Hot Wheels Unleashed: just like the real thing, for better and worse

Hot Wheels, like any hobby that involves collecting things, is an expensive hobby if you want to take it seriously. And, while there are an almost infinite number of more interesting things to talk about than game prices, one thing we should probably address up front is that Hot Wheels Unleashed, a new racer from Milestone for pretty much every current platform, goes a certain distance to recreating that aspect of the Hot Wheels hobby.

Thankfully, the game is free of microtransactions (at present, anyway — we’ll talk a little more about this later) but it leaves a bit of a sour taste in the mouth when the game launches at full price and also immediately announces not one, not two, but three Season Passes, each of which are more than half the price of the full game.

On top of that, the game’s DLC plan appears to include something which looks suspiciously like a Fortnite-style “Battle Pass”, which challenges players to complete missions and obtain exclusive rewards that are not available in the Season Passes. Pricing (if any) for this has not yet been announced, but it makes jaded old reviewers like your Editor wince to see stuff like this in a full-price game.

Hot Wheels Unleashed

For some of you, the above information will be enough for you to decide whether or not you’re interested in Hot Wheels Unleashed, and I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone for bouncing off this game purely based on its plans for monetisation. But I will also note before we go into detail about the game itself that the base package is plenty satisfying in its own right, and thus there’s no real need to go all-in on the DLC unless you find yourself really liking the game and wanting to expand it further. So bear that in mind.

With all that out of the way, let’s look at the game itself. Because y’know what, it’s actually very good. Aside from the music, which is atrocious, but at least you can turn that off.

The fact that Hot Wheels Unleashed provides some satisfying racing action should be no surprise when you consider the background of developer Milestone. In their former guise as Graffiti, they were responsible for the excellent Screamer series on PC, a range of games that shamelessly ripped off by turns Ridge Racer and Sega Rally — neither of which were available on the platform at the time — and in more recent years they’ve really leaned into that racing specialism with series like Ride, MXGP and MotoGP all under their belt.

Hot Wheels Unleashed

Hot Wheels Unleashed is fairly straightforward at heart. It’s a simple, arcade-style racer with an emphasis on drifting and negotiating technical tracks, often with stunt and rollercoaster-like elements. At first glance, one might compare it to Nadeo’s long-running TrackMania series, the perpetual sleeper hit of the eSports scene, but it’s actually a rather different affair. While TrackMania focuses on absolutely perfecting your racing line in order to attain the best times possible — to the hundredth of a second at times — Hot Wheels Unleashed is much more casual-friendly, and much more about the simple joy of racing around ridiculous tracks.

To that end, the majority of Hot Wheels Unleashed is spent competing in races against up to 11 opponents, either in the game’s single-player mode, in split-screen multiplayer, or online against real people. Races are either three-lap circuits or point-to-point races, and victory rewards you with in-game currency that is primarily used to acquire new cars for your collection.

Hot Wheels Unleashed’s main single-player campaign also involves some Time Trial races, which require you to race around and around the same circuit until you beat a target time (with a second, harder target time also on offer for those who really rate their skills) as well as “Boss” races, which are themed around an interactive, animated track element and are typically very long and detailed.

Hot Wheels Unleashed

The races themselves handle well. The different vehicles handle noticeably differently, and there’s been an obvious attempt to ensure that every car is in some way competitive — even if its stats might suggest that it’s a complete waste of time. I’ve found particular joy in racing the bin lorry I acquired recently; in terms of numbers, this vehicle is theoretically so terrible that it doesn’t even rate a single point in some of its stats, but in terms of how enjoyable it is to drive — and how much it’s actually able to keep up with the AI racers — I wouldn’t change a thing.

Hot Wheels Unleashed takes some cues from Sega’s classic OutRun 2 in terms of its drift mechanics. Tap the brake and you’ll start sliding; you’ll want to control your speed by feathering the accelerator somewhat, as well as controlling your angle to ensure that you don’t overshoot. You can take corners normally, of course, but where’s the fun in that? Also, drifting causes your boost meter to charge more quickly, so if you want to keep up with the pack (or the clock in Time Trial races) you’ll need to do at least a bit of it.

Boost is handled in one of two ways depending on the vehicle you choose. Some vehicles have a simple boost bar that can be built up and expended at will; others, meanwhile, gradually charge up a series of boost “points”, which can only be expended when they are full. There’s no need to fully charge your boost before using it but, of course, if you do so you can keep your speed up for a longer period.

Hot Wheels Unleashed

That’s not the only way to keep yourself moving in Hot Wheels Unleashed, though. Tracks incorporate various gimmicks that can affect your speed, too. Glowing boost pads allow you a free boost; green arrows on the course increase your speed while you ride over them; blue arrows charge your boost meter more quickly than it would do normally while you ride over them. Watch out, though; boss races also introduce red arrows facing the opposite direction on the track which, as you might expect, slow you down while you’re passing over them.

Hot Wheels Unleashed’s tracks are based in one of six different environments — a basement (which you can customise with items you acquire as you progress through the game), a garage, a half-constructed skyscraper, a college campus, a skate park and an empty, featureless “track room”. Six might not sound like all that much, but when you consider you’re racing Hot Wheels cars at their accurate size around some actually quite large and well-detailed environments, you’ll realise there’s a lot of potential here — particularly since the game’s tracks are not in any way prohibited from weaving in, out, around and through the scenery elements.

