Wheels. Each of the game’s vehicles has been crafted with such incredible detail that it’d be easy to mistake them as the real deal. The different materials that make up the vehicles are perfectly rendered and even sport imperfections such as tiny bits of plastic left from the moulding process. They’re genuinely some of the best models I’ve seen in a video game. But that’s not to say the racing environments take a back seat. Everything in this game looks stunning. There’s a genuine sense of scale as you race through upscaled worlds, ducking and weaving in and around obstacles.
All of this detail can be appreciated more so when using the game’s photo mode. This isn’t a half-arsed effort either. It features a full set of sliders and options for all budding virtual photographers including a really nifty tilt-shift setting which emphasises the scale of these vehicles. Your screenshots can then be shared using your console’s native screenshot capture.
The range of vehicles spans from classics to more modern Hot Wheel releases and there are a few thrown into the mix from real manufacturers too. On top of that, there is a small collection of other IP licensed vehicles in the game; The Batmobile and The “Back to the Future Time Machine”, or Delorean to you and I, sit alongside some other pretty cool vehicles but I’ll leave those as a surprise. There’s plenty of variety on offer, should you be able to unlock them, but Hot Wheels is at its best when racing in the more ridiculous looking vehicles. I’ll never tire of seeing a giant toaster racing against robotic sharks, dinosaurs and tanks.
Each vehicle has its own set of stats; speed, acceleration, handling etc. all of which can be improved by using pieces of scrap to upgrade the vehicle. And while each car has its pros and cons, you never feel completely outclassed based on your vehicle choice. This allows you to enjoy the game for what it is without feeling the need to race only in vehicles that look like a teenage lad’s wet dream.
You’ll race around the snaking, gravity-defying, orange and blue tracks while drifting around corners to gain boost. The cars feel a little over-responsive to begin with but once you get into the flow of handling them, it’s so damn satisfying nailing drifts on every corner.
There are moments in the game when it feels you’re playing a new F-Zero game with the ridiculous sense of speed and tracks that twist and turn in all directions. In fact, you could liken the feel of this game to many great arcade racers from the past. Save for some minor physics quirks, which will sometimes screw you over at the last minute when your car decides to do a barrel roll, it just feels excellent to play.
Hot Wheels Unleashed features game modes you expect from any racing game. There’s standard lap racing, point to point and time trials, all of which can be played via quickplay and feature in its “story mode” — City Rumble. City Rumble contains a network of events on a city play mat and require you to complete them to unlock the neighbouring linked events. There’s an element of openness here too with multiple paths to choose from, allowing you to cherry-pick an event type based on what mood you’re in. There will inevitably be a point where you hit a dead-end and have to finish a specific race to proceed to the next area but the choices leading up to that are welcome.
Interspersed between these main events are blind box and reward tiles, secret events and boss races. Secret events are standard races that require you to complete specific actions to unlock them whereas boss races are more like endurance showdowns on much larger-scale tracks. These boss races will have you navigating volatile tracks filled with more obstacles, multiple paths and more places where you can easily fall off. Completing these will earn you more coins and unlock modules that can be used in Hot Wheel’s track editor. Yeah, Hot Wheels Unleashed also has a fully-featured track editor.
Tracks can be built in any of the game’s environments including a dedicated open-spaced track room. This is a mode that may well be overlooked by those just hankering for some racing action but it’s anything but a tacked-on mode. Using a genuinely impressive toolset, you can quite easily create the twists, turns, jumps and obstacles that are all present in the main game. According to the developer, this is essentially the same set of tools that the dev team used to construct the pre-made in-game tracks. It’s really quite impressive. Once you’ve created your masterpiece, you’ll need to test it to prove that it can be finished, after which it can be shared online for others to race on.
Speaking of which, Hot Wheels features two kinds of multiplayer; online and split-screen. Both are fairly limited experiences but offer just enough to whet the appetite of those who prefer playing against actual real people. Splitscreen is always nice to see and while limited to just two players it’ll be a sure hit with those who have friends IRL. Online multiplayer is for those of us sans-friends and features up to 12 players which accelerates the gameplay’s chaos and exhilaration. Just hope that the race has collisions turned off. Coins can also be earned during multiplayer so even if you don’t manage to quite reach the top, you’ll still be rewarded for your efforts.
If the vehicles and track modules don’t scratch the itch of fans of collectables, there’s also a fully rendered basement that can be adorned with trophies and unlocks. The basement will also tickle the fancies of budding interior designers with options to change wallpaper styles and colours, kit out a kitchen, units and all and style a game’s room partition. I’ll admit, it feels slightly out of place. That is until you turn up to your next race in the basement and notice that your newly designed room is there for you to experience in all its oversized glory.
And for you creatives out there, Hot Wheels also includes a vehicle livery editor which allows you to paint your car, change its material and stick a bunch of decals on it, all to be shared online for people to download. As with everything else in the game, this isn’t a meagre effort and allows you to flex your creativity. It is, however, admittedly cumbersome when you want to apply your liveries. You first need to share them online and download them again for some strange reason but regardless of the fact, I’m glad this is a feature.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is one of this year’s biggest surprise hits. It’s got a criminal amount of content, incredible visuals, beautifully modelled vehicles and, most importantly, fun gameplay. Any worries that this would be a shameless cash-in should be ousted from your minds immediately.
This is a game that stands up on its own without being propped up by such a prestigious brand. A game that taps into the nostalgia so perfectly. Not just by rekindling those childhood memories of playing with the toys but from a bygone era of video games. Those games that had an almost playful grunginess about them and favoured fun gameplay over any semblance of realism. Hot Wheels Unleashed is a must-have for fans of arcade racing games.