Hot Wheels Unleashed Review: Extinguished Flames
Hot Wheels is one of the most ubiquitous toy brands in the world. For decades, it's awed young kids and adult collectors with elaborate tracks, fun original cars, and exciting licensed crossovers, but its video game adaptations have rarely served all of its fans.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is the first Hot Wheels game I can recall that, in many ways, feels built to satisfy fans of any age. Its driving model is as precise and tough as you want to make it, and its lot of cars on day one is enough to make any longtime fan fist-pump like the boys in its advertising.
However, Hot Wheels Unleashed commits one grievous error that extinguishes the flame of excitement and instead can leave many players spinning rubber in an oil slick of frustration.
Hot Wheels Unleashed Review: Extinguished Flames
When I played a limited preview of Hot Wheels Unleashed earlier this year, my biggest concerns were its poor music selection and an apparent lack of cars beyond Hot Wheels originals. In the full game, both of those issues still exist — sort of. The music is still bad, and within an hour I turned off its mix of what sounds like royalty-free rock. But music is merely peripheral to so much else this game is about, so that's forgivable ultimately.
Its car selection, meanwhile, is actually much more expansive. With dozens of cars at launch, there's a lovely mix of licensed cars from real manufacturers like Ford and Chevrolet, plenty of originals and fantasy cars like Roller Toaster and Rip Rod, and its first major vehicle expansion, while not free, will bring in pop culture cars from properties like Snoopy, Batman, and Ninja Turtles.
So the issue isn't a dearth of cars to choose from, it's how you go about adding them to your collection. Hot Wheels Unleashed offers a rather expansive campaign mode of 80+ races, and each one offers two rewards, a basic completion reward of in-game coins, gears for upgrading, blind boxes containing new cars, or specific new cars, and then a bonus reward for achieving the extra objective. That's all fun and fair.
Where the system breaks down is when the game stops your progress on its campaign roadmap with "secrets" that vaguely reference things you'll need to do to unlock further races. This system is so vague that during my review, I had to ask around about what it even wanted me to do. As it turns out, these secrets require you to complete specific races with specific cars to open the next chain of events.
Unfathomably, this means you're reliant on a system of mostly randomized car unlocks to hopefully pull the cars you need. At one point early in the campaign, I was met with four or five dead ends because I lacked any of the cars needed to perform their secret events.
You can either spend 500 coins (earned from several races) to buy a randomized car or check the in-game store for a few specific cars rotating in and out every few hours. But oftentimes, these cost even more — as much as 1,200 coins in my experience so far, which would take many races to earn.
This system can and will slow progress of everyone who plays the game at least once and probably several times. Frankly, I don't understand how it was put in the game at all. Two solutions exist: either let me buy the car I need or alter the way secret events work. At launch, neither is available and my hope is Milestone will see this and likely other criticisms and implement a fix.
It's really too bad because the racing itself is a lot of fun and captures the spirit of Hot Wheels so very well. Boosting through loops, soaring over massive gaps, and drifting tightly around each corner to build your boost bar and zoom past the competition feels like wish fulfillment for every kid who ever raced a pair of diecast cars in their hands and imagined a much more elaborate scene.
The difficulty options ensure players of all ages and skill levels can enjoy each race, and as each car has its own stats and rarity, it's fun to level them up and improve them, though that system does seem a bit slow and costly too.
The game's greatest feature is its track editor. Here, players can build their own Hot Wheels tracks using signature orange and blue track pieces, bending them up, down, left, and right, installing loops and ramps, and even placing some of the brand's fantastical set pieces, like a dinosaur that threatens to swallow racers or a spider that shoots webs onto the track.
Players can share tracks online, as well as liveries for cars, so even if you're not one to use the creative suite yourself, you can enjoy the creations of others.
In my time with the track editor, I felt like I could build almost anything I wanted to. The toolset can take some getting used to, but all the best ones do, and this one isn't nearly as unwieldy as comparable toys in other games. It's worth mentioning, however, that many track editor unlocks are tied to campaign progress, so even here the faulty unlock system in the campaign rears its ugly head and gets in the way of the fun.
It's also worth noting how incredible the cars look in this game. I've got hundreds of Hot Wheels cars in my home thanks to my son, and the in-game models are ridiculously lifelike. Artistically, each one captures the exact look of its counterpart, right down to the brushstrokes painted over each model, or the way the light reflects off of metal and plastic differently.
Imagining an alternate version of this game free from the RNG-based roadblocks, I can sense Hot Wheels Unleashed would be one of my favorite games of the year. With local and online multiplayer, a garage of cars worth drooling over, and a creative track editor, it's fully featured and covers all the bases you'd expect from an arcade racer. It's just that obstructive unlock system that brings it all down.
Hot Wheels Unleashed Review — The Bottom Line
- Track editor is fully featured and relatively easy to use
- Racing itself is fast, gorgeous, and fun
- Cars on offer cover all the bases and look stunningly like their real-life counterparts
- RNG-based unlocks halt progress across several modes
Hot Wheels Unleashed is a great racing game in all but one way, but that one way is so invasive and affects the game's best modes worst of all that it really does drag the whole game down with it.
Cars being unlocked randomly is fine. A campaign containing secret events is fine. But the game's insistence that players use specific cars in specific events is where it all falls apart because very often you simply won't have the cars you need, and then that means you can't do anything in the campaign.
Should the developers patch this system out, I would fully recommend Hot Wheels Unleashed to fans of the brand or the genre. But for now, the engine that operates this whole vehicle is flooded.
[Note: Milestone provided the copy of Hot Wheels Unleashed used for this review.]