A wildly customizable racing game.
Reviewer's note: In the interest of accurately representing the complete game, I have chosen to post this review unscored until I have an opportunity to try the multiplayer post launch.
You never really know what you’re going to get when it comes to Hot Wheels games. For every Hot Wheels Stunt Track Driver, there’s also a Hot Wheels World’s Best Driver. Most of the franchise tends to lean a bit closer to the latter. So it is with trepidation that I approached Hot Wheels Unleashed, hopeful to rekindle nostalgia with an arcade racing experience, while being fully prepared for the worst.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is a drift-focused, arcade racing game that leans heavily into its toy car inspiration. This applies not only to the races themselves, but to the entire package. This is a game built on—in essentially equal measure—racing, collecting, and customizing. While it approaches each of these with varying degrees of success, it is difficult to ignore the sheer volume of content included in Hot Wheels Unleashed.
As you start a new game, you’ll instantly be given three blind boxes from which you’ll pull your first three cars. These are truly random, so different players will not necessarily start with the same cars. This is worth noting as some vehicles are objectively worse than others. While you seemingly get one balanced car, one very fast car, and one terrible car, the exact stats can vary significantly. Throughout the single player campaign you’ll earn coins and gears. Coins can be used to buy new blind boxes or even individual cars that are available on a rotating schedule. Gears meanwhile can be used to upgrade your car’s stats. New cars and other elements will also be available via DLC, both paid and free.
But of course, the main attraction here is the racing itself. Hot Wheels Unleashed includes both online and offline multiplayer, along with a surprisingly expansive single player campaign. As the game has not yet released at the time of writing this, I have been unable to fully experience the online component, but plan on updating my review with a final score after launch.
The single player mode, Hot Wheels City Rumble, presents a map full of challenges to compete in. Most events have both a standard victory condition and a bonus condition that unlocks additional rewards. For example, most races require you to place in the top three to proceed, but winning first place will often award a new car for your collection. Different paths along the map lead to different rewards, and some events are even hidden behind secret unlocks. This is honestly my ideal setup for single player in a racing game rather than a traditional grand prix mode. The only weakness here is that while the setup is perfect, all of the events essentially just equate to a race or a time trial. Even the events labeled “Boss Race” are ultimately just a normal race with the added condition that getting first place is the only way to proceed. There isn’t even a specific boss car; it's just the same random lineup of vehicles you’ve been racing the whole time. I was expecting a one-on-one race in which I’d unlock a powerful car, but alas, it is just another race.
The racing mechanics themselves are generally solid, save for some occasionally weird physics. There is a heavy focus placed on drifting to speed up the filling of your boost meter. Higher level and rarer cars can store a greater amount of boost power, and different cars offer slightly different boosting mechanics. Some allow individual boosts that must be fully charged before they can be used, while others use a unified meter that may be drawn from at any time. I did find that the physics on cars was somewhat difficult to predict. Occasionally bumping a wall would grind me to a halt while other times it barely affected my speed. Sometimes bumping another car would have very little effect; in other situations, we’d both go spinning wildly out of control. There is a sense while playing that you’re never 100% in control of your vehicle as if it's not firmly connected to the ground.
Arguably, Hot Wheels Unleashed’s strongest element is its incredibly in-depth customization. Cars, tracks, and even the basement in which your tracks can be built are all fully customizable. Cars can have custom paint jobs and be covered in stickers to create meticulous designs. These can then be uploaded and shared online with other players. The same goes for the track editor which, while very complex, is also quite powerful. It is admittedly a little unwieldy at launch, but an update for the Switch version that purports to improve the tutorial system will be arriving on October 4th. Though even without it, the amount of freedom you have to create tracks is impressive. A lot of what makes this fun comes down to the environments in which these tracks are constructed. Levels take place in one of six environments, each of which is way bigger than necessary for any one track. My favorite of these is the College Campus which contains multiple classrooms, a library, and a hallway. Even the ventilation ducts in the ceiling between rooms are open to track construction. The complex verticality of these environments ought to lend itself to some interesting tracks if a large enough community can develop around it.
Finally we come to the specifics of the Switch version itself. On Switch, Hot Wheels Unleashed runs at thirty frames per second and is extremely consistent. I tested around an hour's worth of races and struggled to find a single frame rate issue. It's honestly impressive given the huge environments and customizability of the tracks and vehicles. Image quality on the whole is generally good. Handheld mode looks excellent and appears to be native resolution or very near to it. Things are a little blurrier docked but still not bad. Playing docked, it is a bit easier to tell that the game is outputting exactly 720p. Not ideal for big screen play but passable, and worth it for the excellent performance levels. The only substantial downside on the technical front is some pretty long loading times into races and even just to the main menu. It makes this a difficult game to just hop into.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is a decent arcade racer with a whole bunch of additional content that helps pull it out of mediocrity. The single player campaign is set up for greatness but ultimately fails to amount to anything beyond basic races and time trials. The customization is incredible, if a little hard to come to grip with. Hopefully, the upcoming post-launch update will clear these issues up. For now, there is a lot of potential. Check back around the time that patch hits for my final scored thoughts on the game. In the meantime, if building tracks and customizing cars can make up for some rough edges in other departments, Hot Wheels Unleashed may be worth checking out.