Unleashed is a visually pleasing and well-crafted micro-sized racer.
With Hot Wheels Unleashed, there's finally a possibility to play with toy cars again, without people giving you an odd eye if you're over ten years of age. Because this game is all about lifelike toy cars racing around ordinary places, such as basements and construction sites. There's plenty of racing games out there, but with these ingredients Hot Wheels Unleashed manages to be a unique addition to both arcade and racing simulation games. We're talking about real-life cars after all, so in my mind and based on my experience playing the game, it's both an arcade Mario Kart-style game and a racing simulation game of sorts merged into one.
Hot Wheels Unleashed features 66 highly-detailed and lifelike Hot Wheels toy cars to play with. They're a mixture of goofy ones, such as a triceratops car and a hamburger car, and realistic ones such as an Audi R8 Spyder and '69 Dodge Charger. They all have their own vehicle characteristics, some going faster in a straight line while others are better at taking turns, for example. Like in Mario Kart or Crash Team Racing you can boost your car with nitro, with nitro filling up when you drift through turns and corners. There's no shooting or power-ups, but there are lots of jumps, boosts in the road, and loops where you can overtake your opponents.
What does a toy car racing game need to be a success? One key ingredient is of course the toy cars themselves. And Hot Wheels Unleashed does a great job of translating real-life toy cars into digital ones, because the cars in the game look amazingly realistic. They're shiny, they've got tiny little scratches on them and they actually look like they're made from metal and plastic as if you could take them out of your screen and take them for a ride around your room.
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Next to looking realistically, in my experience the toy cars actually feel like toy cars while you're racing. That's both good and bad news because while it makes it sort of predictable what the cars can and cannot do, it also means they sometimes bounce around and feel rather uncontrollable. Going as fast as possible is not always the best strategy, because the hardest parts in many tracks are when you're forced to jump from one ramp to another. Jumping too high, low, or to the wrong side means you'll probably miss your mark and need a respawn which costs precious time.
The tracks are as fun and well-crafted as the cars. If you'd imagine what a child trapped in an adult's body would build in their basement to play with their toy cars and you'd probably get something like the racing tracks in Hot Wheels Unleashed. Six maps at launch let you race around a basement, chemistry classroom, and skyscraper among others. There are lots of loopings, sharp turns, and high jumps across tables and sofas, with the odd dinosaur and spiders shooting webs at you along the way. Add in some high-energy music that plays even faster when you're using nitro and your adrenaline levels rise from both the visual and audible stimuli in Hot Wheels Unleashed.
I've so far enjoyed playing the game's single-player storyline. It has a mixture of regular races, time challenges, and boss races, with several types of rewards pushing you for yet another round. Most fun are the loot boxes that contain new cars, which either drop from completed races or can be bought using in-game currency. There are also ways to upgrade car performance and ways to change your car's visuals to your liking. Less interesting are Call of Duty-style calling cards and taglines for your multiplayer profile and furniture and textures to decorate your personal basement. I don't really get the inclusion of the latter, but perhaps it's meant for replayability once you've obtained all of the game's cars.
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Like in many racing games, it can be a bit frustrating to make one tiny mistake which will cost you a race sometimes in Hot Wheels Unleashed. Some jumps require you to have the right speed, right angle while also requiring you to flip your car upside down and land at the same time. Also, I've been swearing when corners make me drift out of control, with the toy car getting stuck behind a sofa leg for example. Here the game feels almost like a racing simulation game because, on medium difficulty or higher, it's really hard to make up for mistakes when racing against the AI. Playing on PC, I ended up ditching the keyboard's WASD controls for a PS4 controller, which feels much more suited to the complex moves required. Still, I think the game is fairly balanced and provides the right amount of challenge for lovers of racing games. You will get frustrated at times, though.
Lastly, I've also been able to try out the multiplayer modes in the game. To my joy, there's local split-screen multiplayer, including on PC where one player uses the keyboard and the other a controller. Online it's easy to jump into a match with other players, but make sure to upgrade your car before doing so. It's funny to see you and other players struggle with the same difficult parts in the track, allowing you to catch up quickly when everyone's tumbling down the same difficult jump between two ramps, for example. It does seem like fast cars have a clear advantage over ones that excel in braking or turning, but I guess that's a balancing issue that will surely be looked after.
All in all, Hot Wheels Unleashed feels exactly like what a game about toy cars should be like. I really enjoy drifting my toy car around corners, blasting into a nitro boost while dodging obstacles, and aiming for additional boosts placed around the track. Both the single-player and multiplayer parts of the game have all the right ingredients, and for replayability, there's also a track builder which I haven't actually tried yet. If you're not too prone to throw your keyboard or controller into your screen because of a failed jump or loss because your toy car flies through a corner, then this is a visually pleasing and well-crafted game you should definitely try out.
8 / 10
Highly detailed cars and tracks, big fun factor, local and online multiplayer.
Keyboard controls, pointless Basement Mode, it's unforgiving with mistakes.