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May 2022

Hot Wheels Unleashed

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Racing
Developer: Milestone
Release Date: Sept. 30, 2021


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PS5 Review - 'Hot Wheels Unleashed'

by Cody Medellin on Dec. 28, 2021 @ 2:00 a.m. PST

Hot Wheels Unleashed is an action-packed arcade-style racing experience featuring Hot Wheels cars and sky-high tracks.

Originally created in 1968 as an answer to Matchbox cars, the Hot Wheels brand is instantly recognizable to people of all ages. Some of that comes from how well the company re-creates popular licensed cars in miniature form. Others love how the original designs simultaneously look good and ridiculous. The die-cast metal cars are loved for their durability. The fondness for the brand has resulted in several video game adaptations over the past few decades from the PlayStation era onward, but none have received any love from fans and critics, except for the DLC pack that came out a few years ago for Forza Horizon 3. Hot Wheels Unleashed is the latest attempt of a good, stand-alone game using the license, and while many would scoff at that idea given the property's history, a few races can change your opinion into a positive one.

The games have waffled between embracing the fact that they're toys and increasing the size of the vehicles and tracks to be more life-size, so it should be noted that Unleashed goes for the former. You have six environments to race in, from a customizable basement to a construction zone and a skate park. That doesn't seem like much, but you'll forget about the backdrop variety when you see the 40+ tracks that take great inspiration from the toy line. Stretches of road with and without bumpers intersect with ramps and loops. Magnetic fields make it possible to race on the ceiling, while tracks can be littered with barricades, fans, and speed boost pads. There are even giant spiders laying web traps and dragons breathing fire. It's all imaginative stuff that feels like it was dreamed up by someone with a large collection of the playsets, and it gets better when you see some of the tracks use the environment to their advantage.

The actual racing is reminiscent of a modern-day version of the Rush series due to the speed being conveyed. You'll hold down the gas most of the time, and you'll also tap on the brakes to initiate drift around practically every corner. Drift also builds up a boost meter, but taking off from ramps showcases the arcade influence, as you can control tilt and rotation in mid-air to give you more distance on the landing or put you in the perfect position to hit the turbo upon landing. That air control also helps with finding shortcuts since the races don't have a checkpoint system, so those who are adventurous can find plenty of ways to skip ahead once they know the track layout. The AI opposition also follows those arcade principles but less so on the shortcuts and more on speeding up to catch you when you make mistakes. It is easy and fun to pick up and play thanks to the game's responsiveness, but you'll need to practice avoiding the guard rails.

If you're playing on the PS5, Unleashed uses some of the features exclusive to the DualSense controller, and your opinions on their use will vary. Whenever you hit the turbo boost, you'll hear the exhaust come out of the controller speaker, which is a nice touch since the shrill sound comes off better than when it's mixed in with the rest of the soundscape. The game also uses the adaptive triggers for braking and gas. The trigger resistance is great for those who want real immersion, but the extra pull makes more competitive players turn off the option as soon as possible.

There aren't too many gameplay modes, but what's available is good enough. For offline players, the title only features two types of races: standard races that are either lapped or point A to B races. Having something else like a stunt mode would've been nice, but the racing and handling is good enough that the lack of other race types is not a deal-breaker. Not all of the tracks are available from the beginning, so unless you go through the campaign first, you'll be stuck with five tracks. The game also features local split-screen play, and even though it's only for two players, it is nice to see this rare feature, which is no longer considered for most major racing titles.

Online players can participate in quick races or create lobbies in 12-person races. The mode doesn't feature bots that fill in spots for real human players, but the community is healthy enough that it's easy to find an online match. The online performance is good, with no signs of lag or teleporting players, but be prepared to stay off the podium and come away with meager earnings because the online competition is fierce.

For those who crave the single-player experience, the campaign is dubbed City Rumble, and you're tasked with making your way through races to face off against 11 bosses and free the city from their tyrannical rule. The mode begins in a linear fashion before becoming more open, so you can select which events to participate in and decide the order in which to face the bosses. It's a novel approach, but with so many races and secret quests, prepare to spend a heap of hours on this.

Although you can earn this in every mode, the campaign is where you'll get a bulk of the two in-game currencies. Gears are used to upgrade your existing cars, but they're more blanket upgrades as opposed to individually tweaking boost, speed and so forth. Except for a few exceptions, every car has four rarity levels that coincide with their performance increases. Coins, on the other hand, can be used to purchase cars, and a limited selection pops up every few hours in the in-game store.

While you can use the store to unlock specific cars — provided you don't mind the high prices or waiting for the store to change after a set time period — the majority of the 66-car lineup comes from loot boxes. The bad news is that the loot box system has no qualms about providing duplicates. The good news is that you can transform those cars into gears or cash, and the payout is decent. The better news is that there is no way to use real money to get the virtual currency to obtain more boxes, so while it is a grind to get the whole collection, at least you aren't paying extra for the gamble.

No matter how you feel about the loot box system, the lineup is a great mix of the modern Hot Wheels brand. There are real-world cars like the Dodge Charger Daytona and the Fiat 500. There are a few original creations, like the Bone Shaker, Tricera-Truck, and Roller Toaster. If licensed cars are more your thing, there are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Party Van and K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider as well as Snoopy atop his doghouse. The roster is deep and varied enough that there is something for everyone to race in, but be prepared for lots of upcoming DLC to add to the lineup.

While the loot box system bars players from using real money to get the base game's included cars, the Racing Season pass can be purchased with real money (not to be confused with the Pass, which provides a slew of new cars, customization parts, and track pieces). Similar to titles like Fortnite, the pass grants access to a premium tier, where grinding away at races and leveling up provides access to more cars and customization parts. It's odd to see that in a game that isn't free-to-play, and it's also discouraging to see that your chances of getting XP for the pass is slim, since you need to reach the podium to get a sliver of it. The game encourages you to use the Quick Race mode offline to knock out the Daily Challenges, and even though it'll take a significant amount of time to get it done, it's an option for those who want to spend an extra $6 to get everything before it's gone.

Creative types will find something to love with the inclusion of two modes. There's a livery editor that lets you change the paint and decal job on almost all cars. It isn't as extensive as something in a Forza game, but it works well enough considering the limited number of designs, and the designs can be shared online. The track editor is what more people will gravitate toward, as you have a good amount of space and a multitude of pieces to work with. The editor is easy to use, and the track placement is flexible with some practice. You can save and publish tracks online, but unlike the livery, there's no way to browse the tracks to select what you want to play. Instead, two are randomly chosen as selectable tracks when playing online; it's better than nothing, but it would've been much better to have a browser to download and play the tracks offline.

The overall presentation is fantastic. Aside from engine noises from the cars, your speakers will be dedicated to the soundtrack, which is an eclectic mix of original electronic and funk material. It may not sound good on paper, but it works. Graphically, the game runs at a smooth frame rate, and the environments feature some good details. From the shine of the speckled paint to the embossing of the undercarriage, everything is as accurate as the real toys. What's even more impressive are the little details that you would expect to see from cars that have been out of the packaging for a while: paint chips, wear on the plastic wheels, and fingerprints on the body and windshield.

Hot Wheels Unleashed is perhaps the best stand-alone game to use the license by far. It nails the feeling of racing with tiny die-cast cars and melds it with a presentation that looks far better than what you'd expect for a licensed title. The race variety is lacking, given the presence of only two race types, but the track variety greatly makes up for that shortcoming. It may have flown under everyone's radar, but Unleashed is worth everyone's attention.

Score: 7.5/10

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