That means while the majority of your racing will be on Hot Wheels’ iconic plastic track pieces, there’s nothing stopping a track from heading into the air vents, or racing across the desktops in a lecture theatre, or spiralling up the inside of a fume cupboard or… you get the idea. And the game’s campaign does a reasonably good job of showing some of the possibilities on offer; some of the tracks can be argued to be a little pedestrian, but you’ll soon change your tune once you give the fantastically designed first boss race a go.

Hot Wheels Unleashed

This being a Hot Wheels game, it will doubtless not surprise you to learn that there is a track builder in the game, too — and it’s excellent. A basic track can be designed simply by snapping Hot Wheels track pieces together, and each piece can be bent, tilted, rotated and deformed as you desire using simple, intuitive controls. Once you’ve assembled either a circuit or a point-to-point course, you can then fine-tune your track by adding interactive elements, altering the walls of the track at various places or even changing the colour of the plastic parts in various sections.

There is a hard limit on how much you can include in one track, but it’s pretty generous; you can make some very elaborate tracks quite easily using the tool. And once you’ve built them, you can share them online (once you’ve “validated” them by racing a tractor around them) and they can then be enjoyed by other players, primarily in the multiplayer mode.

Here we see a few shortcomings of this aspect of Hot Wheels Unleashed. When playing the game’s simple multiplayer mode, all players have the opportunity to vote on the next track, with the selection typically including three of the built-in tracks and two community creations. Trouble is, a lot of community creations are stupid short straight-line “drag races” obviously designed for lazy players to farm in-game currency — and at the time of writing, these are the tracks that would inevitably get voted for any time they showed up, without fail.

Hot Wheels Unleashed

Since Hot Wheels Unleashed lacks a means of giving feedback on community tracks besides voting to play them in multiplayer, there’s no real sense that the community content is being moderated or curated. With any luck, this side of things will hopefully settle down after the more casual players abandon the game for pastures new and a more dedicated community establishes itself, but it’s something worth bearing in mind for now. Want to help? Make a good track and upload it; the more tracks that aren’t shit online, the less likely everyone is to run into one of the shit ones.

There’s also seemingly no means of simply browsing community creations and downloading them for offline play. The game’s Time Attack mode allows you to see the most recent uploads from the community and race on those, but with no means of “favouriting” or saving those tracks, there’s no means of playing them again at a later date if you found one you particularly enjoyed — and no way of racing against the AI opponents on them, either. This is a pretty big oversight for a game that hypes up its customisation abilities, and hopefully will be addressed at some point in the near future.

Probably Hot Wheels Unleashed’s biggest issue at the time of writing is that its rewards system is absolutely miserly. Races reward you with very little in-game currency (typically about 50 for first place) and it costs 500 of these coins to obtain a “blind box” containing a new car — which is sometimes a duplicate of one you already have. You can “dismantle” any cars in your collection to receive money back, but you’ll make a loss in the process — you only get 300 coins for the most common cars.

Hot Wheels Unleashed

Hot Wheels Unleashed also features a “shop” where you can directly buy a selection of cars for varying amounts of in-game currency, but Milestone made the baffling decision of tying the shop’s refresh time to the number of hours you’ve had the game open, not real time. That means to see a different selection of cars, you need to leave the game open, actively running, for four hours. Madness.

The reason I mentioned microtransactions in the introduction is that I can see it being very easy for Milestone to introduce the ability to buy in-game currency or blind boxes using real money. I — and the vast majority of the game’s community — sincerely hope that this never happens, but given the lootbox-esque structure of the game’s “blind box” system, it seems entirely possible if Mattel decides that they want more money.

Because that’s what all this probably boils down to; as a game that is not only licensed from a brand of toys, but which also features an astronomical number of licenses from other toys, video games and movies to make themed vehicles out of said properties, Hot Wheels Unleashed was doubtless quite an expensive game to make. And they’re going to want to make their money back.

Hot Wheels Unleashed

I hope they do; the game, at heart, is good and deserves to be a success. But given the obnoxious monetisation in a host of other games out there these days, people are quite right to be wary.

Make no mistake, Hot Wheels Unleashed is a highly enjoyable racer that is well worth your time to play if you enjoy pure arcade-style racing. It looks good, it performs well, it plays well and there’s plenty to do over the long term. But there’s a bunch of issues that it could really do with fixing sooner rather than later.

The rewards need to be more generous. The “shop” needs rethinking. There needs to be a community track browser, and the ability to download favourites as well as downvote wastes of time or tracks purely designed as exploits. You need to be able to turn off voice chat in multiplayer. And some better music wouldn’t hurt; I really haven’t heard such a cacophony of low-grade electronica since Ridge Racer V on PS2.

Hot Wheels Unleashed

If you think you can look past these issues, sure, Hot Wheels Unleashed is definitely worth a pop. For everyone else, I’d say it’s one to keep an eye on quietly for a month or two, just to see what the updates look like — and if it looks like they’re going to start gouging players’ wallets. And maybe treat yourself to a copy of Cruis’n Blast in the meantime.

It’s sad that this even has to be a consideration these days, but there you have gaming in 2021, ladies and gents. And people wonder why I love my retro stuff so much…

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Pete Davison
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