There are few licences out there that are better suited to a video game than Hot Wheels. After all, when the whole brand revolves around collecting a wide variety of tiny cars then creating over-the-top tracks for them to race on, it’s fair to say that any game that manages to capture that essence of pure fun is well on its way to becoming a success.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is the latest attempt to digitise the toy series and it's probably the best Hot Wheels game to date. That said, there’s just something about it (at launch, at least) that leaves us wanting a little bit more.
The game’s main single-player mode is City Rumble, a series of races laid out over a large world map with multiple routes. Naturally, the plan is to make your way through all the races by clearing them all, earning stars and collecting rewards along the way.
These events are the standard fare you would expect from a racing game: Quick Races (where you have to finish first) and Time Attacks (where you have to beat a certain time to earn one one star, or a second shorter time for two). Other than a handful of ‘boss battles’, which are just longer races set around a large toy, there really isn’t much variety to these races. You don’t even have the typical ‘eliminator’ style race that most games add to mix things up a bit.
It’s fun enough, and will take you anything from 6-10 hours to complete, depending on your skill level. It’s possible to set it to Easy — in case a kid’s playing it, for example, or you just fancy a more relaxing ride — and the rewards are the same regardless. That said, the Time Trials don’t have difficulty settings, and some of the tighter limits can be tricky for newcomers.
The aim of completing all these races is to earn coins and gears. Coins can be spent on new cars, while the gears can be used to upgrade vehicles you already have in your collection. Given that half the fun of real life Hot Wheels is collecting them, it should be no surprise that it’s also the most enjoyable part of the game, even if it gets a bit loot-boxy.
You can buy cars in two ways. The most common is by spending coins on ‘Blind Boxes’, which are your aforementioned loot-boxes and will give you one of the game’s 68 cars at random (with the common ones obviously appearing more frequently).
This isn’t the sort of game that just gives you a new car every time, however. It’s possible to buy a Blind Box and get a duplicate of a car you already have in your collection. In situations like this, you can either sell them or ‘dismantle’ them into gears to upgrade your original one.
If you’re starting to think “hang on, this is going to make it hard to complete the whole set” then… well, yes, frankly. But there’s at least some support in the Limited Offer section, which picks five cars at random and lays them out for you, letting you buy specific one (think of it like the Trophy Shop in Smash Bros For Wii U / 3DS). Every few hours the cars in the shop are changed, meaning if you’re patient enough you can finally get the last ones you need.
That's all well and good but how about the actual racing itself? Well, it's fine, really. The tracks are clever as a concept: expect plenty of those iconic bright orange and blue plastic tracks swooping all over the place as you take on loop-the-loops, banked turns and the like. Each track also has a huge real-life backdrop, similar to the Micro Machines games, to make it clear that you’re racing toy cars. Unlike Micro Machines, though, these locales rarely stray onto the tracks themselves, meaning they usually just serve as eye candy rather than actual obstacles.
While there’s a healthy number of tracks, they’re all grouped into just five themes: Basement, Skate Park, College Campus, Garage and Skyscraper. This means that while the layouts can change quite wildly, the courses themselves start to look similar in no time at all. We’re hopeful that the upcoming DLC packs will add some new environments to give some much-needed variety.
On the track itself, the handling can take a little while to get used to. Acceleration, steering and normal turns are perfectly fine, but the drifting isn't quite as intuitive as it is in other arcade racing games. As such it’ll take you a little while to stop bumping into the edges of turns. It’s imperative that you figure it out, too, because successful drifts are what powers up your turbos quicker.
Speaking of turbos, the game’s boost functionality is a clever way of adding some diversity to each car’s racing style. Some cars have a boost meter which drains as you hold the turbo button down, while others have a set number of one-off boosts (similar to a mushroom in Mario Kart). Both can be recharged by drifting, but each requires a different strategy when using them on the track. What’s more, different cars have differently sized boost meters, or can hold different numbers of boosts.
Things would be starting to look a little underwhelming here were it not for the cars, which are undoubtedly the star of the show (well, you’d hope so considering the game is named after them). The 68 cars on offer at launch range from the sensible licensed vehicles like a ‘55 Chevrolet or a Fiat 500, to more ridiculous designs like the Motosaurus (a big Stegosaurus on wheels) or the Roller Toaster, which… well, it’s a toaster.
Unlocking these cars is the game’s real highlight, and we’re certain that anyone with a real love for Hot Wheels will be delighted to see some of the models that have been chosen for this game. There are also plans to bring more licensed cars down the line, but unfortunately these are going to be paid DLC (because those licences don’t pay for themselves, we suppose).
In terms of the game’s other modes, we’re sort of at a stalemate here. The pre-release curse means we’ve been struggling to find regular online matches, though the few we’ve managed to get have been fine. That said, at the moment there’s only a ‘Quick Play’ option, with no Ranked mode or anything like that, and that could get old fast if it isn’t upgraded.
Perhaps more importantly, there’s also a ‘day one’ patch coming to the game, but the Switch version won’t actually be getting it until 4th October (so, more like a day five patch). This patch will include "general and minor fixes" and a “significant update” to the Track Builder tutorial, which as it stands is a bit all over the place.
The theory is that once it’s been patched, players will be able to create their own tracks with a large selection of pieces and bigger ‘module’ toys, then share them online for others to race on. With the DLC packs offering more backgrounds and modules, there’s a real possibility that this mode could provide the longevity the game needs at this point, and almost become a Super Mario Maker of toy car racing. But that remains to be seen.
As it stands right now, Hot Wheels Unleashed is a fun racer whose fantastic selection of cars makes up for its relative lack of varied course environments. With updates and DLC it has the potential to become a brilliant mess of licensed properties in the way the best mash-up games are, but what’s here is a solid enough foundation to start from, even if it’s a little samey at launch.