Perhaps best described as a head-on collision between an itty-bitty Burnout and a tiny Trackmania Turbo, Hot Wheels Unleashed is an endearing arcade stunt racer that feels great and looks absolutely remarkable. With tracks creatively weaved through lavishly detailed, life-sized environments, and brimming with a catalogue of cars spilled straight out of the toy bucket, developer Milestone’s decision to double down on a brand of racing 64 times smaller than usual has been a consummate success.
Highly accessible yet full of advanced techniques, devilish shortcuts, and creative tools to master, Hot Wheels Unleashed is one of the best, most customizable, and most imaginative arcade racers I’ve played in at least a decade.
Hot Wheels Unleashed recreates the world’s most popular die-cast cars in their authentic scale, and in environments where they’re dwarfed by barn-sized basketballs and boom boxes as big as buildings. This makes Hot Wheels Unleashed more in line with pint-sized peers like 1998’s Hot Wheels Stunt Track Driver or 2007’s Hot Wheels Beat That! as opposed to style-less duds like Hot Wheels Turbo Racing or Hot Wheels World’s Best Driver, which simply super-sized the toys to race them like regular cars.
Staying tiny was a terrific choice, and not simply because the atmosphere is endlessly more charming at toy scale; the 1:1 recreations of Hot Wheels cars here are regularly nothing short of stunning.
Toy Meets World
The range leans towards more recent models – or, at least, recent versions of classic castings, like the iconic Twin Mill, and even a 50th anniversary version of the quirky Dodge Deora, one of the first 16 cars Hot Wheels ever made. There’s also a handful of real cars in the mix, which I think is great for variety and perfect for anyone who may not be huge fans of cars shaped like giant hamburgers. The small selection of film and TV cars are easily my favourites, though, and I don’t expect I’ll do much racing in anything but the Back to the Future DeLorean now that I’ve unlocked it.
Finishing the campaign has given me some ultra-rare original models, which are great picks by Milestone. I do still have quite a few cars to unlock, though, and doing so is slow going because cars are only purchasable à la carte from a selection of five random models which rotates every four hours of play – not real time. That simply feels like too long; the only thing I want my kids to do for four consecutive hours is sleep. The remaining option is winning or purchasing blind boxes (which, thankfully, can only be bought with in-game currency) to try and get something different. Of course, the last time I saved up a pile of these I opened four of the same car in the space of a few minutes, which was deeply unsatisfying.
That said, the car models themselves are simply gorgeous, and every one I’ve collected so far is an unflinchingly faithful recreation of the miniatures they represent, down to the tiniest details: the texture differences between plastic and lacquered metal parts; the subtle mould lines left from the assembly process; the broad range of paint finishes; the stamped text beneath the chassis carrying the model name and production year. I’m still finding myself just rotating them around, stopped in my tracks by how fantastic they look.
As impressive as they are out of their boxes, they look even better after some doorhandle-to-doorhandle action out on track. Here’s where they really start to resemble the toy cars strewn around my youngest son’s room: chipped, scratched, and play-worn by the demands of their seven-year-old automotive overlord. The most striking thing is that damage hasn’t been applied thoughtlessly or randomly; cars correctly lose paint on their vulnerable corners and raised edges, faint scratches appear on larger flat surfaces, black plastic is revealed under the silver coating, and printed tampos are partially rubbed away. Under the right light, child-sized fingerprints can be observed – especially on windscreens – and even their plastic tires become ringed with the kinds of gouges a pristine Hot Wheels car will pick up after an afternoon of pounding the pavement. Milestone’s success in making the cars look so credible is a huge part of what makes Hot Wheels Unleashed so joyful to play.
Milestone’s success in making the cars look so credible is a huge part of what makes Hot Wheels Unleashed so joyful to play.
This ridiculously good level of detail also extends to the environments themselves, from the scuffed and etched surfaces of the iconic soft plastic tracks to almost unnoticeable flourishes like air bubbles underneath hastily applied guardrail stickers. The backdrops are excellent, too – especially the vast cityscape buried in cloud that surrounds the construction site.
What especially sells it is the outstanding lighting, which regularly comes from multiple sources all around each map, whether that’s the neon of a jukebox, brash fluorescent tubes, or the glaring sun itself. The lighting seats the cars into the environments outstandingly well.
