Fury is being beaten to the finish line by a truck fashioned in the style of a triceratops. That is what Hot Wheels Unleashed has taught me. It’s also taught me just how much of a difference witnessing toy cars race from a rear view, rather than isometric or top-down (as has historically been the case), has in selling you on the concept.
Said approach adds a heightened sense of scale as you put your pedal to the metal in a selection of die-cast vehicles. The result is a near photorealistic joyride that plays and handles just as well as any other beloved arcade racer. Only this one has a turbo boost’s worth of childhood nostalgia built in.
This technically being a licensed game, it’s easy to be initially sceptical. Hot Wheels Unleashed admittedly doesn’t make the best impression either, by presenting your first three randomised cars by way of blind boxes. Fears ease, however, as soon as you realise unlocking new vehicles is done solely using in-game currency. And that, if anything, watching your next reward blast out of a plastic tub isn’t too dissimilar to ripping open a Hot Wheels box on Christmas Day. In all these ways and more, developer Milestone gets what it means to be a collectable car fiend.
The same can be said for events on the track. Getting ahead against eleven other rivals is a simple case of timing your drifts so as to never topple out of bounds, all as you earn boost to blast your way through every straight available. This you do across six real-life environments which constantly remind you that, for as grand and fast-paced as spinning your tyres looks, you’re still just a little Mattel miniature zooming and loop-de-looping through oversized skateparks, garages, and more.
What could have easily been a campy racer featuring tracks littered with zany power-ups akin to Mario Kart actually has the ambition and creativity to take itself seriously – and delivers the driving mechanics to back it up. You just might start races by zooming out of a giant plastic dinosaur’s mouth sometimes.
Even on the regular difficulty level, Hot Wheels Unleashed’s AI presents an ample challenge. Just one wide turn is all it takes to send your burger van or Dodge Charger spinning out of control, especially during moments of the race where you’re forced to go off-road and away from the safety of the plastic barrier. It’s in such moments where any toy-like sensibilities quickly fade away, and you realise taking first place on the podium means mastering each track’s twists and turns (and learning when to drift) is key.
It says a lot that your mileage with Hot Wheels Unleashed isn’t dependant on your affinity for the brand. It’s just a solid and inventive arcade racer, pure and simple. One of the year’s biggest surprises, it’s a reminder of how fun tearing up the track can be for players of all ages.
The campaign in Hot Wheels Unleashed is framed as one of those road map rugs you or your best friend had as a kid. Unlocking new blind boxes and time-based vehicle drops means working your way through it by competing in Quick Races, Time Trials, Boss Challenges, and more.
Tearing around a plastic track has rarely been so thrilling.
Genre: Arcade racing
Format: PS5 (tested) / XB S/X / XBO / PS4 / PC Switch
Release: Out now