Behind only LEGO, Hot Wheels are easily the second most painful toy to stand on. Cold, metallic, and capable of becoming an unwanted roller-skate, they should be viewed with the utmost suspicion. Hot Wheels Unleashed brings these tiny toys into your living room in the safest way possible; an arcade racer where the vehicles stay resolutely within the frame of your TV screen or monitor. That safety might extend to the format and presentation of the game itself too, but who says safety can’t be fun?
While we’ve seen an array of kart racers with brands shoehorned into amusingly proportioned vehicles, Hot Wheels Unleashed makes sense. Tiny cars racing through malleable orange tracks is the whole idea after all, and when you can add in the possibility of an appearance from a dinosaur or snake, then most of the design work has already been done.
Hot Wheels City Rumble is the main campaign mode, and there’s a lot of it. There’s five monsters causing chaos in Hot Wheels City, and of course they’re the kind of monsters that will force racers to face a series of challenges in order to continue driving. While it’s not quite the works of Shakespeare, it is a way of wrangling some single-player sense out of a batch of toy cars.
There’s an expansive map with a huge number of events strewn across it, and you can choose, to a certain extent, the route you take through them as you unlock each one. There’s six different locations where the tracks might appear, including a college, a basement and a building site, and you’ll be overjoyed at the number of times these tracks can surprise you, whether with a magnetic piece of track where you find yourself floating towards the roof or a sudden burst of glorious sunshine as you leap across a chasm fifty storeys up.
You need to take part here as doing so unlocks cars, upgrade gear and customisation options for building your own tracks, and it’s all pretty integral before, or while, you’re taking part in some multiplayer moments.
This game does a great job of capturing the look and feel of actually racing Hot Wheels cars. This isn’t Forza with a Hot Wheels skin – we’ve seen that already – but rather this is toy cars on a plastic track, or sometimes the floor, doing what toy cars would do. That extends to the buzzy sound of their engines, and the fact you can tip them up if you’re a bit too keen with the drift and boost buttons at the same time.
Hot Wheels Unleashed feels good. I always think you can tell how you’re going to get on with an arcade racer at the very first corner you attempt to drive around. Hot Wheels has ascribed to the school of digital motoring where a tap of the brake button will launch into a long, relatively well-controlled drift. It’s done just right.
If you’re someone over the age of ten years old, you’ll want to make sure you select at least Medium difficulty. The game launches with Easy as the default setting, and that’s totally understandable given the franchise, but unless you enjoy being able to grab first place within the first 15 seconds of a race and never seeing anyone again you’re best pumping things up a bit. It goes all the way up to Extreme, if you really fancy a challenge.
Amusingly, Medium is more than enough, and thanks to a few foibles with the track designs you can find yourself feeling somewhat hard-done-by at times. You can drift too far, or overshoot a turn by flying through the air if you don’t know the track well enough. I wasn’t quite prepared by how much I’d need to learn the routes, whether racing or taking part in time trials, and despite its toy-based nature, Hot Wheels Unleashed is a fully-fledged arcade racing game.
One of the biggest draws is likely to be building your collection of cars, and if you or some smaller people in your home Hot Wheels fans, you’ll be impressed by the bevy of beautiful renditions of these tiny vehicles. There’s a mix of real-world classics, and the wilder this-car-is-a-dinosaur offerings, with 66 to unlock as a starting point. There’s also an array of DLC, which looks to include Back to the Future’s DeLorean, Batman’s Batmobile and other famous vehicles, but they weren’t available in our pre-release build. There’s the promise of free updates too, so your collection should grow no matter what.
The Basement and Track Builder modes allow you to flex your inner Hot Wheels YouTuber, creating your own tracks and tinkering with the design of the different rooms as well so they become a true reflection of whatever man/woman/person cave you fancy inhabiting with tiny cars.
The track builder isn’t the most intuitive option I’ve ever come across, but it is powerful, allowing you to create undulating courses that move from room to room. Your first interactions with it will likely be one of frustration as many of the commands rely on a combination of buttons to access. Younger gamers will need an older pair of hands to get the most of it, but that in itself can be a fun family exercise in achieving someone’s vision. A cavalcade of snakeheads and loop the loops undoubtedly await you.