Hot Wheels Unleashed (PS5 Review)
I admit I’ve never been a Hot Wheels collector. Though I have bought the odd car in my time (normally as a very occasional treat for a well-behaved child on a trip to the supermarket), I’ve never really looked at the cars nor cared about their collectibility.
Consequently, I probably lack some of the excitement that is sure to be a key factor for fans of the toys when playing Hot Wheels Unleased, because there’s no doubt that a lot of care and attention has been taken in bringing the little toys to virtual life.
But is there enough game here to make Hot Wheels Unleased worthy of the hype?
A Wealth of Options
One of the first things that struck me when loading up the game was the sheer number of things to do. Immediately there were blind boxes to open, cars to collect, and introductory tracks to play. Once through the tutorial levels and into the game itself, there’s a campaign mode, some quick play facilities, multi-player (both online and split-screen), and a whole host of editing and customising options. Time to dive right in.
City Rumble is the title given to the main career/campaign mode in Hot Wheels Unleased. It’s actually quite a simple affair, with each completed level opening a couple more, allowing you to pick from a basic race, occasional time trials, and, after a bit of progress, the fun boss levels (more on those later). There are also secret areas that can be unlocked once certain criteria have been met and pick-ups to collect along the way.
Most of the game, of course, is done in fairly standard 12-car races. Pick your car based on some simple statistics (speed, acceleration, braking, and handling) and go for it.
Dealing with Difficulty
Immediately noticeable is the difficulty, probably my first problem with the game. The game starts you off in easy mode, and after the first couple of races, it is obvious that this means you win. Coming first in any of the races in easy mode isn’t hard at all. Assuming you don’t just drive off the track or spin around like a lunatic, you will come first. There’s no jostling for the top three slots, or need for careful use of drift and boost—just drive pedal to the metal, bounce off the occasional side and go for it. Ah, look! First place by a comfortable length!
This is often to be expected in racing games and immediately leads you to up the difficulty level.
Sadly, then you lose. And again, not close, like ‘ooh, I came fourth, I just need to try a little harder’, but twelfth place again and again.
Now, I admit that I’m not great at racing games. I enjoy them and will happily spend hours in front of them, but I’m no expert. I regularly hit the side and miss the on-track power-ups, I will sometimes spin-off and I rarely time my drifts properly, but I can get from A to B. In easy mode, I crushed it but in medium, I was destroyed.
It’s incredibly frustrating as you need to complete the levels to earn the gears and cash to get new cars and improve them, but that means playing in easy mode and casually drifting through the tracks without any real challenge until you have something viable to use when you up the difficulty level—and if you’re unlucky this can take hours of play.
The next problem with the difficulty setting is that it only affects opponent AI. This means that a time trial track, which is just you against the clock, doesn’t become easier when you drop the difficulty. With plenty of these courses dotted around, you may find that you can zoom through the race levels only to get stuck for far longer on the time trials as you perfect the course.
This isn’t all bad—I found the time trials really quite entertaining and enjoyed shaving those few tenths of a second off my lap times until I hit the required qualifying time, but the difference in difficulty between standard 12-player racing and competing against the clock was palpable.
The Hot Wheels Race Experience
Enough about the difficulty though, what is Hot Wheels Unleased like to drive?
Strip away all the Hot Wheels flavour, and what you have here is a well-executed but fairly standard arcade racer. It’s good, and it’s fun, but it does come off as lacking and, to my mind, doesn’t do the franchise the justice it deserves.
Replicating the real world of Hot Wheels play, the tracks are made from long runs of orange plastic, and the cars are beautifully rendered in multiple material types, reflecting the metal and plastic of the collectables. However, it plays like a car racing game, and not like a bunch of toy cars, and this simple fact disappointed me no end.
I didn’t want to hear engine noises because Hot Wheels cars don’t make engine noises. More importantly, I didn’t want my car to feel like it had tyres and was driving along a bit of road because Hot Wheels cars have hard plastic wheels and skid and slide along the plastic track. What I was hoping for was a toy-car-to-computer-game conversion, and what has been produced is a solid arcade racer that could have been branded in any way.
Strip off the Hot Wheels packaging, change the graphics, and this entire game could be any other car title. Yes, it looks like Hot Wheels, and it has a whole section of collectability that reflects that aspect of the toys, but it definitely doesn’t play like Hot Wheels.
From the Store
I don’t know, with all honestly, how good a game would be where the cars are basically unmanoeuvrable because they have no grip and the wheels don’t spin with consistency, but I would have loved to find out. In 2021, I’m looking for something new in games, and Hot Wheels Unleased could have really drilled into the source material to do that.
Sadly, it doesn’t even really try to and ends up feeling like it could have come out on any console in the past fifteen years. There’s no originality here. In fact, go back to games like Burnout Paradise, now thirteen years old, and you will find a similar (if not, superior) experience.
So, instead of a Hot Wheels title to blow away the competition, we’re left with something that’s very much been-there-seen-that. It’s such a shame.
That said, it’s not all bad news because Hot Wheels Unleased is really fun.
Driving Like a Boss
By far, the greatest part of the City Rumble mode is the boss levels. Rather than pitting you against some sort of super-AI racer who wins all the races until you perfect them (which is, to be honest, what I expected), the boss levels in Hot Wheels Unleased are a sublime experience of crazy track design.
The ‘boss’ in question becomes the track itself. At first glance, it’s just another simple 12-car race, but once the drive gets going you realise it is so much more. The tracks for the boss levels are long, they’re pretty hard, and they’re hilarious, utilising every bit of creativity the designers could muster to create a driving experience that’s really quite brilliant. You will be flipped upside down, blown about, splatted, and made to face loop after loop after loop—all in the name of good racing fun.
