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Hot Wheels Unleashed Is Just Short of A Full Tank

Hot Wheels Unleashed is immediately fun but unlike its real-world counterpart, the experience gets tired very quickly…

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Hot Wheels Unleashed Review

Developer: Milestone | Publisher: Milestone | Genre: Racer | Platform: PlayStation 4/5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One/X/S, Microsoft Windows | Reviewed on: Xbox Series X


Deep within the recesses of so many people’s childhood memories are their experiences building tracks and racing Hot Wheels cars in a basement. Hot Wheels Unleashed does an excellent job of evoking those memories and playing on that nostalgia while offering what can be charitably described as a minimum viable product as opposed to a fully realized game. Despite stunning visuals, above-average racing mechanics, and a plethora of conceptual meat on the bone, as a result of generic feeling components and faithfulness to the source material so extreme that it works to the game’s detriment, Hot Wheels Unleashed provides players with a fun but shallow racing experience that could have been so much more.

Hot Wheels Unleashed is immediately fun but unlike its real-world counterpart, the experience gets tired very quickly. Throughout my 15 plus hours with the game, I was constantly wondering if the target demographic is meant to be children or nostalgic adults, and how Milestone seems to have failed to cater to either group. Upon first impressions, the concept of Unleashed is a fun one, recreating the mindless fun of racing tiny plastic cars across modular plastic tracks is, at least to my knowledge, a novel and unique idea. One thing that was clearly not anticipated, however, was how setting every race on a combination of orange, blue, and gray tracks constructed inside the same small handful of locations would lead to the game feeling recycled and lacking any soulful sense of identity. Surprisingly it’s Milestone’s commitment to this small semblance of realism that accentuates how boring tiny cars rolling down plastic tracks are when not subsidized by a childlike level of imagination and whimsy.

Gameplay in Hot Wheels Unleashed has some of the makings of a great game but by pressing ahead with the recipe prior to having all the ingredients in place, Milestone has delivered a very shallow and repetitive main course. The best way to describe Unleashed is to call it a kart racer that is missing half of the fundamental elements of any good title from the genre. Environmental obstacles exist in the game but are used painfully sparingly, and even when encountered, they either feel wholly inorganic or yield the same net result through a slightly different animation. Even when the environmental obstacles are considered as positive aspects of the game, they are still used so infrequently that not only do they struggle to meaningfully change the game, but they come as a genuine surprise when encountered. 

Image: Milestone

Early in the game racers encounter a giant spider that shoots web bombs onto a very short section of track. This spider sports a pinpoint accuracy to the extent that it feels less like an obstacle and more like a foregone inconvenience, making these sections of track feel unnatural rather than a challenging opportunity to get ahead. The pterodactyl towards the end of the game has thrown gusts of wind across the track and while these are easier to dodge and do offer a means of changing the outcome of the race their animation and subsequent consequence both looks and feels uninspired by simply spinning the player around and bringing them to a full stop pointing forward down the track to just keep going on their way. And the ghosts feel ripped directly from Mario Kart, as hitting them causes an image of a ghost to appear on screen for some reason, blocking the player’s view for a short period of time. Unfortunately, the only environmental obstacle that doesn’t feel half-baked is the yeti’s ice traps that coat the racer’s tires in ice, effectively making the ice follow the player for a short period of time.

Unleashed’s concept of recreating the experience of racing Hot Wheels cars mandates that each track maintains a consistent width severely limiting Milestone’s ability to force interaction between racers. Despite there being 11 other racers on the track for the vast majority of events, environmental obstacles and enhancers are all the player has to interact with. The game lacking any items results in there being no way of meaningfully interacting with other racers on the track and there being no interaction between player makes every lap feel like a desperately lonely affair rather than a white-knuckle competition. The addition of an item-based weapons system would have allowed for more interaction between racers, and the embracing of the foundational concept of the game by more frequently moving the race off the track and into the environment would have empowered Milestone to creatively force those interactions to occur.

Problematic design isn’t only limited to races. Throughout the City Rumble mode, there are multiple points at which the game’s communication to the player is overly vague. City Rumble mode features four different types of objectives to check off persistent on-screen lists, quick races, time trials, secrets, and boss races are required to progress through a variety of available paths all ending with the final boss race. Each different event type is briefly tutorialized prior to the first time they are played. These tutorials are superfluous of the event type’s names and not needed with the exception of the secret events. All the tutorial for the secret events lets on is that each secret event card will offer a clue as to how to unlock the event. While the secret events are, for the most part, unnecessary they become a problem at one point in the game when interpreting a vague under tutorialized clue is imperative to progressing through the game. 

Image: Milestone

While not bringing progress to a complete standstill, vague secret events aren’t where the lack of communication stops. The standard way in which each race starts is a simple count down from three and the player is taught to press the accelerate button just before two appears on screen. But for no clear reason whatsoever, occasionally races begin with a sweet spot bar and are required to quickly tap their accelerate button at the right pace to land an indicator dot within a specific range to optimize their starting boost. In addition to this, the player earns car’s that are doled out via random boxes (see loot boxes) the likes of which are not initially easily found and at no point does the game teach the player about how to manage their collection of cars. Hand holding has become rampant in games and while it is refreshing for a developer to trust players to figure things out themselves some guidance would have proven useful.

