I was on Team Matchbox when I was a child. If I was well behaved, my parents would treat me to a brand-new diecast car. I would spend ages selecting between a miniaturised facsimile of a Toyota or a Mazda and the moment of unboxing a fresh toy is one of my happiest childhood memories.
Matchbox was purchased by Mattel Inc. in 1997 and the brand is now only used for models of mainly agricultural or construction vehicles. Meanwhile, the rival Hot Wheels brand, which is also owned by Mattel, had moved away from its purely fictional vehicle focus and started making licenced car models too.
Nowadays, I’ve started buying the odd Hot Wheels diecast again as there’s a surfeit of cool cars from the GMC Syclone to the Kia Stinger available.
This leads us to Hot Wheels Unleashed, which aims to take that same joy of receiving a new model car and bring it to life in the form of a brand-new racing video game. Can it really evoke those precious, carefree, formative days filled with imagination and wonderment for the modern digitised era? Let’s find out…
On the face of it, the game developers, Italian veterans Milestone, look to have sifted through every fan-requested feature on the internet and tried to squeeze them all into this accessible arcade experience. There’s a lengthy single-player career, truly next-generation visuals, multiple difficulty levels, the ability to upgrade vehicles, a paint booth, a photo mode, a track editor and online racing.
Rarely has there been such a feature-complete first effort for a gaming franchise.
Part of the reasoning for this is the use of the Unreal Engine to power the game, something the Milanese studio has extensive experience with, having produced 14 games over the past four years with the technology. While conceptually different, learnings from these other titles – such as MotoGP, Ride and Monster Energy Supercross – have translated across into Unleashed.
The net result is something more polished than a Georgian-era stately home’s floor.
Playing on a top-spec PC or a PS5, as we did for this review, the game’s visuals are unrivalled. There is no better-looking racing game on the market right now. The 1/64th scale cars and matching environments are highly detailed, sure, but it’s the lighting that really sets this game apart.
The metallic paints of the diecast models, the light pouring through Skatepark windows or the reflective surface of that plastic orange track. I found myself sporadically using the photo mode just to pan around the levels and look at the cars up close.
The vehicles even scratch up through a race just like my childhood collection did after repeated crashes into kitchen appliances. Little nicks appear on the brightwork and light scratches on the polycarbonate windows.
Yet, a video game is not just shiny visuals and a checklist of features. It needs to be much more than that in order to succeed. It needs to be fun.
Thankfully, Hot Wheels Unleashed is just that. There are times, like when you complete your first ‘boss battle’ in the career – entitled Hot Wheels City Rumble – where you will be sat there with a bigger smile painted across your face than Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. Only, slightly less manically…
The way a vehicle handles is a key ingredient of an enjoyable racing game, and here it’s benign with big drifts the key to success. A simple dab on the brakes as your start steering for a turn results in a lurid slide that’s easily managed and, mercifully, quicker than wall-riding.
Each toy feels uniquely different too. They really don’t need to – this is a Hot Wheels game, not Gran Turismo 7 – but a Chevrolet Camaro has a distinct flavour that sets it apart from a Motosaurus or the Buns of Steel. Hypercars like a Koenigsegg Jesko are spikey and tricker to drift than, let’s say, a Fiat 500.
Another key to the satisfaction is track design. They loop up, down, around and around, jump over (relatively) vast chasms and flip you upside down. There are moments when you miss time a jump, but you can use the analogue sticks and a fortuitously timed boost to fly and correct your course – analogous to Rocket League.
There are six locations for the tracks to snake through, but seemingly endless configurations. Lead Designer, Federico Cardini, recently told Traxion.GG that all circuits used within the game were in fact created using the same Track Builder that all players have access to.
Speaking of which, there is an almost infinite list of possibilities and it’s relatively straightforward to use. The number of track pieces is limited, but that’s okay because you can bend, twist and shape them like mold-blown glass. The tutorial is simply a few lines of text, however, and so perhaps for younger users being able to complete a lap may be tricky.