It’s a shame there are only a few of them to complete because it is here that Hot Wheels Unleased crosses paths most directly with one of its biggest rivals: Super Mario Kart 8.
Comparing Apples and Oranges
It’s impossible to play Hot Wheels Unleased without thinking of Nintendo’s top tier arcade racing title and, in many ways, Unleased comes out ahead, but not enough to mean that a hard choice between the two is going to go in its favour. Yes, it’s true that Super Mario Kart 8 is only available on one platform, while Hot Wheels Unleashed is a multi-platform option, but is that enough?
Super Mario Kart 8 is more cartoony, features in-race power-ups that many people love (I’m not one of them), and offers a catch-up feature or two for the drivers at the back of the pack that helps beginners and younger players have more fun. Hot Wheels Unleashed has none of this.
To my mind, this puts Unleashed in the lead. I hate the catch-up feature, which makes Mario Kart seem almost random, and the power-ups can become nothing more than frustrations when you are trying to just get on with the racing, but I know I’m in the minority and for many people, the additional ‘fun’ features that Nintendo’s game offers are going to leave Hot Wheels Unleashed in the dust.
There are some aesthetic differences between the two that will be very much personal taste, but what about when it comes to the driving? Hot Wheels Unleashed feels like you’re in less control. Ironically, given my desire expressed earlier to have it feel more like plastic toys sliding on the track, here I feel Super Mario Kart 8 leads again—there’s just something about the way the cars drift and recover coming out of the corners that favours Mario Kart.
Additionally, despite the multiple surface types in Hot Wheels Unleashed (often you find yourself driving on scenery, such as the basement floor or a sofa), I never actually felt they were tactilely different. It looks like you’re driving on a cushiony material, for sure, but sadly doesn’t feel like it.
What does Hot Wheels Unleashed have to gain some ground then? Well, we could look at the track editor.
Lengths of Orange Plastic
It does take a couple of hours to really get to grips with, but Hot Wheels Unleashed’s track editor is wonderful and is, by far, the game’s best feature.
There have been a lot of games in recent years that allow you to extend and make your own levels. Driven by titles like Little Big Planet, Minecraft and Roblox, the idea that players might want to spend countless hours designing their own levels is becoming an industry norm and that’s no bad thing.
If anything about Hot Wheels Unleashed feels like a modern game, it’s the power and versatility of its track designer.
Tracks can be developed using a multitude of track types, and understanding how a lot of the appeal of the original toy was in stretching lengths of the orange plastic through bedrooms and living rooms, the track editor allows you to do all that here. Three dimensions are fully catered for, with the ability to stretch tracks up and down, round corners, and back on themselves. It’s utterly brilliant.
Similarly, there’s a livery editor that allows you to customise the cars with different materials, colours and stickers. It’s not quite as engrossing as the track maker, but in combination provides you with a way to make utterly unique Hot Wheels Unleashed level projects.
Plus, it can all be uploaded and shared with friends or the community at large. It’s great stuff and for creative players who like this sort of thing, is worth the price of entry.
Playing With Others
Hot Wheels Unleashed has a fairly standard lobby-based online multiplayer feature. It does what it needs to, and provides a way to jump into races with other like-minded individuals, but don’t expect people to go easy on you and if you thought the AI was tough then you’re in for a difficult ride here.
Far more to my personal taste is the local multiplayer provided in terms of split-screen play. This, sadly, is very limited, with only two players able to have a go (another massive mark in favour of Super Mario Kart 8…) and if you’re on a PS5 then you need two DuelSense controllers as the PS4 one isn’t useable. Still, it’s a bit of fun if there’s two of you wanting to race and provides a decent alternative to constant one-player racing.
Collecting Hot Wheels Unleashed
The final major aspect of Hot Wheels Unleashed is in its system of car collecting. There are sixty cars to collect and they include such brilliant items as the DeLorean from Back to the Future, the Batmobile, and KITT from Knight Rider, plus a few real cars like the Fiat 500 and Audi R8 Spyder, all mixed in with a bunch of Hot Wheels classics.
But they’re not always easy to get.
Cars are delivered in blind boxes (for 500 coins each) and are random. You might get the same one twice or you might get really lucky and open Snoopy. There seems to be nothing but chance dictating this, which is both great (from a fairness and collectable sense of things) and really, really, annoying (if you really want one car and never get it…). The only way to get the cars is just to play more and more, save up more coins and buy more blind boxes.
It’d be cool if you could trade them with your friends, like the old days of school playgrounds, but you can’t. The best you can do is sell off your duplicates for 300 coins and rue the moment you open them.
Of course, cars aren’t the only things you collect. There are plenty of cosmetic items and bits for the track editor, too, but these are very secondary to the fun of opening a new vehicle.
Cars can be upgraded, too, and in a nice way there’s a bit of a payoff for it—improve your car’s top speed, for example, and you may have to sacrifice some in-race boost power in return. It’s a nice touch that makes upgrading cars, not the automatic action that you’d expect.
Final Race Position
So that’s it, Hot Wheels Unleashed in a nutshell. Is it worth getting? Absolutely. If you are looking for an arcade racer to pour a good few hours in, then Hot Wheels Unleashed won’t disappoint. It has plenty of good stuff going for it and is worth adding to a collection.
But is it a stellar arcade racer that will stand the test of time? No. There are simply better car games out there from forty years of digital racing fun and while they may not be able to boast the impressive lighting that Hot Wheels Unleashed offers, nor a tie-in to the most famous toy car lines in the world, their overall gaming experience is better.
Hot Wheels Unleashed may not accomplish the first-place result, but it’s going to be on the podium for many players.