Five Design Mistakes In Hot Wheels Unleashed, And Why You Should Play It Anyway

Hot Wheels Unleashed is the classic example of a game created by people who care and ransacked by executives and publishers leaving it falling short of the original vision.

What remains is the question: does enough of this concept still exist to make this game worthwhile?

For Hot Wheels the answer is yes. The attention to detail with room design, track design and – above all – car design is flawless. Hot Wheels exudes passion and it’s abundantly clear that at least someone cared enough about the core of the game to make it shine through.

The problem… everything around the impeccably presented cars and levels is somewhere between lacking polish and outright deliberately sabotaged for profit.

At time of writing I’ve sunk around 20 hours into Hot Wheels and achieved somewhere north of 60% completion, finishing most races in 1st and netting myself a good number of the more difficult Time Trial times. It’s clear I cared enough about this game to play the hell out of it- and I also care enough to make these criticisms:

Loot Boxes

I know. I know. “Everything has loot boxes these days” you mutter, as if everyone doing it somehow makes it okay. It’s not. In Hot Wheels nomenclature these are “blind boxes” but the concept isn’t all that different: they undermine the reward structure of the game.

After you progress through a chain of levels, you’ll reach a “reward” stop. It gives you a reward. Simple, eh? Well yes and no. The juicy part of the reward is always a new car and while you do sometimes get actual cars (I relish these moments) you’ll usually find yourself with a blind box.

The problem? The rewards contained therein do not scale with the effort you’ve put in to earn them. A blind box you’ve bought with in-game currency (ugh) is just as good as a blind box you’ve put 3 hours into earning. The crux of this issue is that you’ll eventually complete a chain of difficult races only to get two blind boxes that give you common cars you already have. This is… unsatisfying, disappointing and frustrating.

Could this be solved? Yes. Different tiers of blind box could form better/worse rewards given for placing 1st, 2nd or 3rd, or for beating the slow/fast times in a Time Trial race. A “Rare” blind box – rewarded for completing some difficult races – could simply guarantee not to give you a common or duplicate. This maintains the element of surprise without sacrificing the feeling of a fair and proportioned reward.

Day 1 DLC

Just like loot boxes, Day 1 DLC seems to be an industry mainstay. That doesn’t make it okay. I don’t want my game purchase to be undermined by a roadmap of all the stuff I can’t have yet. It feels like the publisher is reaching into my pocket before I’ve even decided I like the game enough to commit more funds to it.

There are two things that specifically make the day 1 DLC hurt in Hot Wheels:

The “base” game is a whopping £39.99
The game feels somewhat monotonous as a consequence

While I’ve extracted 20 hours of gameplay from Hot Wheels I’m weary of boiling down the value to a price/hours formula. Is there enough depth/variety to the gameplay to justify this price tag? Well, actually, in retrospect yes. Do I wish there was more variety to the levels? Also yes.

There are five main “Environments” in which levels are constructed from Hot Wheels track: Basement, College, Skate Park, Garage and Skyscraper.

This is, on the face of it, not bad. It’s approximately the six of Sonic & All Stars Racing: Transformed but unlike Sonic’s Racer (probably my favourite arcade racing game of all time) the tracks lack any real feeling of variety. The environments serve only as backdrops, and the “realistic” Hot Wheels-Brand plastic track forms the actual racing surface. It’s not far removed from Trackmania and I could absolutely see a speedrunning scene erupting around this, but let’s not digress from whining!

The long and short of this true-to-brand design choice is that the tracks are quite monotonous and eventually the game stops being exciting and starts being something of a drag. This is compounded by the many, many slower novelty Hot Wheels cars which are just utterly useless in any race conditions but are begging to be driven.

Compare and contrast Micro Machines, which has everything from tanks with firing cannons, speed boats, helicopters, sand dunes and high speed races, and Hot Wheels feels dull and lifeless. Look at Sonic & All Stars Racing: Transformed and you have switching from cars, to planes to boats across a dizzying array of environments which aren’t just backdrops but are the level. Hot Wheels is pretty vanilla and while they lean heavily into the toy-inspired nature of the game with some cool track set pieces once you’ve seen them once they just aren’t all that exciting.

How could this be fixed? Well- for starters- I don’t know if the DLC will offer more variety and thematically different courses. Perhaps it will! But what Hot Wheels is sorely lacking is some way to make use of novelty vehicles. Races need a change of tone, a change of speed and desperately need to stray away from the on-track, on-brand monotony of high-contrast red plastic zipping by beneath your wheels. Taking a page from Micro Machines’ book wouldn’t hurt. Races which require off-road style vehicles and are mostly off-road would be ace. Alas I think Hot Wheels is very tightly designed around the track system and not only does it very seldom venture off track, but it’s actually quite disorientating when it does.

So many cars. So little use.

Far and above the biggest problem in the design of Hot Wheels is the lack of any race variety for each car. So much so that I’m pretty much making this point twice.

Let’s frame it a little better, though. Hot Wheels Unleashed has a beautiful line-up of lovingly detailed, impressively modelled and highly varied cars. There are some adorable novelty vehicles, awesome muscle cars and classic races, and lightning-quick speed machines. There’s even a bloody burger van which drives exactly like it’s got a giant burger on the back. The physics are… unforgiving.

Unfortunately you’ll probably find yourself running only one of your cars through 99% of the races (since most secrets require a combination of car/track to unlock). That’ll be whatever car in your lineup is fastest. Since car styles are inexorably tied to their speed/handling/acceleration/braking/boost stats you can’t just pick and choose whatever style suits you best… unless – of course – you’re really, really good at the game and you’re just flexing a slower, novelty car in multiplayer. Sure. Why not?

