There’s a growing market for toys effectively designed for children being marketed and sold to Adults. Adults who now have the disposable income to purchase any available in their local toy shop. LEGO is a master of this, with its Technic and Speed Champions lines.
The customer base may be in their 30s, the packaging less colourful, but these are still toys. Hot Wheels wants in, hence its recent range of ‘premium’ models predominately made up of cars from the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s – prime millennial material.
2021’s Hot Wheels Unleased video game achieved the same status, simultaneously appealing to 10-year-olds and those who are, ahem, slightly, older such as the Traxion.GG team. Now, developer Milestone is back again with a sequel to its best-ever selling release.
But is it a worthy successor, justifying a second purchase?
Same, but different
Hot Wheels Unleashed 2 – Turbocharged is the same basic recipe, with recreations of diecast vehicle models placed on contextually giant plastic roads with a rewarding handling system. But, the follow-up adds new locations, a narrated story for the main campaign and additional driving mechanics.
If Unleashed is Coke Zero, Unleashed 2 is Coke Zero with a hint of lime. There’s the familiar first-sip hit of refreshment and a caffeinated kick, just with an extra twist.
Ripping through exaggerated track designs with loops, boost pads and jumps remains satisfying, but this time the backdrop has changed and there are some new modules – or in other words traps – to avoid. Essentially, though, this is remarkably familiar.
So is the driving, which is to say each vehicle corners uniquely, something a toys-to-life title didn’t necessarily need to achieve, but the developers went the extra mile. Pulling off a smooth drift around a long downhill hairpin is euphoric.
A lesson to all game developers out there, if you want your game’s appeal to be more than ephemeral, make sure the dynamics are your number one priority.
Shiny visuals also help, and here Turbocharged excels once again. You’d be hard-pressed to spot any graphical upgrades compared to its forbearer, but it didn’t need any. Neon light refracts off the diminutive designs, the photo mode alluring and details astounding, especially when the paint scratches up. One of the very best-looking racing video games, period, and the experience on PC and PlayStation 5 (as tested) is buttery smooth.
Yet, in order to be a worthy successor, this sequel needs to build upon those solid foundations and take it further.
In an effort to make the most of this franchise, there’s a smattering of new vehicles alongside returning favourites, with a roster of over 130 at launch. There are now monster trucks, quad bikes and motorcycles, adding further variety.
The behemoths look incongruous on track, and can smash through obstacles, but for the most part you’ll likely try a truck once and move on. The ATVs and bikes look ghostly without a rider, and the two-wheeled vehicles have handling glitches where the game sometimes forgets they don’t have double the wheel count. Still, just look at that Ducati model, so cute!
Parts of the tracks are now also on dirt surfaces, such as the grass in the garden setting. Credit where it’s due, the surface change has a profound effect. While we’re all for detailed physics, this slows the pace down and your AI-rivals often have a heightened prowess for rally driving at odds to your dramatic slewing. Shame.
They can also side-swipe you during an event, using some of their boost to slam you instead of propelling themselves forward. This is a new manoeuvre you must look out for, as they often aggressively smash you off the track, resulting in an inevitable press of the reset button on the last corner. Argh!
You can dish it out too, of course, but it’s tricky to time it correctly and move in the direction you’d like it to at the same time.
Another area you can use your boost is for jumping. And this will happen often as obstacles and gaps in the track are strategically placed throughout. This is much more rewarding that the side-slam, as it requires deft timing that isn’t beyond our meagre capabilities.
In the previous game I never found the need for a rewind function, notably absent despite Milestone being pioneers in this field with Alfa Romeo Racing Italiano. But here, with the more extravagant track designs mixed in with aggressive rivals and boost-requiring jumps (no boost left, fall to your death), its omission feels like a missed opportunity.
Still, while the new additions can be irksome, the core racing is compelling and there’s an element of strategy present.
Just as well really, because the new-for-Turbocharged main campaign story isn’t so captivating.
Well, actually, that depends.
There’s a loose narrative surrounding five monsters escaping, and it’s your job to race Hot Wheels to defeat them. There are some cartoonish cut scenes, that are as throwaway as it gets, and five matching boss levels.
If I were younger, I fully expect this will really bring the campaign to life – an eight-year-old playing on Switch will be beside themselves. But it doesn’t strike that balance of also appealing to elders like Lego 2K Drive‘s story managed.
For all ages, however, the boss battles are the best events in the game, another new addition alongside the enjoyable semi-free-roaming waypoint challenges.
Here, you must drive around a track and hit consecutive targets before a bar fills up. As the bar approaches its limit, the music tempo increases, creating a tense event that otherwise would be a simple time trial. Think Guitar Hero for cars.
As you progress through the world map – no longer a toy car play mat – you unlock experience points to level up, credits, wheelspins and cosmetic items.
Gone are the crates, which many rallied against. Although, we did enjoy saving up and unboxing several in one go.
The aforementioned wheelspins are here instead, in combination with a store with an inventory that refreshes every 45 minutes, and if that sounds like a Forza Horizon game, that’s because the mechanics are identical in every way. A slot-machine-style device spins around and you unlock either a vehicle or cash. Meanwhile, profile missions are identical to Forza’s accolade system.
Each vehicle can also be upgraded using points that provide specific enhancements, and yes, you’re right, that also sounds like Horizon’s skill points-based vehicle perks. Nothing here will persuade you that this is a good system if you aren’t a fan of Microsoft’s series, but after initial scepticism, there’s a reward loop here that is just about engaging enough. Just.
Outside of the main career, split-screen multiplayer, livery editors, a track creator and online multiplayer are all present and correct. The latter can make use of user-created layouts and is cross-platform – although there isn’t a way of inviting friends across the differing devices in our pre-release testing.
Minor quirks remain from the first game, which the second time around are worth mentioning due to our lowered tolerance level. Namely, weak replay camera angles and a befuddling method of actually applying the livery you’ve just created.
Still, when you’re racing around a giant loop-the-loop, before avoiding a web-shooting spider in your customised yellow Nissan Z it’s hard not to smile. Especially if, like us, you glance across at your toy collection and see that exact same model sitting there.
The fact that the publishers felt the need to add the word ‘Turbocharged’ to the name, presumably thinking that the number ‘2’ wasn’t enough, perhaps shows a lack of confidence that the sequel doesn’t do enough to differentiate itself.
Some of the new additions are clear misses too – but we still adore racing in this world far more than some of the recent po-faced games that take themselves too seriously.
It may not move the series on in any meaningful way, but we’re happy Unleashed 2 exists to simply play more Hot Wheels.
|Release date||19th October 2023|
|Available platforms||PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S and Nintendo Switch|
|Best played with||Gamepad|
Full disclosure: A game code was provided by the developers for review purposes. Here is our review policy.