Ever since I stumbled across “Burnout Paradise” for the PlayStation 3 more than a decade ago, I’ve been hooked on arcade racers. With a focus on drifting around corners and rechargeable boosts, they’re easy to pick up, fun to master and, importantly, far more forgiving than realistic racers.
When I heard the latest racing game based on Hot Wheels would be in the same vein, complete with a loving recreation of all things Hot Wheels with dizzying collection of cars and awesome orange-plastic tracks, I knew I had to take it for a spin.
“Hot Wheels Unleashed” cashes in on the nostalgia with a truly amazing rendition of all sorts of Hot Wheels cars from realistic recreations to the fantastical. Each car is rendered right down to the mold lines and production stamps on the bottom of the cars. They also pick up realistic damage in races with scuff marks and thumb prints. Each level is also an inventive collection of tracks that twist and turn around real spaces. For fans of Hot Wheels, you couldn’t ask for a better digital rendition of the cars and tracks.
Building your collection is also a treat with cars that reach all the way back to the original slate of releases. If you had a favorite car, it’s probably somewhere in here.
Unfortunately, the glitz of the game doesn’t really make up for what is a middling racing experience with a frustratingly inconsistent difficulty mode that combine together to suck a lot of the fun out of the game after a few hours. The racing is stiffer and less forgiving than other arcade racing games, which requires you to be near-perfect over the course of three laps if you hope to make the podium. That’s a bummer because reaching the podium in the single-player mode is a must if you want to unlock the full rewards and additional cars to grow your collection.
More often than not, a single wrong turn or a missed landing would send me from first place to last as I watched an absolutely ruthless bumper car—the Bump Around—take first place again and again. And that’s under the medium difficulty.
The hard difficulty, which I hopped right into thinking I had a handle on racing games, is near-impossible. I gave it a go on the easy difficulty, but that frequently feels like you’re just racing alone as the computer seems like it’s still on its learner’s permit.
It really made me appreciate more “rubbery” racers such as “Burnout Paradise” and “Mario Kart” that have under-the-hood mechanics that try to make each race close and challenging, but winnable. There’s a tricky balance somewhere between challenge and fun that “Hot Wheels Unleashed” just misses.
That all combines to make unlocking new cars—which I feel is one of the drawing points of the game—a real drag. With races taking as much as 10 minutes, it’s either a frustratingly challenging and time-consuming effort on medium difficulty or a boring and time-consuming effort on easy difficulty.
It also doesn’t help that the stream of rewards teased at the beginning of the game where you’re unboxing a new car after every race pretty quickly turns into a trickle, with races giving you some in-game credits to buy blind boxes or pick from a rotating slate of options. The game mercifully doesn’t try to reach into your wallet for more cars through paid blind boxes—which would be a particularly dirty trick given the game’s relatively hefty $50 price tag—but it means you’ll only be unlocking a new car every four or five wins.
For a lot of us, I’d imagine there’s a couple specific cars that you’d be looking for and finding them is going to be nearly impossible. Your options are either the randomized blind box—which seems to have an uncanny knack of giving you duplicates (luckily you can turn those duplicates into additional credits or upgrade points)—or a rotation of cars that you can buy with the in-game currency, but it only rotates every four hours of time in the game, which means if you’re like me and popping into the game for a few races here or there it could be several days before you see anything new.
Though, I was lucky enough to snatch a gold Skull Crusher just moments before a new rotation of cars came through.
Even with all of that said, “Hot Wheels Unleashed” nails just about everything when it comes to Hot Wheels. I only wish that it was easier to unlock cars because, after all, the best part of Hot Wheels is opening, collecting and playing with them and not slowly scrimping and saving to get a couple cars.
Matt Buxton is a freelance writer and gamer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.