HOT WHEELS UNLEASHED Review – PC & PS5

Ten years ago a revolutionary new game called Skylanders hit the scene; one that opened the floodgates for numerous toys-to-life video games like Disney Infinity two years later and LEGO Dimensions two years after that.  And we can’t forget Nintendo’s massive line of Amiibo collectible figures.  I remember this time vividly because throughout this five-year span I kept thinking to myself, “If only they did this with Hot Wheels.”  While the figures offered in all those aforementioned products were cool there wasn’t much to do with them outside of their respective games other than display them on a shelf and collect dust, but actual Hot Wheels cars could still be played with outside of whatever type game might exist.

While my dream of a toys-to-life Hot Wheels game never materialized, in 2017 we did get an amazing Hot Wheels DLC for Forza Horizon 3 that delivered a fantastic racing world created from authentic Hot Wheels track pieces along with ten classic cars.  It’s such an amazing part of the Horizon experience it still remains on my system even four years later, but that might change with the release of Hot Wheels Unleashed; a game I have become hopelessly addicted to over the past two weeks leading up to its release.

Most of you know me from my racing sim reviews, and while I do favor the more realistic racing games there is something refreshingly simple and rewarding about a pure arcade racer where you don’t have to worry about gear ratios and tire wear.  This game unleashes the inner child in anyone who plays, especially if you are of an age that had anything to do with actually playing or collecting Hot Wheels cars since they were first introduced in 1968.  Unleashed offers the perfect mix of tracks and cars while creating a unique “collectible” environment that fuels your own car collection as well as continually adding pieces to your construction set when you are ready to start designing your own tracks.  After all, playing with Hot Wheels is all about the endless possibilities of creating the ultimate racetracks.

Hot Wheels Unleashed offers a dizzying amount of content including a massive single-player experience that spans a large city map with branching paths full of races and time trials, challenging boss fights, and clever secrets that combine specific tracks with specific cars.  You also have local split-screen racing and thrilling online racing for up to twelve drivers.  Sadly, there is no cross-play support, so you are stuck with matchmaking on your chosen platform.  I played and reviewed this game on both the PC and the PS5 and based on my post-launch play the PC seemed a bit easier when it comes to matchmaking, but with no public lobbies, race settings, or matchmaking filters multiplayer is still a bit of a mess.

Luckily for me, I was here mostly for the single-player experience which is pretty awesome in an addictive and time-consuming sort of way.  The game starts by opening three containers to get your collection started and these three cars vary with each new game.  The cars I started with on PS5 were not nearly as good, statistically speaking, as the ones I started with on PC, which had me struggling a bit on the console until I was able to upgrade to something a bit more competitive.

Cars all come with various stats for speed, acceleration, handling, etc., and all cars can be upgraded once to improve those base stats by spending “gears” earned by winning races.  You can also earn coins by winning races, which are used to purchase car containers, unlocking new cars for your growing collection.  Hot Wheels Unleashed manages to dodge the tempting micro-transaction scheme I would have expected from such a game, but they do have some questionable pricing structures for their various releases.

The base game is $50, even on PS5 which usually sees a $10 increase in price, but then you have the Collector’s Edition and the Ultimate Stunt Edition with prices climbing as high as $90 if you want the first two (of what I expect to be many) car collection Passes.  I still see a future where you can buy a physical Hot Wheels car and place it on a scanning pedestal and have it appear in a game…even this game.  The good news is that if you are immune to FOMO then you are still going to have a blast playing the base came which offers hours of challenging racing and plenty of cool cars.  If you are all about having the biggest and most complete car collection then crack open that wallet.

The core of Hot Wheels Unleashed has you exploring this massive city map dotted with dozens of racing events.  Paths follow the city streets, sometimes ending at a secret that must be solved before you can continue, sometimes a boss race, and sometimes you just reach the end of a certain path and claim your reward.  Each race has two completion goals, one for progression and an Unleashed objective that earns you even better prizes. Winning races will earn you gears, credits, car boxes, and a vast assortment of decorative components so you can customize your own basement game room.  You’ll also unlock various track elements and set pieces that can be used in the brilliant track editor to create infinite designs.

