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As you load up Hot Wheels Unleashed it’s hard not to think that you’ve hit the jackpot, as it has not only been a long time since the series has seen a release on consoles but it’s stuffed to the brim with creative features that can have you occupied for hours without even racing as well as having a substantial single-player mode and online multiplayer.
Perhaps as an apology for the length of time away, Unleashed puts an impressive effort into transporting Hot Wheels fans back to the living room of their childhood home where their imaginations would take the toys beyond their physical limits and give them a life of their own. With the ability to not only create your own tracks and race with your own paint job-created cars, you can also design your own basement to race them in. Furthermore, you can collect and upgrade your favorite cars while the game’s great graphics allows you to appreciate even the smallest details of the cars, down to the trademarks written underneath them.
With nearly 100 missions and 79 cars to choose from you’d think the single-player mode would be equally inspiring, but unfortunately, in trying to make this as close to the real thing as possible, the racing potential is bound by the limitations the physical sets provide, and for those who don’t have that nostalgic connection with the little metal vehicles, the actual racing is a very slow burn that, until you unlock its fastest cars, will likely have you wishing you left it mint and in the box.
Unfortunately, so beholden to the brand is this title that no unlicensed video game would choose this combination of gameplay and level elements without nostalgia backing it up. Whether it’s that every car handles almost identically, the fact that the AI has incredible road etiquette, or the unimaginative tracks that repeat themselves ad nauseam, it is only the game’s fastest cars and in-game loot box system that prevented me from giving up on the single-player mode before I even reached halfway.
It’s a wonderclass of mediocrity that the game leans on heavily for the majority of its on-track gameplay and it’s a big shame, as there is clearly potential there if they were to just take off the Hot Wheels branded hat. There are great-looking environments that are left completely wasted by tracks left floating in the air instead of running through and around obstacles that are just waiting to be integrated. Instead of this, the majority of the tracks claim another loop to be its greatest feature, but they become tiresome before you’ve even ridden them in double-digits.
What’s even more puzzling is that imaginative designs and fun track features, such as snakes with mouths that you need to race through before they close, do exist in boss races, but there are only 5 in the entire game – out of 100 races. It’s almost as if the developer needed a campaign mode long enough to gradually unlock its collection of cars but didn’t want to overuse its best track features early on, hence making a large number of them feel gut-wrenchingly similar.
This effect wouldn’t be so bad if the 11 AI-controlled cars provided some entertainment on your way to the finish line, but despite racing quickly, they act like sedated ghost laps and rarely ever crash into each other nor can they be made to fly off the track. If you try to force the issue and squeeze out a car along the barriers or bash into one from behind, you either end up driving next to them at the exact same speed or just push them along ahead of you, which considering the series’s previous focus on impressive crashes seems like a missed opportunity.
And for the love of all things awesome, make sure you don’t crash, as the game mechanics barely forgive a jump or turn not completed perfectly – despite the fact that you can ride with your eyes closed for 90% of the track due to its barriers. The seemingly harsh AI is a consequence of Unleashed‘s overreliance on drifting – which increases your speed twofold by upping your speed around the corners and filling your boost meter. It’s a decent system to wield as a player, but it turns out that the inflexible AI is pretty good at it too, meaning that if for whatever reason you aren’t receiving the two-fold benefit for more than a few seconds, you are not only going to find it almost impossible to catch up, you are likely to finish dead last. A respawn button does alleviate this issue to a degree, but it is a ‘feature’ caused by its lack of ways to race nonetheless.
It perhaps comes as no surprise that I actually enjoyed the time attack modes more than any single player race – which for most arcade titles would quite be the damning assessment, but for Hot Wheels Unleashed, it manages to escape relatively unscathed.
Stealing the show are the game’s track creator and online multiplayer modes that allow you to play your own custom-made tracks and those made by the online community. The track editor has endless options for wacky and out-of-this-world creations to be put together (that include shortcuts and anti-gravity sections) and can then be shared and played randomly online as single races or played in a single time attack mode offline. Sadly though, this is the extent of which these features are supported currently with no online leaderboards or tournaments, despite them being the best on-track parts of the game by some margin.
This may be the only time you ever hear me say this, as I’m a big proponent of offline single-player experiences, but it’s a shame this game didn’t shift more of its focus to its online mode as the difference in experience is like night and day and, ultimately, without each car having more distinct features (than just top speed and acceleration stats), this game needs innovative and varying designs to best convey its sense of speed.
While fans can rejoice that Unleashed is more than just a Hot Wheels title in name, encompassing everything the product is about, I can’t help but feel that the game has wasted a lot of its creative potential, ultimately limiting how much a casual fan can enjoy the entire package.