Now, all of this would be just a sideshow if not integrated into the experience. I’ve seen this before with track editors where, aside from the creation itself, there is little to do. But in HWU, should you join a public online lobby, random creations from the community can appear in the track voting system. A worthwhile use of user-generated content.
It’s a shame then that, while the inclusion of private lobbies and spectator mode are welcome, there’s simply no online progression system at all. Not even unlocking cosmetic trinkets or gears to upgrade your collection, and a ranking system is also absent. You will receive a small number of credits, however. The network play appeal is sadly ephemeral.
What should entertain those with friends for longer is the split-screen gameplay. I’m glad to report that the slick visuals and super-smooth frame rate performance hold up on the hardware we tested it with – essential for the target audience of this game.
If that all smells like roses and you’re waiting for a ‘but’ then now your patience is sadly about to be rewarded.
The City Rumble is where you’ll likely spend most of your time. Each challenge, either a race or Time Trial event, is placed on a top-down area that’s akin to a toy car playmat. As a former owner of such a carpet, just looking at the top-down layout is a joy. Plus, the route you take is not strictly linear, with branching options.
As you play through, you earn gears to upgrade the performance of your vehicles and cosmetic items for your Basement – a largely superfluous area that seemingly exists only so things can be unlocked for it. You also earn credits that can be used to buy items in-game.
Except, spending credits is not how you attain vehicles most of the time. There’s no dealership or even a list of models available, 90 per cent of acquisitions is done through Blind Boxes. The first time you load the game you are given three for free, so you at least have something in your collection to drive with. Otherwise, you either receive a box, that includes a random model, or you buy another box for 500 in-game credits.
You don’t know what’s inside, like a FIFA Ultimate Team pack, and like the football game, vehicles have a rarity associated with them. You receive a rush of endorphins upon receiving something that’s either cool or scarce, but I also wish there was a way of seeing all the vehicles available or being able to try them in the Quick Race or Split Screen modes.
There is a shop of sorts, labelled ‘Limited Offers’, but that only stocks four or five vehicles at any one time and refreshes every few hours via the internet. Expect to pay upwards of 1,500 credits for something in here, which is fine, except the number of credits you receive for completing an event can be as little as 40.
That being said, the career is lengthy and diverse, so perhaps the game has been paced to not wear out of appeal early on. I did find, however, that once I’d upgraded a car to have the maximum possible speed rating, there was little incentive then for me to switch to another vehicle, despite the lure of wanting to collect them all.
You are at least able to edit the look of your weapon of choice thanks to the Livery Editor. There’s a wide selection of colours, decals and paint finishes, so if you really go to town, this is a real time sink. You can share your design with the world online too and download other people’s creations.
Strangely, you don’t apply the design in the actual paint booth, rather downloading it from one menu and then applying it to another which is rather esoteric. Similarly, when if you unlock a Blind Box in the career, you then must back out to the Shop area to open it.
I’d like to be clear on this – I’m not enamoured by the game’s unlocking system. Credits don’t flow, blind boxes feel a little bit passé these days and the grind puts a damper on the otherwise incredible variety.
Crucially though, it mostly doesn’t get in the way of a good time. I still really enjoyed my play-through of Hot Wheels Unleashed and will continue to do so as the future DLC packs arrive.
There’s also enough here out of the box not to worry about the extensive paid content roadmap. That feels entirely optional.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is by far the best game made by Milestone to date and just good, old-fashioned, sideways fun for all ages. If I were ten years old right now I think I would be jumping up and down in excitement for this game to arrive and in some ways, that takes me back to my own early years.
|Release date||30th September 2021|
|Available platforms||PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S and Nintendo Switch|
|Version/s tested||PlayStation 5 and PC|
|Best played with||Controller|
Full disclosure: A code for the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes. Here is our review policy.