Racing games are very hit and miss. For every deep, well made racing game are a handful that feel pushed out unfinished. In the market for a more serious racing game, I took a chance on Hot Wheels Unleashed shortly after Christmas. My gamble was greatly rewarded.
Sir, this is a racing game.
Seriously sir, this is a racing game.
When it comes to a racing game, all that matters is the gameplay, and I’m pleased to be able to say that Hot Wheels Unleashed mostly nails it. Unleashed has a few different modes when you first launch the game. City Rumble, Multiplayer, Basement, Collection, Shop, Quick Mode, Track Builder, and Editor. Most of your time will be spent in City Rumble, which will be discussed below, but here is a brief description of each of the other modes:
- Multiplayer: Race online (PS4 requires an online subscription) or in split-screen mode against a friend.
- Basement: Decorate your own, personal basement using styles and items unlocked while racing in City Rumble mode. This is the area you’ll construct tracks in if/when you are in track builder mode. I typically don’t care for arbitrary options such as this, but I must admit that I enjoyed styling the basement area.
- Collection: Review your current collection of raceable cars, upgrade cars using screws, and change liveries. Common cars can be upgraded twice, Rare cars once, and Legendary cars none. Liveries can be created or downloaded. The base game comes with sixty-six cars, though you will need to purchase those via coins or find them in blind boxes (if you play the game with any regularity, this actually won’t take you too long to do). The cars are very unique, with their own ratings in Speed, Breaking Power, Acceleration, and Handling. These ratings do matter, as a car that is well suited to one track may not be the best option for the next track you race on. I have a favorite car, but also had around fifteen cars marked favorite because it became clear to me early on that I wasn’t going to get the most out of this title utilizing only one or two cars. No one car is perfect, and it’s fun to find the cars that work with your racing style and/or the style of track you’re currently racing on.
- Shop: Use coins you’ve earned to either buy blind boxes, which will give you a random car, or buy a rotating inventory of random cars (these change after about an hour and fifteen minutes of in-game time. Blind boxes can and will give you duplicates. Should you get a car you already own, you can either sell it or deconstruct if for screws. Given that screws are much more difficult to obtain than coins, my personal preference is deconstruction.
- Quick Mode: Pick a track and race.
- Track Builder: Build a track. (Please note that I did not explore this option, so I will not be opining on it. I couldn’t build a roller coaster in Roller Coaster Tycoon, and I’m confident I can’t build a good Hot Wheel race track.)
- Editor: Create your own designs for any car you’ve unlocked. While this process is not explained well, it is very much worth your time to familiarize yourself with it as designing paint schemes for your cars is one of the more fun aspects of this game. And, once you truly explore and understand how the design process works, the sky is the limit for what you can do while creating new designs.
As stated above, most likely you’ll be spending the bulk of your time in the City Rumble section. This is a map with multiple challenges that you must complete before moving on to other challenges. Challenges consist of three types: Race, Time Trial, and Boss Race. The boss races aren’t so much a race against one specific car, as the “boss” is far more in reference to the stage hazards you’ll encounter. These can be as simple as ice patches or as annoying as a whirlwind that will stop you in your tracks, pick you up, and then deposit you back on the track, possibly facing the wrong direction. There are only five total boss races, and the only option to advance is to win.
Most of the City Rumble map consists of time trials and races, and these offer two challenges. For time trials, the first challenge is to beat a certain time, whereas the base challenge for a race is place in the top three. Each of these also have an Unleashed Goal. For time trials, this just means a faster time. For races, it means winning. To advance on the map, you only need to complete the base challenge. Completing the Unleashed Goal is more about pride, though you do get more coins and rewards when completing this goal.
One last note regarding the City Rumble. As you complete challenges, you will be met with a handful of question mark nodes (eight in total, I believe). When you highlight these, you will be given a clue as to what needs to be done to unlock these nodes. All but two of these are very straight-forwards. Of the two that aren’t, only one of those is truly a riddle. Unlocking these opens up more challenges and/or reward spots, where you can claim gears, coins, or even secret Hot Wheels.
