As you load up Hot Wheels Unleashed it’s hard not to think that you’ve hit the jackpot, as it’s not only been a long time since the series has seen a release on consoles but it’s stuffed to the brim with creative features that can have you occupied for hours before you even get behind the wheel.
Perhaps as an apology for the length of time away, Unleashed puts an impressive effort into transporting Hot Wheels fans back to the living room of their childhood home where their imaginations would take the toys beyond their physical limits and give them a life of their own. With the ability to not only create your own tracks and race with your own paint job-created cars, you can also design your own basement to race them in. Furthermore, you can collect and upgrade your favorite cars while the game’s great graphics allows you to appreciate even the smallest details of the cars, down to the trademarks written underneath them.
With nearly 100 missions and 79 cars to choose from you’d think the expansive single-player mode would be equally inspiring, but unfortunately, in trying to make this as close to the real thing as possible, the racing potential is bound by the limitations the physical sets provide, and for those who don’t have that nostalgic connection with the little metal vehicles, the actual racing is a very slow burn that until you unlock its fastest cars, will likely have you wishing you left it mint and in the box.
Unfortunately, so beholden to the brand is this title that no unlicensed video game would choose this combination of gameplay and level elements without nostalgia backing it up. Whether it’s that every car handles almost identically, the fact that the AI has incredible road etiquette, or the unimaginative tracks that repeat themselves ad nauseam, it was only the game’s fastest cars and in-game loot box system that prevented me from giving up on the dull single-player mode before I even reached halfway.
It’s a shame as there is clearly potential for something more if they were to just take off the Hot Wheels branded hat. There are great-looking environments that are completely wasted by tracks floating in the air instead of running through and around obstacles that are just waiting to be integrated. Instead, the majority of the tracks claim yet another tiresome loop to be its greatest feature.
What’s even more puzzling is that imaginative designs and fun track features, such as snakes with opening and closing mouths, do exist in boss races, but there are only 5 in the entire game – out of 100 races. It’s almost as if the developer needed a campaign mode long enough to gradually unlock its collection of cars but didn’t want to overuse its best track features early on, hence making a large number of them feel gut-wrenchingly similar.
This effect wouldn’t be so bad if the 11 AI-controlled cars provided some entertainment on your way to the finish line, but despite racing quickly, they act like sedated ghost laps and rarely ever crash, which considering the series’ previous focus on large and impressive crashes, seems like a missed opportunity.
And for the love of all things awesome, make sure you don’t crash, as the game mechanics barely forgive a jump or turn not completed perfectly – despite the fact that you can ride with your eyes closed for 90% of the track due to its barriers. This harshness is a consequence of Unleashed‘s overreliance on drifting, which increases your speed twofold by upping your speed around the corners and filling your boost meter. It’s a decent system to wield as a player, but it turns out that the robotic AI is pretty good at it too, meaning that if for whatever reason you aren’t receiving the twofold benefit for more than a few seconds, you are not only going to find it almost impossible to catch up, you are likely to finish dead last. A respawn button does alleviate this issue to a degree, but it is a ‘feature’ necessary due to the lack of different ways to actually race.
It perhaps comes as no surprise then that I actually enjoyed the time attack modes quite a bit more than any single player race – which for most arcade titles would quite be the damning assessment, but for Hot Wheels Unleashed, it manages to escape relatively unscathed.
Stealing the show are the game’s track creator and online multiplayer modes that allow you to play your own custom-made tracks and those made by the online community. The track editor has endless options for wacky and out-of-this-world creations to be put together, shared and played randomly online with others or played in a single-player time attack mode. Sadly though, this is the extent of which these features are supported currently with no online leaderboards or tournaments at the moment, despite them being the best on-track parts of the game by some margin.
As a big proponent of offline single-player experiences, I seldom say this, but it’s a shame this game didn’t shift more of its creative focus online as without each car having more distinct features (than just top speed and acceleration stats), this game needs innovative and varying designs to best convey its sense of speed.
Fans can rejoice that Unleashed is more than just a Hot Wheels title in name, encompassing everything the product is about, and while criticizing its narrow gameplay might be like complaining that water is wet, I can’t help but feel that the game leaves an unnecessary amount of potential on the table which ultimately prevents this game from being anything more than occasionally great.