Unfortunately, several aspects of the game feel incomplete or lacking. Car collecting feels obtuse and imprecise. Not being able to view stats of cars available for limited-time purchase makes those purchases practically identical to opening a random box. City Rumble mode takes entirely too long to get interesting and even when it does Milestone fails to lean into the things that are done right. And so many of the finishing’s feel criminally generic; music sounds like royalty-free tunes from YouTube, environments lack the imperfections that would make them feel believable, and AI opponents aren’t broken down into granular enough levels of difficulty to make races truly interesting. All these elements added up result in a clear lack of focus, while some elements of the game are clearly lacking others stand out as extremely high quality.

As previously mentioned, the core concept of Hot Wheels Unleashed is one that is rife with potential. The idea of bringing to life the old experience of playing with Hot Wheels cars with friends while racing them through an unfinished basement is one that countless people can relate to. Few ideas have the potential to bring back such visceral memories, but Hot Wheels is well positioned to do just that.

Image: Milestone

The single most important part of any racing game is the driving and that is where Hot Wheels Unleashed finds its biggest strength. Typical kart racers put the battle first and driving second making the non-driving mechanics carry the lion’s share of the responsibility for fun. Driving in Hot Wheels requires significantly more skill than a typical kart racer. Drifting is more difficult than other games like Mario Kart and Crash Team Racing and with nearly constant hairpin and 360 degree turns not learning to drift is not an option. Boosting is earned by drifting and unlike other racers boost is stored to be used at the player’s discretion. While this may sound like a means of making the game easier, the combination of track design and knowledge of when to use the boost makes boosting a complex mechanic made even deeper by cars having varying amounts of boost and different ways of deploying it. 

Environmental interactions are few and far between but in the late game when the tracks dare to leave the literal track and venture into things like airducts, a couch, and narrow rafter beams they transform from being a negative to being one of the games strongest assets. Had the game leaned hard into interactions with real world objects early and made those moments a part of nearly every race then tracks could have measured up to the best of what the mushroom kingdom has to offer without even leaving the living room.

Image: Milestone

In a game full of unique cars that are intentionally designed to drive differently the task of balancing those cars to prevent players from acquiring a good one and not experimenting with any others is a daunting one. Early in the game players will encounter time trials that even when driven as close to perfection as humanly possible cannot be completed with the cars available at that point of progression. Through a wide variety of carefully designed tracks Milestone forces the player to break off the path of least resistance in order to acquire as many cars as possible. If additional cars fail to offer the different style of driving required to complete previously impossible objective Milestone has also developed a clever currency and supply system. This system allows the player to choose between selling unwanted cars to put towards the purchase of others or breaking them down to upgrade the cars already in the players collection. Milestone’s usage balance to slow progression and force players to explore city rumble mode more thoroughly is a balancing act few developers could pull off with such precision.

Despite offering a somewhat unremarkable suite of features and game modes one mode, in particular, is a match made in heaven for Hot Wheels. Featuring a robust and highly customizable track builder, Unleashed unexpectedly brings the less remembered part but often more fun part of the real Hot Wheels experience to life. The track builder allows players to construct their own tracks using all the environmental obstacles encountered in and subsequently unlocked through city rumble mode again emulating the creativity that is at the core of the Hot Wheels brand. While at first it may seem like a side dish, the track builder is where players will find the most replayability in the game. 

Visually Hot Wheels have never looked more like…well Hot Wheels! As strange as it may seem Hot Wheel Unleashed is one of the most visually impressive games of this new generation. Vibrant colors, ray traced reflections, and simulated realistic damage brings new meaning to the term “toys to life.” Milestone’s choice of a hyper-realistic art style plays well into the intended concept but it’s a shockingly excellent execution of said choice that makes Hot Wheels a surprising visual treat. Unleashed takes full advantage of the new generation’s hardware and if at all possible should be played on the newest console hardware available.

Image: Milestone

In a world in which loot boxes are used to monetize video games with increasing intensity, it cannot be overlooked that it appears as though Hot Wheels has been designed to do just that. The random box mechanic being a loot box of another name and the limited time offer cars being two of the three ways of acquiring new cars leaves little doubt as to Milestone’s future intentions. Considering that at surface level Hot Wheels is a game for children if successful it could reignite the conversation surrounding the morality of marketing a pseudo gambling system at children. 

Hot Wheels Unleashed is a game that is full of very high highs and unfortunately low lows. By virtue of the concept alone the game has huge potential and to see Milestone execute so well on some aspects of the game but let others fall flat makes it one of the most bittersweet titles in recent history. Despite excellent driving mechanics and top tier visuals, Hot Wheels Unleashed is undone by a total lack of racer interaction and a feeling of having been rushed to completion; while it’s undeniable that the game took me back to some of the best days of my childhood, by the time I had finished the campaign, the nostalgia had long since worn off and the entire experience was running on fumes. 

News writer and Xbox reviewer. Patrick lives in Minneapolis Minnesota with his wife and their dog Ghost. Patrick studied economics at the University of Northern Colorado and is particularly interested in the market dynamics of the video game industry. When he's not working Patrick can be found walking Ghost through downtown MPLS, binging The West Wing on repeat, or playing ice hockey. Follow Patrick in everything he does on Twitter @TheLawMorris or on YouTube by subscribing to ColdNorth Productions, you can see everything he does independently at www.coldnorthpro.com.

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