June 23, 2024

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Hot Wheels Unleashed game review: The good, the bad, and the tiny

This week’s Hot Wheels Unleashed is one of the best video games ever made using licensed toy cars. To be fair, that specific concept isn’t necessarily common in gaming, but Codemasters’ legendary Micro Machines series holds a lot of water for a certain type of arcade-racing fan. That’s decent company to land in.

Yet while handsomely modeled toy cars and cute environments might look like a basis for newbie-friendly racing, it’s not the case here. In my week of testing the game ahead of its launch this week, I found that Hot Wheels Unleashed feels like a Micro Machines skin on top of the modern, hardcore-leaning Trackmania series. That’s not a bad thing—and I had a good-enough time with Unleashed to write about it at Ars, as I think some people will really enjoy what’s going on here.

But you’ll have a better time with HWU going into it fully aware of its weird and tricky design decisions—along with quibbles about its in-game economy of cars and tracks.

Boost through meaty, plastic straightaways

Hot Wheels Unleashed [PS4, PS5, Switch, Xbox, PC]

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HWU throws back to an older arcade-racing era by opening with very few racetracks to select from—and a campaign that you must play through to unlock many of the game’s contents. You start with three randomly selected toy cars, which are split between Hot Wheels facsimiles of real-life cars and the company’s own toys; the latter pool ranges from sedans to race cars to Kitt from Knight Rider to dinosaurs with wheels. With every campaign level you beat, you unlock “coins” (which can be spent on new cars) and “gears” (which can upgrade existing cars).

Every racetrack in Unleashed combines a prebuilt room and a series of recognizable, plastic Hot Wheels tracks, usually bright orange or blue. Imagine going into someone’s garage, then routing a nearly infinite budget of plastic straightaways, curves, loop-the-loops, and more throughout the space—while also occasionally using that world’s geometry (a table, a countertop) as part of a given racing line. That’s HWU.

The devs at Milestone, longtime makers of the MotoGP series, have stripped pretty much all Mario Kart-ness out of this colorful affair. Instead of picking up weapons, bananas, or random items, drivers are expected to accumulate and spend a nitro-boost meter—which grows primarily when you drift. Tap the brakes in the middle of a high-speed turn, and you’ll go into a drift that feels arcade-y but not entirely unrealistic. It’s more Forza Horizon than Ridge Racer or Mario Kart. The more you drift, the more your boost meter grows, though racetracks include purple and green strips that you can steer across for instant, free boosts, as well.

The result, on a sheer driving level, is mostly a blast. Drifting around an unnaturally bendy curve of plastic track feels good, because it’s accompanied by a legitimate sense of speed, a clear formula for your specific car’s handling to optimally drift, and the satisfying whoosh of tapping your boost button after a successful drift into a meaty straightaway. And Milestone has brought its years of racing-game development to bear in building its own incredible racetracks within the Hot Wheels universe, especially when tracks alternate between plastic constructions and real-world environs.

Funny cars, serious physics

I can’t really say I’ve found any outright stinkers among the 40 built-in tracks, though their reliance on same-samey plastic constructions and five frequently reused real-world scenes kills the tracks’ ability to stick in my mind as recognizable favorites. Once again, I’m racing around the hipster basement with a pool table, a “gamer” desk, and a variety of plastic tracks that include loop-the-loops and wild, nitro-filled turns. It can all start to blur together.

Additionally, the physics model of “small cars going at high speeds over bendy tracks” is arguably too realistic, at least in terms of cars flying off the track at a moment’s notice and requiring “hold Y to restart” prompts. Unleashed‘s momentum comes to a screeching halt in these moments, and without a legitimate tutorial that explains “funny cars, serious physics,” that leads to a rage-inducing learning experience. Some of the upside-down moments include “electric” tracks that keep your car’s wheels planted, but that’s an exception. A decent amount of the game requires keeping an eye out for sudden elevation changes that might send a car off the track, should it boost at the wrong time. Worse, HWU lets players rotate their car while flying in midair—so you can do useless, fun 360-degree spins while taking an expected leap over a hilarious, thrilling gap. But there’s no way to fudge your midair car’s trajectory toward a preferred landing spot, should you launch at the wrong angle.

HWU includes animated, plastic beasts that are meant to add fun and silliness to the tracks. A massive spider can shoot car-slowing webs at the oncoming track, and a snake’s mouth can open and close as a gate to your next destination. But the “tells” on these monsters are tragically lacking in the game’s launch version. The snake’s mouth doesn’t include a countdown or visual hint to when it will open or close, so the only safe option is to slam the brakes when you see one no matter what. The spider’s webs are typically abetted by computer-aided cheating, which means they’ll usually land directly in your racing path with too little time to swerve out of the way. These monsters, as currently coded, stomp out the fun whenever they show up. Milestone, please revise them.