I grew up with Hot Wheels my whole childhood, and have been having a lot of fun lately introducing my son to them. When I first saw Hot Wheels Unleashed, I figured it'd be an awesome, kid-friendly racing game that I could goof off with now, then let him play in a year or two alongside Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is an extremely fast and punishing arcade racer that has more in common with F-Zero than any game with “Kart” in the title.
Hot Wheels Unleashed doesn't rely on gimmicks in its gameplay. When I think of a licensed racing game I expect wacky sound effects and power-ups, but outside of the ability to drift and boost, the driving in this game is very straightforward. It's also extremely fast for a game that I expected to be geared towards children. Like, it's “you better let off the gas and tap the brake through this curve if you don't want to go flying off the course” fast.
I've played a fair amount of arcade-style racing games in my time, so I started this on the standard, middle difficulty level and found myself actually losing races a lot at first. Sometimes losing very, very badly. I tried out easy mode to see how different it would be, and the AI is slower and less aggressive, but your car still rockets around the track. It didn't take terribly long for me to figure out how to strategically use my break to drift into curves, build up boost, then hit it to rocket out of the turn. Without those sorts of strategies, even the easy difficulty level might be too challenging for some younger gamers who are excited about the Hot Wheels brand.
Hot Wheels Unleashed has a few ways to play
You'll find all the modes you'd expect to see in the menus for Hot Wheels Unleashed. There are options for split-screen and online multiplayer (neither of which I've had a chance to try as of this writing), along with “Time Attack” and “Quick Race” modes. You can play all of these modes on any of the game's 42 tracks, as long as you've unlocked them.
Yup, this is one of those classic games that'd but a lot of fun to play with your friends, but first, you've got to unlock everything. Thankfully, the game's single-player mode “Hot Wheels City Rumble” is pretty fun and reasonably generous with unlocks.
The campaign takes place on a city map covered with races and challenges laid out along branching paths. As you complete missions you get all sorts of rewards. Coins that let you buy new cars, gears can upgrade the cars you've already got, plus there are customization options, tracks, and blind boxes.
Progressing Through the City
The progression through the city is pretty fun. You can see what's coming ahead on a given track, so I often found myself picking branches that would quickly get me to new cars first. Having a few different directions to go and a clear sense of making progress as you do so had me more hooked on the single player in this game than in most other racing games.
On the downside, there are a few nodes on the map labeled “Secret”. You can only participate in a secret node by completing specific challenges. At one point I got completely stuck, with a “Secret” blocking every direction I could go. I replayed a few races to earn gold coins to buy blind boxes until I finally unlocked a specific car. With that specific car, I had to beat a specific race. That finally opened up one of the secrets and let me continue my progress.
I probably wouldn't have minded it nearly as much if I hadn't felt such awesome momentum up to that stopping point.
Unlocks and Upgrades
Outside of the blind boxes that you earn through the story mode or buy with coins, there's also a rotating shop you can purchase cars from. In total, Hot Wheels Unleashed is launching with 66 unique vehicles, including silly Hot Wheels creations, licensed real-world vehicles, and pop-culture icons like Batman and Snoopy. Every single vehicle has five unique stats: Speed, Braking Power, Acceleration, Handling, and Boost.
Each car is also rated on its rarity, which can be upgraded using gears that you earn in the story mode or by dismantling duplicates in your collection. The better the rarity classification, the better the overall stats.
The amount of variety is really pretty cool, except for one issue. One of my earliest blind boxes granted me a car from the “Super Treasure Hunt” rarity class, which is the highest tier. Once I got it, I didn't feel like there was much reason to use my other cars until I could upgrade them. Eventually, I scraped together enough cash to beef up the trusty '71 El Camino I started. I took it up several levels of rarity, only to realize that you can't buy your way into the top tier. The top tier cars naturally occur as top tier cars, and everything else can only be upgraded to the second tier.
Effectively, this makes a lot of the roster feel obsolete and makes the upgrade mechanic feel completely unnecessary.
Customization and Creation
Once you find a car that you like, you can really make it your own by creating a custom paint job for it. You can change the color of the body, chassis, and wheels of any car, and even set up stickers to make it your own. There's also an option to share your custom designs online, or to download other people's creations if you aren't feeling very creative.
If you really want to personalize things, you can also customize a whole basement! … Yes, I was just as confused as you were. There is a massive room, complete with a pool table, gaming computer setup, and all sorts of stuff that you can customize the wallpaper and decorations of. It's… it's weird. I think this is basically just here for the course creator because any race track you create in the basement environment will actually have your basement as the background when other people play it, so that's kind of neat.
Speaking of the course creator, this looks like one of the most interesting tools in the game. It's also incredibly overwhelming. Most “create your own” toolsets don't empower players to make anything nearly as impressive as the premade levels. The track builder in Hot Wheels Unleashed feels closer to the toolset in Mario Maker. You can set different pieces of track, different obstacles, and even set precise banks on sharp turns for cars to race across. The game doesn't do a great job of teaching you to use all the tools available right now, but an upcoming update is set to massively revamp the track maker tutorial.
How Hot Wheels is it?
All in all, Hot Wheels Unleashed is a really fun, fast-paced, arcade racing game, but it is also a pretty good Hot Wheels game. The tracks are way wider than what you'd use for an actual Hot Wheels track, but they are still that obnoxiously bright orange color we all know. They also made a point of including connector pieces, so as you're racing you can see where each piece of track connects to the next.
A few animated obstacles are straight out of commercials I saw as a kid. Having a giant T-Rex opening and closing its jaws ahead of you, so that you have to slow down and time it right to make it into and through his open maw is a uniquely Hot Wheels experience.
The six environments that the courses of the game all take place inside of are pretty interestingly created to give you a sense of scale, but the cars don't really interact with them most of the time. There are courses where you'll end up driving through a vent or something, but the game as a whole doesn't really play with scale the way that SkateBIRD does.
Honestly, the most Hot Wheels feeling aspect of the game is how your car goes flying whenever you crash. You'll spend most of the game with four wheels on the track. However, if you ever misjudge an embankment, go into a loop-de-loop without enough speed, or hit a ramp at the wrong angle you'll find yourself flying off course in the most spectacular tumble. At first, I was kind of annoyed with how much a small error could ruin a race, and then I realized that my car was flying around in that special way that only a Hot Wheels car can.
Now I love it.
Maybe I'm not as good at racing games as I've always thought I was, but the challenge in Hot Wheels Unleashed is the thing that stands out the most. This game is an absolute blast to play, but it challenges me way more than I thought a game based on a kid's property would. This isn't a cart racer, it's just a really fun arcade racing game that happens to have the Hot Wheels brand attached to it.
It is worth noting that I'm playing a pre-release version of this game and that there is a fairly substantial patch coming to all platforms at or shortly after launch. Knowing that, I kind of expected to run into bugs or performance issues while playing Hot Wheels Unleashed on the Switch, but other than very infrequent frame drops it seems to run great.