The Hot Wheels franchise has been ripe for a good old-fashioned racing game for a long time now. There have, of course, been a lot of different Hot Wheels games over the years – remember Hot Wheels: Stunt Track Challenge? – but none of them can truly be called definitive. The road is open for a well-crafted Hot Wheels racer to speed in, take the crown, and be gone before anyone knows what’s hit them; there’s a gap in the market for an arcade racer, and Hot Wheels could take it.
That’s exactly what Italian developer Milestone wants to achieve. This is the company responsible for games like the MXGP series, the Monster Energy Supercross games, and the Ride titles, so it’s fair to say they’ve got something of a pedigree where racing games are concerned. In many ways, they’re the perfect choice for a Hot Wheels product, but in others, one can see how it might be a slightly poor fit; after all, with so many realistic racing sims under its belt, how can Milestone translate its expertise to an arcade racer?
Rather well, it turns out. Yes, Hot Wheels Unleashed is a worthy addition to the racing canon. It’s pitching its tent firmly in the ModNation Racers and Speed Freaks camp; this is good, old-fashioned, no-nonsense arcade racing that everyone can enjoy, regardless of who they may be. If you’re looking for endless tuning and customisation options, as well as the kind of realism you might have found even in Forza Horizon 3’s Hot Wheels DLC, you’re absolutely not going to find it here.
So, what does Hot Wheels Unleashed offer? How does more than 60 officially licensed Hot Wheels cars sound? No matter what your personal taste in Hot Wheels machines, you’re likely to find something you love here, and they’re all lovingly rendered in a style that pays homage to their original status as toys. There’s a delightful handcrafted feel to Unleashed; you can see the joins and moulds on some of the toys, and even as they get scuffed up racing around the track, the detail is lovingly rendered and displayed at all times.
Staggeringly, Hot Wheels Unleashed boasts 40 tracks, too, so you will have plenty of environments to enjoy. There are six different aesthetics, each of which has several tracks associated with it. You’ll encounter plenty of hazards as you race; one level has a giant spider that fires webs in your direction, and there are plenty of other surprises we don’t want to spoil. Suffice it to say the variation on display is impressive for such a modest-sounding production.
So, how’s the racing? Well…here we come to something of a sticking point. Mechanically, Hot Wheels Unleashed is, well, fine. There’s nothing technically wrong with the way the cars move or handle, and they feel nicely varied depending on what you’re driving. There’s just something very…bare-bones about Unleashed. It doesn’t feel like it’s got much to offer beyond its core driving experience, and although there are plenty of tracks and cars to get to grips with, the action does get a little repetitive.
There is some solace from this back-to-basics approach in the range of modes available. The single-player career mode is characteristically no-frills, but it does have some very solid “boss fights” that break up the monotony somewhat. You can take on your friends in split-screen mode or challenge other players online, and there’s an extensive suite of editors, as well as a rather charming little room you can decorate with various trophies. It’s just not quite enough to sustain the interest beyond the occasional burst of multiplayer racing.
With that said, it does look absolutely gorgeous. As we said, the cars themselves are delightfully rendered, and the tracks – while espousing the kind of big, bold, basic colours favoured by games like the aforementioned ModNation Racers – shine and shimmer as you drift around them. In the aesthetic department alone, Hot Wheels Unleashed is a moment-to-moment joy. If the gameplay is lacking, that’s not a problem that can’t be rectified by leaving gaps between play sessions.
Of course, there is one hidden trick Hot Wheels Unleashed has up its sleeve, and that’s the track editor. If you’ve ever fantasised about building all kinds of combinations of Hot Wheels tracks, you’ll get the chance to do so here. It’s surprisingly fully-featured; naturally, it won’t match coding or building a game from scratch for sheer customisation, but any hobbyist racing game fan will find plenty to tinker with for many hours. It’s here that Milestone really shows its pedigree; it’s a developer that understands how to implement customisation options, and the track editor demonstrates that with aplomb.
In general, it’s easy to see Hot Wheels Unleashed as a microcosm of Milestone’s development philosophy. If you get the core right – if you can represent the joy of Hot Wheels racing on a moment-to-moment basis – then you don’t need extra framework to wrap around it. There is a career mode here, and it’s good fun, but it mostly just facilitates the core racing experience (although the boss battles – and yes, there are indeed boss battles – do shake up the game a little).
You should already know if you want to pick Hot Wheels Unleashed up. If you love arcade-style racing, want to kill a few hours by sitting through a nice if unambitious single-player campaign, and love Hot Wheels as a brand – or even if you fulfil any of those three individual niches – then this is a must-purchase. Anybody looking for depth, complexity, or innovation in their racing games can look elsewhere, but really, it’s hard to find that anywhere. Hot Wheels Unleashed knows what it is, and it’s great fun while it lasts.