The level of granular detail seems to speak volumes about how deeply everything has been considered here, and it all combines to create an extremely believable miniature world. It’s sometimes a little hard to soak in at speed, but there’s a brilliant camera mode included to ogle it all up close. My only issue with the camera is that it seems tied to the track rather than the horizon, so anytime my car was racing upside-down or vertically, the camera axes become muddled and adjusting it to find the shot was a bit of a brain-breaking exercise.
Pedal to the Mattel
“Okay, Luke,” you’re probably saying. “It’s pretty and tugs at the heartstrings of the Hot Wheels faithful. But how does it play?” Fair! And you’ve probably been waiting for the other shoe to drop… but in a surprise twist, Hot Wheels Unleashed handles very well, actually. Its arcade-typical brake-to-drift racing is intuitive and easy to pick up, but there’s a lot of nuance hidden in its air controls. Once mastered – or, at least, moderately tamed – the air controls can be exploited to uncover sneaky shortcuts, sail over opponents, or salvage a misdirected jump. Boost builds nice and quickly, though the higher your car’s core stats are the less boost you’ll have at your disposal. This creates an interesting balancing act, as opting for a weaker car overall will give you more boost to compensate. Personally, I prefer to upgrade my cars as high as possible and work with fewer boosts, because I think I’m faster this way… I think.
There are four levels of AI, and the slowest seems very tolerant of mistakes and a good starting point for the young or the less experienced. Medium proved to be a surprising jump for the kids in my household – it’s far less forgiving and they often found it tough to catch the pack after even a single re-spawn – but it was much more satisfying for me. Hard and above really demands upgraded cars.
Hot Wheels Unleashed Screens (from Nintendo Direct, September 2021)
Tracks range from simple to highly technical, but track design is brilliant across the board. Constructed with curving and twisting stretches of Hot Wheels tracks but linked with segments of the environments themselves, one moment you’ll be powersliding across orange plastic and the next you’ll be whizzing across benches, air vents, shelves, and the floor itself, flanked by tiny cones. Particularly impressive is the use of every axis, with magnetic track making vertical climbs, drops, and even racing across the roof possible. It means that, while six maps doesn’t sound like a lot on paper, in practice the way Hot Wheels Unleashed utilizes the layers of each level – and every nook and cranny they contain – keeps it feeling fresh throughout the duration of its mostly kid-friendly campaign.
Some of the later time trials really force you to search for high-risk shortcuts.
Every event has a lower-end goal that it will reward you for achieving and allow you to continue, but there are tougher goals for completionists – and some of the later time trials really forced me to experiment and search for high-risk shortcuts. I can only speak anecdotally, but so far Hot Wheels Unleashed has done a good job at entertaining both kids under 10 and a 40-year-old car nerd, although I feel like a few more race types would’ve been nice. Pursuits in little cop cars, or eliminations, or just… something else. As it stands, there are just races and time trials, and the online options seem barren as a result. That said, my kids have taken to playing a makeshift brand of tag in splitscreen on the floors of the maps. Splitscreen is two-player – not four, sadly – but it runs very smoothly on Xbox Series X and has been an absolute hoot.
Even if you do get tired of the available tracks, Hot Wheels Unleashed features an extremely deep custom track editor to let you build and share your own. You’re not limited to just clicking together pre-set corners and lengths of track, either; tracks can be shortened, lengthened, tilted, twisted, curved, and buckled in any way you see fit, and elevated or dropped anywhere. It probably took me a full afternoon to come to grips with the tools, which are quite complex, but once I really learnt how to bend the editor to my will I was able to create Mt. Barf-O-Rama, a monster that wrapped itself around and through virtually every piece of furniture in my Hot Wheels-themed basement. I am expecting big things from the user created tracks.
Fun, fast, and damn near photo-realistic at times, Hot Wheels Unleashed is a surprising and brilliant arcade racer. Carefully detailed, highly customizable, and buoyantly uncynical, this toy racer defies all expectations with remarkable attention to detail, excellent track design, and an accessible handling model that still rewards high skill. The racing may be tiny but make no mistake: this game is enormous fun.