Republished on Wednesday 28th September 2022: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of October's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
After years spent fine-tuning its various motorcycle racing titles, developer Milestone has taken a significant detour with Hot Wheels Unleashed. Instead of striving for simulation-style handling and realistic tracks and locations, this new project takes Mattel's ever-popular die-cast vehicles and brings them to life in a modern game. While it's certainly a change of pace for the studio, its racing expertise and penchant for high-quality visuals has led to an arcade racer that looks and feels pretty fantastic.
The car models in particular are wonderful. There are dozens and dozens of Hot Wheels vehicles to collect in the game, and each of them has been painstakingly recreated. They're frankly a joy just to look at — the materials are brilliantly rendered, even down to the imperfections, like the joins where the plastic meets in the mould. We spent no small amount of time just spinning the cars around on the selection screen.
They very much look like little toy cars, and that's how they feel to drive, too. Driving along the classic bright orange tracks (though significantly wider than in real life), this is extremely arcadey racing. Sweeping turns allow for some huge powerslides, and they feel great when you pull them off smoothly. It might take you a while to figure out the game's handling, but once you're acclimatised, you'll spend less time bashing into the barriers and more time boosting and drifting like a champ. The racing is fast and chaotic — cars can knock each other around, and the many tracks included have lots of twists, turns, and jumps to deal with.
There are physics at play too, meaning you might need boost to get you through a loop-de-loop, and you can also use said boost to control yourself in the air, potentially course-correcting if you hit a ramp at a strange angle. The skill ceiling is surprisingly high, all told; it feels like there's definitely room to find some super-technical manoeuvres with the mid-air controls. Milestone seems to understand that this game will have a broad audience, and the physics give hardcore fans something to chew on while younger or more casual racers will have a good time just drifting around bends and collecting cars.
Hot Wheels City Rumble is the meat of the single-player experience, offering up numerous quick races and time trials across the game's generous selection of courses. You'll gain in-game currency, new parts to customise your Basement, and a car or two as you fill out the map. Slowly working your way through the overworld, you'll also come across Boss Races. These are key events that feature some of the game's more interesting hazards and longest tracks, and will also reward you with the most stuff. Secret events require that you fulfil certain criteria before they unlock. It's a fun idea, but they seem to mostly rely on you winning races in certain cars, which is a little tricky when most of your collection will be unlocked randomly.
Yes, the game's Blind Boxes are your main way of getting new vehicles. While you do unlock some specific Hot Wheels within the City Rumble campaign, the vast majority of your cars will come from these lootbox-style items. Earned within the aforementioned single-player events or purchased with currency, you'll be popping open these things fairly frequently. Cars have rarities, so once your collection has filled out, you might find yourself getting some repeats, which isn't very fun.
The good news is that duplicates can be dismantled or sold in exchange for gears or currency respectively, allowing you to then upgrade your cars or purchase something else. A Limited Offers section in the Shop rotates a handful of vehicles, so you can either look there to see if a favourite appears, or you can keep trying your luck with Blind Boxes. It's kinda fun opening them up and getting something cool, but we imagine if you want to fill your garage with every car, you could be grinding away for a while.
Still, there's plenty of other ways to fill your time between collecting the Hot Wheels themselves. Split-screen for two players is in and works a treat, with no noticeable effect on the game's smooth, 60 frames-per-second performance. Online multiplayer lets you take on up to 11 other racers, either on Milestone's tracks or community-made ones, which are obviously hit-or-miss.
Speaking of which, a robust track editor lets you go to town on your very own circuits and courses. It's a surprisingly in-depth mode that the developer apparently used to build its own stages. Track pieces click together, but you have a lot of freedom in the shape of each piece, and can throw in special modules to give your race some hazards, split pathways, anti-gravity sections, and more. It's easy enough to use once you learn how it works, and the need to validate tracks before you share them means you can't troll others with impossible circuits. It's a really nice inclusion, and along with a similarly deep livery editor, means you have a lot of options to customise your own experience.
The trouble with the game's tracks, whether user-made or developer-built, is that they can all feel very similar. There are a handful of surrounding environments that give you a change of scenery, but they're very static and don't add an awful lot to the gameplay. Hazards, such as the spider which shoots out webs to trap you or the snake that opens and shuts its mouth, are more annoying than they are entertaining, and a lot of the tracks end up blurring together.
We'd also say that, unless you really care about getting them all, collecting cars becomes moot once you find a good one. If you have one or two vehicles with which you can consistently win races and time attacks, there's little reason to spend energy getting others. The bumper car is cute, but it's not going to compare to a slick speedster with stats higher in every category. As we've said, it's great fun collecting the cars, but you only need a couple to see you through the game itself.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is a rock solid arcade racing game that gets a lot of things right, but doesn't quite measure up in some areas. The drift-heavy handling and physics-based mayhem create super fun action on the track, and the cars themselves are as good to look at as they are to drive. While the tracks tend to feel a bit samey and the random nature of unlocks may lead to some frustration, the end result is a robust racing game that'll appeal to fans young and old.