Hot Wheels: Unleashed Review: The ultimate Hot Wheels experience
Played On: PS5 (Original)
Licensed games are always tricky business because most of the time they come off more like cheap knock offs or games solely riding off the nostalgia of the property they’re working with. Occasionally, you get a couple that go above and beyond to really immerse players into their favorite nostalgia, Insomniac did so with Spider-Man recently, but often there are more games simply ride the licensed property’s back and don’t put enough into to it to make it a worthwhile experience – the recent Nickelodeon Kart Racing games come to mind. Thankfully, the latest Hot Wheels game, Unleashed, is not a simple knock-off and brings the iconic toy car series to life in an imaginative way.
It’s actually pretty remarkable that a developer like Milestone created a game centered around a toy like Hot Wheels given their past work. While the Italian developer has a strong history in creating racing games, they’ve mostly been realistic car racing or motorbike games. However, they actually bring a lot of that realistic driving experience into Hot Wheels: Unleashed to add more realistic driving mechanics. Hot Wheels cars always had a look to them that evoked fast-paced racing with finely tuned driving and Milestone excellently evokes that with how they design and handle each car.
Each car comes with its own speed and handling stats that influence the overall feel of the car. Certain cars have higher acceleration speeds making them total speedsters, while others have higher handling and braking that make them drift kings. The journey in finding the car that offers the most balanced experience to your style is incredibly satisfying as testing out each car is a blast. These Hot Wheels cars really move on the track, and you can really feel the fast acceleration and blazing speeds of each car. The drifting has some strong mechanics in it that make it rewarding when you glide around a turn cleanly. Whether you’re driving a car that feels like it belongs in a drag race or something bigger and bulkier, the realistic driving mechanics feel amazing, and players can also upgrade the cars through a gear currency to boost some of the stats.
This sense of realism is also brought into the environments and overall look of the game. Offhand, I don’t know the engine that Milestone uses for Hot Wheels: Unleashed, it might be Unreal Engine, but it’s impressively high quality. The textures of the tracks and cars perfectly detail the plastic and metallic looks that are iconic to Hot Wheels and the design of each area is super atmospheric. Even as you’re driving around the tracks, it’s hard not to be drawn to the environments you’re driving in – ranging from a college common room to the innards of a towering skyscraper under construction. Even the lighting is incredibly impressive with how it creates a dynamically engaging visual experience, and it makes Unleashed’s Photo Mode a hot commodity. Hot Wheels: Unleashed is legitimately one of the best-looking racing games out there and its graphics are a defining aspect that show that Milestone gave the property some quality care.
The collection of Hot Wheels cars Milestone brings is very impressive and has the right amount of eye-candy for some warming nostalgia. As someone who collected Hot Wheels as a kid, Hot Wheels: Unleashed makes you feel like a kid again as adding cars to your collection is immensely satisfying and you instantly feel like you want to play with each new addition. It is a little annoying that unlocking cars is locked behind earning Blind Boxes, which are essentially loot boxes, and while it’s nice that there are no microtransactions, it does feel like you earn repeats a little too often. Some cars can be earned through completing events, but most unfortunately have to be earned this way and can feel like a tedious and frustratingly random way of getting your hands on this unbelievably amazing collection of cars.
Milestone spared no expense in bringing some iconic looking Hot Wheels cars to Unleashed and there’s a strong variety that will please many long-time fans. The Hot Wheels brand cars range from being realistic looking cars that look like they belong in professional races to more cartoonish looking designs that see a fast-food on wheels and some dinosaurs as cars. It really brings the Hot Wheels history together through a strong collection of cars and it’s even nice that the full collection isn’t limited to just Hot Wheels cars. Real manufacturers, like Dodge and Audi, are represented as well so you can play as cars from some well-known car brands – which includes an El Camino for all you Breaking Bad fans. There are even some sweet surprises in the form of some iconic cars from pop culture that are just wild to see here and make you want to grind your heart out to get them in your collection.
There are even some customization options that allow for players for make their own iterations of these iconic cars and share them for the world to see. Milestone also adds some unique elements to each car that influence the experience and the turbo boost. While playing around with the surfboard carrying Dodge Deora, I noticed that my boosts came with a little surfing music. There are other cars where I noticed this same thing and it’s just a subtle, but simple way to make each car unique and the sound effects mix well with the really rad racing music.
There are also two different types of boosts that come with each vehicle that either comes in the form of a bar that lets players boost as they hold down the boost button or a single-use system that allows for multiple boost opportunities. It’s a great system that allows for boost energy to be regained through drifting and driving over certain pads and it’s even better that each vehicle comes with its way of boosting further adding to its unique feel.
The depth that Hot Wheels: Unleashed has with its driving and experience is incredibly impressive and even though it might not be your usual arcade racing game, it still manages to be a fun experience that everyone can pick up and play. Although there aren’t power ups for players to attack each other with or a tournament mode for offline and online play, there are still some great modes and obstacles that evoke a great arcade feel. Players can find boost pads and strips to ramp up the speed in an instant. The course obstacles that include twisty tornados coming from a Pterodactyl and poison puddles that melt your tires and your boost add some unexpected challenges to racing. Even just small barriers scattered throughout the course can break your momentum so staying vigilant and adapting is key.
As for the different modes, players will find some familiar elements from most arcade racers. There are your standard quick races on courses made by Milestone and some time trials where players can race against the clock. There’s also online multiplayer so players can race with other players from around the world. It is a bit of a shame that some kind of tournament mode couldn’t be added, but there’s still plenty of fun to be had in tackling the “City Rumble” single player mode. Players will complete different challenges throughout the mode’s large map and will be rewarded with currency, new cars, cosmetics for online profiles, and, most importantly, different items for Hot Wheels: Unleashed’s premier mode – the Track Builder.
No modern Hot Wheels game would be complete without a Track Builder and the one seen here feels like the centerpiece to the entire game. The idea of building your own tracks is a key component to Hot Wheels, so its only fitting that the Track Builder brings that same imaginative nostalgia. It’s really crazy how Milestone has created these open spaces that really act as a canvas for players to do whatever they want with. Players have the fully ability to create whatever kinds of tracks they want and add in some awesome pieces like these gravity-defying loop-de-loops and some character pieces that feel reminiscent of things like giant spiders and scorpions you would see advertised in commercials as a kid. Honestly, it feels like Milestone made the Track Builder first and designed the game through it and when you see what they created, it’s inspiring and makes you want to jump in to start making your own dream courses.
There’s such a depth and imaginative freeness to the Track Builder that you legitimately feel like you can do anything even when the U.I. feels restricting. For the most part, the Track Builder is pretty easy to navigate and create simple courses with some unique complexities and delightful twists and turns. However, it isn’t exactly the most accessible at times since some of its key components are hidden within the U.I. It took me forever to figure out how to delete a section because the option was hidden behind another button and the idea of adding gaps and dealing with diverging paths still escapes my grasp. Part of the problem is that there’s no free way to select tracks for paths and if there was some kind of ability to just free roam the track and edit, it would make editing easier. Perhaps there is and I just didn’t notice it, but nothing ever comes off clear enough in the Track Builder where it feels fully accessible. With time you might be able to get a better grip on it, but it might be too long for some.
Even with some faults here and there, Milestone has created the ultimate Hot Wheels experience that blends realistic racing and arcade mechanics together beautifully and legitimately makes fan’s dreams come true. It’s an absolute blast that lives up to the Hot Wheels legacy and is a fantasy come to life.