Hot Wheels Unleashed review: A massively customizable surprise

Milestone /

Title: Hot Wheels Unleashed
Developer: Milestone S.r.l
Publishers: Milestone S.r.l
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: September 30, 2021

Since it was first announced, I was hyped for Hot Wheels Unleashed. I was never a big Hot Wheels fan growing up but I always ended up with a bunch of them as a kid and I had a couple I played with. In fact, most of my encounters with Hot Wheels weren’t pleasant. As a former Gamestop employee with too many years under my belt, most of my experiences with Hot Wheels were selling them to men in the midst of a midlife crisis.

But if the trailers were to be believed, the game looked like everything I wanted Hot Wheels to be as a child; cars I could completely paint over (which I loved to do) and then actually drive on massive plastic tracks. And the plastic tracks would actually snap together and stay where I wanted them to be as opposed to suddenly falling over, taking my design with it the first time a car hit it with enough inertia. It looks like playing pretend coming to life.

I am very happy to announce that, unlike many modern game trailers, Milestone and Mattel were not just hawking snake oil. This game is an absolute blast. This is exactly what I wanted these things to be when I was a kid. I felt like a child driving my car underneath couches and off coffee tables and, occasionally, out a massive toy dinosaur’s mouth.

Hot Wheels Unleashed review: A massively customizable surprise
Milestone /

One thing that really caught me off guard was how much customization the game allowed for. I knew that I was going to be able to build tracks but I had no idea what else I could do. Yes, the track editor is exactly what I wanted it to be with the ability to snap track pieces together and have fun motorized parts like lane changers and mechanized spiders and robots. But I thought that was it.

What I discovered was I am able to take any vehicle — from a Ford Mustang to a car that’s an actual stegosaurus — and paint over it. I can paint some parts and add up to, and I’m not exaggerating, 1,000 layers of stickers to it. So much like a Need for Speed game, if you spend the time with it, you can come up with something beautiful. Or, you can be an idiot like me and use this as a chance to turn the happy burger and fries truck into a demonic “soylent green” delivery vehicle.

Hot Wheels Unleashed review: A massively customizable surprise
Milestone /

As I got to know the game a little better though it become my game. When I first started, I customized as much as I could before I even raced and one thing that confused me was they gave me an entire four-room basement to fully customize. I could paint the walls, adjust the floor, color the furniture, choose the wall decor and what kind of art, everything. I could make it my own but I didn’t know why. So just for fun I made it as obnoxiously bright as I could. Eventually I left my dayglo, 90’s nightmare and went to race, only to find out the very first race took me and my bumper car (which I am driving by choice thank you) back into my basement where I drove around the place I just finished customizing.

But once you’re done with the bells and whistles, how is the game itself? How is the actual driving and racing bit?

It’s what you’d expect from Hot Wheels — fun. The game controls a bit more realistically than Mario Kart in some parts and remarkably bizarre in other parts. You’ll find yourself speeding and drafting behind vehicles, drifting around corners like a tiny Initial D. But you’ll also find yourself flying off the edge of ramps, floating through the air with full control over the angle of your vehicle, occasionally having to turn your vehicle 180 degrees to catch an upside-down magnetic track.

And while this does feature many Hot Wheels cars inspired by real vehicles, like Camaros and Dodge Rams, it also has the fun ones like the previously mentioned dinosaur vehicles, bumper cars and burger trucks. There’s also a slew of other ones like tanks, buses, and yes, a toaster. And while I was scared that these vehicles would not stand a chance against the normies, I’m happy to report that these cars are just as good as the realistic ones. It feels like Mario Kart 8 with the BMW DLC in that regard. Like, a Charger is fine and good, but when my futuristic bus that I’ve dubbed “The Rude Boy” — with its black and white checkered surfaces, “SKA” spray-painted on one side and “PICK IT UP” on the other — comes barreling into it with a turbo booster firing, there’s not much Vin Diesel’s gonna be able to do about that.

There is a flaw though. I don’t know who this game is for. Actually, my wife asked this first when I described this to her. Unless you’re playing against Easy A.I. this game is actually pretty difficult.

Drifting is a lot more realistic and it’s very easy to completely miss the track on the parts where you drive around on the ground. The races against the other cars are really fun and are doable if you can understand the mechanics of drifting and breaking; but, if you’re a completionist and want to get all the stars on time trials, good luck. I, a person who enjoys racing games and kart racers a lot, tried for almost an hour to get all-stars on the very first time trial track.

And while you might be an internet goober whose first instinct is to “get gud,” I want to remind you of two things. One, it’s not too late to be a better person. And two, this game is really marketed to children. Everyone I know who bought this, did so for their kids. I’ve been hiding this game from my kids so it can magically appear on my 7-year-old’s Switch Mini in a few days for his birthday. And I don’t necessarily know if my kid will be able to grasp it. They might, or they might just have fun building their own tracks; but, unlocking stuff and earning coins to get new vehicles might be daunting for them.

Luckily, the game is gorgeous and fun. While it may take many tries to get something, it’s an absolute joy to struggle with. Now, if you’ll excuse me, me and my tiny bumper car are heading down to the basement to defy gravity.

Hot Wheels Unleashed review: A massively customizable surprise
Milestone /

Score: 8/10

While it’s a bizarrely difficult racing game for one to be heavily marketed towards younger kids, Hot Wheels Unleashed somehow matches to capture everything we used to pretend Hot Wheels were when we played with them as children. The stages feel real and the sense of perspective is amazing. Fully customizable vehicles with one of the best track editors I’ve ever seen make this game a fun toy chest to play with.