Playing Hot Wheels Unleashed makes me feel a lot like being a five-year-old again. There’s a sense of endless wonder and joy in seeing the world from the eyes of a toy, where the top of every couch, ridges on every vent, underneath every table feels like a larger universe worth pouring in endless amounts of time into exploring.
The joy is thus, not necessarily in the achievement of anything, but merely in the act of play and exploration in and of itself. And Hot Wheels Unleashed does a phenomenally great job at marrying this wondrous spirit with the pure, uninhibited joy of an excellent kart racer.
Pure Racing Fun
The game takes a few very simple ideas and plays into them in every meaningful way possible. The core idea being: what did you imagine the fun of Hot Wheels to be like when you were a kid? Inspired by the cool and action-packed energy of Hot Wheels toys, this game sees you competing in races across real-world spaces. From a basement to a garage, a skatepark, and even a college campus where elaborately over-the-top Hot Wheels tracks have been laid for 12 die-cast toy cars to blaze their way towards finishing-line glory.
Every race in Hot Wheels Unleashed feels like hitting up a high-stakes roller coaster at an amusement park with plenty of sharp turns, winding loops, and bursts of speed. All while being able to gloat at the opponents chasing your tailwind in your peripheral vision.
Beauty in Simplicity
Mechanically, the game is quite deep, albeit built on some straightforward tools. As the driver, you control turns, drifts (to charge boost bars), boosts, and in-air rotations (for landing jumps). Every vehicle has a variation of a pretty standard set of base stats such as top speed, braking power, acceleration, and handling. Where they defer, is that they have a different set of boost bars.
Some have cartridges that are expelled in fixed bursts, while others use a continuous gauge. This makes for interesting challenges of map recognition and driving skills as a result. Time your boosts right, and you can cut corners and overtake opponents at critical points (or even tip them off the edges of the track). Time your boosts wrong, and you might overshoot a crucial jump, which will require you to respawn at the back of the pack.
Life in Plastic, It’s Fantastic
The toy-like material physics also makes for an intriguing challenge. Some vehicles are tall and top-heavy and can throw their heft around on sharper turns to knock opposing racers off balance, but are also prone to toppling over like SUVs darting down a tight street corner. I personally found the groundedness of flatter cars to be easier to steer and much less accident-prone, which is typically how I like to drive.
A wide variety of track materials (just like real-life Hot Wheels toys) plays with different physical properties and presents a unique set of gameplay challenges. For example, magnetic tracks allow for cars to stick even when defying the pull of gravity, but a slight slip off track will have you plummeting from the room’s ceiling in utter disgrace.
Timing your manoeuvres to dodge track hazards, like sticky spider webs and the crunching mouth of a T-Rex, were fair and exhilarating when expertly executed (if I do say so myself). I really dug the fact that respawning was mapped to an optional button press. Sometimes my curiosity just felt like checking out the underbellies of the basement instead of continuing with the race. This freedom to explore is another small, but meaningful touch.
Gotta Catch Em’ All
A robust (and lengthy) single-player mode called Hot Wheels City Rumble is the centrepiece to this scrumptious meal (although both local and online multiplayer, as well as an exquisite track builder, are also on the menu) featuring a slew of standard races, time attack challenges, and boss battles. By completing races, you can earn gears (to upgrade your existing cars) or earn in-game currency to buy new cars (through blind boxes or a rotating storefront).
While most people generally detest the inclusion of RNG (random number generator) and loot boxes in gaming these days — myself included — in the case of Hot Wheels Unleashed, I found these actually to enhance the experience. Earning blind boxes to amass a collection of toy racers makes for an interesting way to revisit the fun of a toy collection hobby without dealing with all the physical clutter.
Ultimately, Hot Wheels Unleashed’s faithful representation of racing toy cars brought me the same feelings of delight as when watching Toy Story, Ant-Man, and racing down Ribbon Road in Mario Kart 8. That’s my way of saying that it’s absolutely fantastic!
A fun little licensed racer with a lot of heart and depth, Hot Wheels Unleashed is one of my favourite gaming experiences in recent memory. It reminds us that gaming isn’t all about traversing through the depths of hell in old classics, another year of the same football sims, saving the galaxy in futuristic space shooters, and epic samurai adventures (although those are most certainly welcome). Sometimes gaming is just about silly ideas, toys in a basement, and a small but immersive experience that makes for an afternoon of joy and wonder.
Screenshots taken on a PlayStation 5 (backwards compatible from PlayStation 4). Additional visuals courtesy of Milestone.