A wildly customizable racing game.
Reviewer’s Note: In the interest of an accurate representation of the entire game, I have decided to post this review unrated until I have a chance to try multiplayer mode after launch.
You never really know what you’re getting when it comes to Hot Wheels games. There is also a Hot Wheels World’s Best Driver for every Hot Wheels Stunt Track Driver. Most franchises tend to lean a little closer to the latter. With trepidation, I approached Hot Wheels Unleashed, hoping to rekindle the nostalgia with an arcade racing experience while prepared for the worst.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is a drift-focused arcade racing game that draws heavily on its toy car inspiration. This applies not only to the races themselves, but to the overall package. This is a game that is – essentially equally – built around racing, collecting, and customizing. While approaching each of these goals with varying degrees of success, it is difficult to ignore the sheer amount of content in Hot Wheels Unleashed.
When you start a new game, you immediately receive three blind boxes from which to pull your first three cars. These are really random, so different players don’t necessarily start with the same cars. This is worth noting because some vehicles are objectively worse than others. While what you get is what appears to be a balanced car, a very fast car, and a terrible car, the exact stats can vary significantly. You will earn coins and equipment during the single player campaign. Coins can be used to buy new blind boxes or even individual cars that are available on a changing schedule. Gears, meanwhile, can be used to improve your car’s stats. New cars and other items will also be available through DLC, both paid and free.
But of course the main attraction here is the race itself. Hot Wheels Unleashed includes both online and offline multiplayer, as well as a surprisingly extensive single player campaign. As the game has not yet been released at the time of this writing, I have not been able to fully experience the online component, but plan to update my review with an end result once it launches.
The single player mode, Hot Wheels City Rumble, has a map full of challenges for you to take part in. Most events have both a standard win condition and a bonus condition that unlocks additional rewards. For example, most races require you to finish in the top three to continue, but if you win first place you will often get a new car to add to your collection. Different paths along the map lead to different rewards, and some events are even hidden behind secret unlocks. Honestly, this is my ideal single player setup in a racing game rather than traditional Grand Prix mode. The only weakness here is that while the setup is perfect, all events are essentially just a race or time trial. The events known as “Boss Races” are ultimately just a normal race with the additional condition that it can only continue with first place. There isn’t even a specific boss car; It’s just the same random lineup of vehicles you’ve been driving all along. I was expecting a one-on-one race where I would unlock a strong car, but unfortunately it’s just another race.
The racing mechanics themselves are generally solid, save for the occasional odd physics. There is a strong focus on drifting to speed up your boost meter filling up. Higher and rarer cars can store a greater amount of boost power, and different cars offer slightly different boost mechanics. Some allow custom boosts that need to be fully charged before they can be used, while others use a unified meter that can be called up at any time. I found that the physics of cars was a little difficult to predict. Occasionally it would stop me when I hit a wall, while at other times it barely affected my speed. Sometimes bumping into another car would have very little effect; in other situations we both got out of hand. When playing, it gives the feeling that you can never control your vehicle 100%, as if it were not firmly attached to the ground.
The strongest element of Hot Wheels Unleashed is arguably the incredibly detailed customization. Cars, train tracks, and even the basement your train tracks can be built in are all fully customizable. Cars can be individually painted and given stickers to create meticulous designs. These can then be uploaded and shared online with other players. The same goes for the track editor, which is very complex but also quite powerful. Admittedly, it is a bit unwieldy at launch, but on October 4th there will be an update for the Switch version that aims to improve the tutorial system. But even without it, the freedom you have in creating tracks is impressive. Much of what makes this fun depends on the environments in which these tracks were built. The levels take place in one of six environments, each of which is much larger than necessary for a track. My favorite is the college campus, which contains several classrooms, a library, and a hallway. The ventilation ducts in the ceiling between the rooms are also open for the track construction. The complex verticality of these environments should make for some interesting tracks if a large enough community can develop around them.
Finally, we come to the specifics of the Switch version itself. On Switch, Hot Wheels Unleashed runs at thirty frames per second and is extremely constant. I’ve tested about an hour’s worth of races and struggled to find a single frame rate problem. It’s really impressive given the huge environments and the adaptability of the tracks and vehicles. The picture quality is generally good. Handheld mode looks great and appears to be or very close to native resolution. Things are a little more blurry when docked but still not bad. When playing while docked, it’s a little easier to see that the game is outputting exactly 720p. Not ideal for big screen gaming, but passable, and well worth it for the excellent performance. The only major downside on the tech front are some pretty long loading times in races and even just to the main menu. It makes this a difficult game to jump into.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is a decent arcade racer with a whole bunch of additional content to help get it out of mediocrity. The single player campaign is aimed at great things, but it doesn’t come down to anything beyond simple races and time trials. The customization is incredible, if a little hard to get to grips with. Hopefully the upcoming post-launch update will fix these issues. There is a lot of potential at the moment. Look back to the time the patch showed up for my final reviews of the game. In the meantime, if building tracks and customizing cars can make up for some rough edges in other departments, Hot Wheels Unleashed might be worth checking out.