So, now that that is all out of the way, we have to move to what matters most about this game. How does it play? I’m very pleased to say it plays extremely well, though there are a few caveats. First and foremost, this game controls extremely well. The cars are all very responsive. Drifting takes some time to get used to, but once you’re familiar with how and when to employ it, drifting is a dream (and feels very good when you pull it off well). Learning how best to utilize the boost mechanic is rewarding as well. Please note that boosts come in two forms. One is a set boost that you will trigger and lasts a set amount of time, while the other is a bar that depletes so long as you choose to use the boost. I prefer the former, but that is a personal decision.
By and large, when you go to race, you will be met with a track style modeled after the orange Hot Wheels tracks most of us are familiar with from our youth. There are some variations, but this is typically what you’ll be racing on. There will be loops, sections without rails, and magnetic sections when you’re traveling upside down, but all of those are very much in the Hot Wheels style. There are a few track hazards beyond those I mentioned above in the boss races, but they are few and rarely overstay their welcome. Now, that said, you will occasionally find yourself going “off-road” onto a table, the floor, etc… These races take place in workshops, a skyscraper, and other locales, and the game will sometimes send you off the traditional tracks and onto surfaces of the level (at these points, you can choose to leave the race area and just drive around the area, the level of detail here is astounding and I recommend you do this at least a few times, you can easily respawn back on the track or just end the race once you’ve explored). This is a fun change-up from the normal track, but sometimes you’ll find that the “track” is not exactly clear. While it’s marked with orange cones, they are rather small, and more than once I would shoot past a turn and fly into the ether without even realizing I’d missed the track. If I saw an area coming up such as this on a track I wasn’t familiar with, I would often just stick with a car in front of me to ensure I stayed on the correct path. Now as you learn the tracks, you will get better at this and remember where these areas are, but it’s a bit startling the first time (and, frankly, a little funny to find yourself barreling off the edge of a worktable). This could have been handled better, but like most of my complaints about this game, it’s a minor complaint and won’t affect your race more than a handful of times. Thankfully, the races are, by and large left to your ability. And you will need all of your ability because this game is tough.
When it comes to arcade racers, I cut my teeth on F-Zero X and F-Zero GX on the N64 and GameCube, respectively. Those games were both tough as nails, and I played them enough to get comfortable racing on the highest difficulty setting. I’ve spent a little over a month and a half with Hot Wheels Unleashed, and I never changed the difficulty from Normal. I simply do not believe I’m good enough, and I’m not certain how to be good enough. Some of that is probably due to me still not perfecting drifting and the art of slowing down when necessary (and it is necessary), but a large portion is just that this game gives you no mercy. The AI cars will race you for every single position. There are twelve cars in each race. If you find yourself in last place, eleventh place will race you as if the win is on the line. It’s both exhilarating and aggravating. Exhilarating because it’s nice to find a solid challenge, but aggravating because it feels like the AI is cheating. And when I say cheating, I’m actually referring to the use of the rubber band effect.
Let me elaborate. Early on I unlocked the Power Rocket, which is my personal favorite Hot Wheels vehicle. While not the fastest car, the Power Rocket is a bit of a cheat code as it has six boosts you can build up (the average looks to be between two and three, for comparison; also, boosts are built up over time slowly, but more quickly while drifting). In one race, I was running second and coming close to the finish line. I utilized four boosts I had stored up one after the other…and gained nothing on the car ahead of me. I’m certain that that car, had I been using it, had no more than three boosts, so at the very least, I should have gained on my fourth boost, but I didn’t. Also, this car had just passed me for first, even though I had actually been comfortably ahead for a lap or so. Result, the car rubber banded by me, then held a speed that it should not have been able to achieve, and I lost the race. I don’t mind losing a straight race, but more than once I felt that I was being cheated because the AI was operating outside the parameters I was being forced to operate within. This doesn’t make the game bad, but it does leave a bad taste in your mouth for a bit. And while it doesn’t happen every race, it happens enough that you will notice it.
