I’ve been collecting Hot Wheels cars for nearly three decades. I’ve never had as much fun with the toys as I have playing Hot Wheels Unleashed.
Released last week for Xboxes, PlayStations, Switches, and PCs, Hot Wheels Unleashed is one part arcade racer, one part tribute to the most iconic toy cars on the planet. Familiar fantasy vehicles mingle with licensed cars on lengths of instantly recognisable orange track. These toy-built tracks wind their way through relatively massive environments, putting Hot Wheels’ 1:64 scale in perspective as the toys blast through garages, dorm rooms, skyscrapers, and more.
While the vehicles in Hot Wheels Unleashed are all based on toys, the game does not treat them as such. Each of the game’s initial 66 cars has its own speed, braking, acceleration, and handling stats, and each drives differently. Switching between the slow and cumbersome Total Disposal trash truck and the sleek, silver 24 Hours sports car requires a period of adjustment, as you get used to the weight and physics of the different vehicles.
Italy-based developer Milestone has been making racing video games for nearly as long as I’ve been collecting Hot Wheels. The studio started with Screamer, a 1995 arcade racer for MS-DOS. Over the past several years it’s been working on several high-profile racing series, including Ride, Monster Energy Supercross, and MotoGP. Milestone knows racing and has brought that knowledge to bear on Hot Wheels Unleashed.
The key to success in Hot Wheels Unleashed is the same as it is in many arcade racing games: boosting and drifting. Drift to fill up your car’s boost metre, spend that metre for a burst of ridiculous speed. Properly juggling boost and drift can make even the slowest garbage truck a contender against sleek and futuristic sports cars.
For solo players, Hot Wheels Unleashed has Hot Wheels City Rumble, a large map filled with different races to win, time attack goals to reach, bosses (in the form of complex and challenging tracks) to battle, and secrets to uncover. Winning events in City Rumble earns you gears to upgrade racers and cash to buy new cars.
When not speeding around the pre-built tracks you can create your own using the robust track editor, using a combination of classic orange track pieces, special bits like loops and tunnels, or large, animated bits like a spider that shoots sticky web onto the road, snagging cars as they pass. A livery editor allows you to create and share your own car decorations, and then there’s the Basement, where you can use decorations won in single player to … decorate your basement. I’m honestly not sure why that last bit is in the game, but it is a very nice basement.
As for multiplayer, you can create a room to play online or join an existing room, and between races players vote on the tracks they’d like to compete on. Though AI challengers in single-player races put up a fair fight, other real people are where the real challenge is. I’ve yet to win a multiplayer race, but I’ve also yet to have a bad time losing.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is a celebration of Mattel’s toy cars, those little $1.35 die-cast beauties with the super-spinny wheels, that have been delighting children and adults since 1968. It’s also an outstanding little arcade racer that does let its small scale get in the way of big fun.