Let’s be honest, most video games based off toy franchises usually turn out to be mediocre at best and plain awful at worst. Thankfully Milestone has broken the (toy) mold with their latest title, Hot Wheels Unleashed, which somehow manages to not only be one of the best toy-based games ever made, but also one of the best arcade racers out there, despite some hot issues holding it from a perfect finish.
As soon as I fired this game up, I immediately smiled with glee on how detailed the toy cars and tracks are, as they look exactly as they do in real life from the toy store. Milestone really did an awesome job with the Unreal Engine to recreate these toys on a 1:1 scale, as though they really wanted to capture your childhood (if you played with Hot Wheels anyway) and take you back there.
That’s exactly what they’ve accomplished here as you open up three random loot box-like toy cases (more on this later) and pick a toy car to race with on a tutorial track as you learn how to drift which will come in handy throughout the game, to applying boosts to get ahead of the other racers and defy gravity when you speed through loops. These tie together as the better you drift, the more boost energy you gain to speed by the competition.
Once you’ve cleared that, you can then choose to play the campaign mode that takes you through 40-some various tracks and races when you can earn coins and parts to unlock more cars and enhance the ones you have, or take your skills online to race against others. Since you’re playing with toy cars, I have to bring up that each track looks as though some kids set up some toy tracks in various spots from the bedroom, living room, kitchen, and such, to other locations like a construction site and more that really captures that childhood imagination.
Another neat touch is how some of the tracks feature a few of the wacky gimmicks Hot Wheels is known for, such as Godzilla-like monsters and giant spiders trying to hinder you on some of the races, adding another layer of challenge besides racing for first place. There’s even a mode where you can make your own tracks to race on and check out some made from other players. So while I love all of the things about the main game, I also have to go into the not-so-hot things as well.
After your randomly selected toy cars at the beginning, you’ll have to earn in-game currency to unlock other cars that range from various real cars such as sedans and such, to Mattel’s crazy creations like a racing trash truck and dinosaurs with wheels, to even more cool and extreme cars like Kitt from Knight Rider or the DeLorean from Back to the Future which again takes me back to my 80s childhood.
These are cool and all, but the random loot box mechanic rears its ugly head here as it does in most popular games out there and ruins the fun as you’re prone to unlocking duplicates and forced to grind for currency just to repeat the cycle of rolling the dice for a chance to unlock something. It also doesn’t help that some of the cars are unbalanced and have game-breaking advantages over others, such as ones that basically let you boost indefinitely.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, there’s also day one DLC with not one, not two, but three season passes, and you can only get some of the select cars in these passes. And let’s say you decide to throw down $90 for the Ultimate Edition of the game. You’d think you have it all, right? Nope. It only gives you the first two passes and not the third.
Add in the typical FOMO (fear of missing out) effect that most microtransactions do, aka “you have X amount of hours to unlock this car or it’s gone forever” added to the store window in the game, and that there are a small amount cars you can purchase with real money (saw one for 99 cents), and it tends to drag the fun down quite a bit.
Despite those faults, Hot Wheels Unleashed is hands down one of the best toy-based games and arcade racers out there. I want to give this editor’s choice and nominate it as one of the best games of the year, but I can’t in good conscience thanks to the aforementioned flaws which I hope will be patched. Even still, you’ll want to have some fun with this at some point. Just mind the hot messes when you do.