The last criticism I have of Unleashed involves the physics engine. It’s actually quite good considering you are racing a Hot Wheels car, and a Hot Wheels car will flip over and spin around if it’s carrying too much speed into a turn or a wall. That’s fine, and it teaches you how to better control your car and drift/break for sharper turns. You may also get slowed in the midst of a loop and find your car falling from the top to the bottom. But, every now and again, you will unexpectedly drift into a wall, and find yourself sliding upside down for no good reason. You won’t have been traveling too fast, you will have approached it as you’ve learned to, and boom, upside down. Or, you’ll be hit by a car behind you and instead of getting a bit loose (or better yet, getting a speed boost), you’ll be spun around or knocked completely off the track. It’s jarring, and in the worst circumstances, cost you a race. It did not make me happy when it happened (though you can at least cause other cars to experience these rare lapses in physics, and that’s a hoot).
When a game is really, really good, its flaws become that much more pronounced. You only notice them so much because of how well the game works and functions. Everyone remembers the Natalya escort mission in Goldeneye because otherwise, Goldeneye is an amazing title. There’s not much else to be critical of, so it stands out.
Likewise, you’ve read three paragraphs above in which I voiced complaints about this title, but understand this. These flaws only stand out because Hot Wheels Unleashed is an extremely good racing game. Unleashed clearly had a ton of care put into it. The visuals are extremely sharp, be it the cars, the tracks, or the settings for the tracks (which is wildly inconsequential to the actual game). As noted above, you can explore the work areas the tracks run through, and there are details in every corner. The developers took time to add those details. That’s extremely admirable. And yes, there are lapses in the physics engine, but again, you notice it because most of the time it’s spot on. Forty-nine times out of fifty, when you drift into a corner and tag the wall, you’ll slow a bit, and then correct and move on. It’s that one time that stands out because it’s the exception to the rule.
I mentioned F-Zero X and F-Zero GX above. Those are my gold standard racing titles. I think they are probably as close to perfect as a racing game will ever get. I now will add Hot Wheels Unleashed to those two titles because I think it is just that good. If you’re looking for an arcade racer that lets you control your fate with your skill, then I simply can’t recommend Hot Wheels Unleashed enough. It is simply a stellar title.
A quick note here as I did upgrade my version to the Game of the Year Edition (there was a sale on PSN). Upgrading the standard version to this adds three DLS packs: Looney Tunes, Monster Trucks, and Batman (an array of additional vehicles are also included). These are all visible on the City Rumble map, but are inaccessible until you’ve purchased the DLC. The cars are nice, if not spectacular. I found only a couple worth adding to my list of favorites as the cars included in the base game are very good.
The tracks are a bit of a mixed bag. The Looney Tunes and Batman themed tracks are every bit the same quality as the tracks in the main game. There are a couple of new hazards in each, but otherwise they are just good tracks in a new setting. The Monster Trucks tracks though, I simply didn’t like, and for one very specific reason. As it is a Monster Trucks expansion, the game makes judicious use of the off-road feature I was a bit critical of above. In this expansion though, it is used so much so as to be annoying. And this goes back to my criticism of not making it abundantly clear where the actual track is. The Monster Trucks tracks love doing this. I do not love it, so at the end of the day, whereas I completed all the tracks in the other expansions, I’ve yet to do so in Monster Trucks. And given that I’m writing this, and am essentially done with playing the game regularly, I probably never will. If you’re looking into adding the expansions, Looney Tunes and Batman are well worth the funds. I’d only suggest Monster Trucks if you’re taking advantage of the GOTY upgrade. On it’s own, I just didn’t enjoy it.