My only issue with this part of the game is that you cannot races your custom tracks against the computer, forcing you to go online for any competitive racing on your own creations.  Hopefully custom tracks get bot race support soon otherwise I see a total lack of incentive for creating tracks.  The track editor is simply inspired, easy to learn, easy to use, and you can construct amazing tracks in a short amount of time.  There is also a fun car editor where you can go in and change the color and material of various parts of the car and decorate it will all sorts of stickers and vinyl.  You can then share your design liveries online and use them in your own games to give your car a distinct look.

What surprised me most about Hot Wheels Unleashed was just how similar both games were across PC and PS5.  My RTX3090 card was pumping out smooth 4K/60fps visuals with all the settings maxed out and the game looked near photo-real in places, especially the textured plastic of the track pieces, and the cars were amazingly detailed and I really appreciated the way new unlocked cars were presented in their original packaging.  The PS5 version came up about 98% of the PC visual quality, and while the plastic tracks weren’t quite as shiny I found their duller texture actually looked a bit more realistic overall.  And these nominal visual sacrifices were more than made up for with lightning fast load times and responsive DualSense controls on the PS5 that had me more connected to the car and track.

There were a few nagging issues I had with the game; more developer oversights than anything I supposed.  I already mentioned the lackluster multiplayer support, and I found the lack of race views tragic.  The single view offered is totally functional, but I would have been interested to see things from other perspectives.  I REALLY wanted a free moving camera or at least a “human cam” perspective for the race replays.  Hot Wheels Unleashed does a fantastic job of creating a sense of scale from the micro/car perspective, but I would really like to watch a replay from a human scale seeing these cars race around the track in these immersive environments.  I also hated having to exit to the main menu and enter the Collection section to open blind containers.  I should be able to open a container the moment I earn it.

Hot Wheels Unleashed manages to create a quite addictive gaming experience with that “just one more race” mentality.  The timed rotation of store items also kept me playing longer that I would have.  During one session I was about to quit for the night and the shop had added the KITT car from Knight Rider for 1200 credits.  I only had 350 at the time and the car was only going to be in the store for another hour and fifty minutes, so I started racing all the events with the most prize money and just barely earned the 850 credits before the inventory got cycled.  I’m sure that KITT would have returned in a future rotation but there was something oddly compelling that I had to have that car NOW.  Ironically enough, I almost never use it.

And therein lies the biggest flaw in Hot Wheels Unleashed.  Not all cars are created equal and while many are fun to simply have in your collection and perhaps modify in the livery editor, many are simply not competitive.  The garbage truck has a zero speed rating.  The way the races are designed, especially the later races, you need to have cars with nearly maxed out stats and at least three nitro charges to even hope at winning.  The AI is brutally aggressive and there is no rubber-banding, so if you fly off the track on lap 3 you may as well start over.  While some tracks have elements like web-shooting spiders, acid-dripping scorpions, and giant snakes with snapping jaws that will stop your car in its tracks, the AI racers rarely seem to fall victim to these hazards.

Still, the racing is thrilling and fun with banked turns, loops, ramps, and even moments of driving across bare floors and tabletops lined with racing cones.  You can drift to fuel your nitro boost, and there are speed pads and purple turbo boosts along with magnetic track sections, and the most perilous; tracks without the side rails.  These butt-clenching sections can be terrifying because you have to maintain speed otherwise the AI will knock you off.  Tracks are all set within these magnificent real-world settings like a basement, garage, dorm room, and a skyscraper under construction where you actually drive across girders, and many have thrilling set pieces like a giant T-Rex head that launches the cars or the aforementioned Snake, Spider and Scorpion or even a fire-breathing dragon.  You also have track switchers and even moments where magnetic tracks will send your car floating to the next section forcing you to adjust your car’s pitch and yaw in mid-flight.  Great stuff!

Hot Wheels Unleashed offers it all; great racing action, addicting car collection, and creative design elements with the detailed track designer and livery editor.  Countless hours await whether you are simply trying to complete the massive single-player experience or lose yourself in designing future content for others to experience online.  Best of all, you can’t go wrong with either the PC or the PS5 version, as both are nearly identical in visual fidelity with maybe a few performance perks for the next-gen console.  Sure, there are areas that could be improved or enhanced, and the pricing scheme borders on anti-consumer, but rest assured the base game has everything you need to fully enjoy this next-gen Hot Wheels racing experience.

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