Hot Wheels Unleashed Review: A Rush of Nostalgia

Hot Wheels Unleashed at its best is breakneck entertainment with a nostalgic coat of paint. At its worst, it's a budget racing game hidden by the aforementioned nostalgic coat of paint. Milestone's new racing game has a surplus of good ideas left unrealized by insufficient polish and ill-advised design choices. At times, Hot Wheels Unleashed is a competent racing game that offers high-speed thrills and everything your inner child dreams of from a Hot Wheels game, but other times it's reminiscent of the middle-of-the-road licensed games of yesteryear. 

Hot Wheels Unleashed is undoubtedly the best Hot Wheels game to date. More arcade racer than racing sim, it's fast and flashy and understands what makes Hot Wheels great and what a Hot Wheels game should be. However, it doesn't always play like how a Hot Wheels game should.

The title strikes a nice balance between easy to pick up, but difficult to master. Facilitating this is its control scheme. You accelerate with the right trigger and brake and reverse with the left trigger. You do this while steering with the left stick, which is also used -- alongside the right stick -- to control your car when it's airborne. Last but not least is the Boost, which is mapped to the "X" button. And as you would expect from a game dubbed "Hot Wheels Unleashed," effectively using boost is vital to reaching the podium and manifesting the immersion that you're truly playing a Hot Wheels game. 

To effectively manage your boost, you will need to be equally efficient in drifting, which is not only how you maintain speed and momentum in turns, but how you quickly build up boost. To this end, Hot Wheels Unleashed sometimes feels more like a puzzle game than a racing game as you figure out how to drift through each twist and turn to maximize your speed. 

A degree in boost administration is also imperative to counteract gravity. Many tracks in the game feature loops and obstacles that will create the effect of zero-gravity. If you're driving too slow, you won't make it through these parts of the track. 

Undermining this blend of strategy, input mastery, and relatively fluid driving mechanics is a second-rate physics and collision system. Whether you're smashing into the wall, ramming into another vehicle, or landing after a period of being airborne, it isn't satisfying. There's little impact to any of it, which in turn means the consequence is negligible. In just about every racing game, this is going to be a major negative, but it's especially disappointing when you're playing a Hot Wheels game. Every child who grew up on Hot Wheels and raced them would inevitably crash and clash them together. You can't relive this in Hot Wheels Unleashed

While every element of Hot Wheels Unleashed's gameplay may not impress your nostalgia, what will is the game's Track Editor. You can step into the shoes of a 9-year-old construction manager and build the tracks you created in your imagination as a child, or at least you can in theory. Hot Wheels Unleashed's Track Editor is robust, and has all the tools you need, but creating the track of your dreams will require patience as the track-building tools aren't as intuitive as they should be and you will need to grind the game to unlock all of the special pieces that you will inevitably want to use. 

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(Photo: Milestone)

Speaking of progression, this is where Milestone sacrificed too much in the sacred name of player retention. You start Hot Wheels Unleashed with three of the game's 66 vehicles. This is bad enough on its own, but exasperating the issue is the fact you don't get to pick these three vehicles. It's completely random. If you're coming to a budget Hot Wheels game in 2021, it's because you didn't listen to your brain or even your gut, but your nostalgia. So much of this game is reliant on fueling this nostalgia, yet you can start the game, and play it for hours as I did, before you earn a vehicle you want to use, as vehicle unlocks are locked behind the in-game currency, which in turn can be used to buy vehicles in a rotating item shop or to buy loot boxes. In 2021 everyone is cashing in on nostalgia, but gatekeeping it behind grinding and randomness, especially when it's your chief selling point, is ill-advised at best. You don't have to spend any money to unlock every vehicle in the game nor do you have to dump JRPG-like hours into the game, but it's still far more work and hassle than it should be.

To grind out vehicles, you can play a variety of modes, including a single-player mode with a very light narrative, multiplayer, and split-screen. Meanwhile, not every race will be a traditional race against opponents, as there's also a time-attack mode that will be addicting for veteran players but frustrating for new players. In this regard, the game is a pretty standard affair, offering up an appreciable amount of content that doesn't revolutionize the genre, but will keep you busy as you race across a metric ton of tracks set in six different environments that complement the nostalgia well. And if you get bored of racing, you can spend too many hours to be counted with the game's robust car customization, which not only allows you to role-play Hot Wheels car designer, but also allows you to upgrade your favorite vehicles with enhancements that boost one of each car's five self-explanatory stats: speed, acceleration, braking power, boost fuel, and handling. 

Where Hot Wheels Unleashed's nostalgia is undermined is in the audio department. Not only is there a lack of finer audio details that flesh out immersion, but as I write this I can hardly remember any of the game's soundtrack. Meanwhile, a lack of visual enhancements means this cross-gen game looks much more last-gen than it does next-gen.

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(Photo: Milestone)

Hot Wheels Unleashed -- in all caps and bolded letters -- is a passable arcade racer that sticks out from other middle-of-the-road racing games thanks to its devotion to nostalgia and some great ideas that are unfortunately not completely realized due to obvious budgetary restrictions. If you're desperate to get behind the wheel of your favorite Hot Wheel, it will scratch that itch, but not much else.

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Rating: 3 out of 5

Hot Wheels Unleashed is available via Nintendo Switch, PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S. A PlayStation 4 review code was provided by the publisher, and it was reviewed on a base model PS4.