Again I could see garbage truck speed runs being a thing. Outside of that and uber skill track skip multiplayer flexing or local multiplayer with arbitrary limits I just don’t see the beautifully modelled trash wagon seeing much play time either on or offline.

How could this be fixed? Giving each vehicle unlimited upgrade potential would allow a player to pick their favourite look and upgrade it to be competitive. This could lead to players picking the silliest of vehicles and upgrading them to be multiplayer sleepers.

Another take on this would be different vehicle quality classes: A, B and C class could be subtly indicated by visible scuffs on the paintwork (visible to an astute player online) and also lead to different tiers of vehicle performance. An “A” class garbage truck might perform like a “B” class Koenigsegg and have a similar rarity. An “A” class Koenigseggg might be an absolute beast, but you’ll never see one.

Overworld feels rushed, ugly and clunky

The Track Select screen or “Overworld” looks like it was pre-rendered in 2005. It’s awful. It’s ugly. It’s ungainly. It’s uninspiring. It feels like it was designed for a mobile app and really, really lets the game down.

The levels aren’t really linked to the overworld in any meaningful way. You have this big city map that’s some awful pre-rendered perspective nightmare, and then there are just circular race icons overlaid in a node-graph style giving you a series of branching paths you can follow to unlock and play races.

The branching path idea is great, but the execution is diabolically ugly.

Sure level select screens are hardly the most important part of a racer, but Sonic & All Stars Racing: Transformed pulls it off so much better. A better example, however, would be Overcooked. In Overcooked the game isn’t about cars or driving at all, but the overworld sees you driving around a tiny isometric grid-style world from level to level. Hot Wheels is about cars, but the overworld sees you awkwardly panning around a giant 2005 render of a city and clicking icons. Given the care and attention poured into the individual cars, it would have been awesome to be able to drive your last selected vehicle around the city from race to race. Oh well.

Since you enter the level select from the main menu in a fashion that suggests you’ll see a similar screen for each expansion, perhaps we’ll see something slicker in a future expansion.

Difficulty Smifficulty

Okay. I couldn’t think of a title.

I’d say this one is a little subjective, but I’d be implicitly claiming that my opinions above are objective fact and- let’s face it- they’re just the opinions of some idiot they were foolish enough to give a CD key to.

Hot Wheels Unleashed has a … weird … difficulty … “curve.” My main criticism is that the Time Trial races feel about 1000% more difficult to complete, even with the slow time, than any regular race. Time Trials have continued to kick my ass throughout the whole game, and the later Time Trials have been difficult enough that I’ve had to explore the track and find cheesy shortcuts to complete them.

I get it. Difficult time trials really put your mettle to the test and refine the skills needed to maintain a high speed throughout the levels. But they also have the consequence of training me to be so ridiculously fast that I leave regular competitive racers in the dust. Time Trials also block the way to many rewards, bosses and levels. Oh, did I mention there were bosses? They’re not much harder than regular races, to be fair, Time Trials have made me into a hyper-focussed Hot Wheels god.

At least, presumably, until I get my ass handed to me on a plate in Multiplayer.

Right now I’ve only placed the “slow” time on most time trials, and since that slow time already nets you all the reward you’re going to get from that track (aside from that sweet sweet 100% completion amirite) there’s little incentive to push for the faster time. When I first played a Time Trial it was like hitting a stone wall of difficulty, when I’d been effortlessly placing 1st in every race beforehand.

A lot of this may be down to the dynamic difficulty in races. I may be imagining this, but if you fall behind then the AI cars will be fairly rubbish until you catch up. Once caught up they’ll be competitive but it’s usually easy to get so many seconds ahead that you wont even see the other cars when you hit the finish line.

Bosses attempt to up the ante by adding additional hazards onto the track, but once you’ve time-trialled your way to aiming at speed boosts and figured out the knack to avoiding those fscking spider webs then additional obstacles aren’t really all that concerning. Given that you’ll be 10sec ahead of the AI cars if you’re as competent as me (and I’ll be honest… I’m an awful gamer) the penalty for hitting an obstacle isn’t that big a deal. They’re mostly just… annoying.

How can this be fixed? As I mentioned above some splitting of rewards between 1st, 2nd and 3rd place and Fast/Slow time trial times could really up the incentive to re-try levels and push to be the very best. Right now I’m getting to the point in the game where a few races/time trials are completed with 2nd place or slow time and I just… I don’t want to play them again. Some better communication about how much of the 100% is tracks you haven’t played, versus ones you haven’t totally completed would be nice too.

Overall

If you can tolerate Sonic’s Kart racer, somehow don’t have it already and aren’t already sold on the gorgeous Hot Wheels car designs … buy and play that first.

You’re back? Okay, maybe Hot Wheels is on sale with an ultimate edition that has all the stuff for half the original RRP. Grab it. It’ll be worth it.

I enjoyed Hot Wheels. I got 20 hours out of it so far albeit that was driving the same car on a lot of very, very samey tracks. I’d love to see more excuses to drive a greater variety of the cars on offer. The graphics are impeccable. The cars are impeccable. The way the light in Garage illuminates the cars is impeccable. This game drips with love and dedication and I just wish it had found its way into the level select screen too.

Oh, did I mention there’s a track editor? I’m horrible at it. Assuming players pick this game up, there should be a pretty good aftermarket track scene. Perhaps the publishers are counting on that.

There’s also a livery editor that lets you change car colours/materials and apply a single layer/colour (with exceptions for multi-coloured decals that aren’t just shapes) of decals to spruce things up. Livery editing is fun and I’ve published a few dull but refined designs that I like to race with. Honestly the stock Hot Wheels car styles are so bold and awesome that it feels sacrilegious to paint over them. Being able to switch materials between glitter, various types of metals, enamel and plastic is satisfying. Black plastic gives a close approximation of matte black for your flashy sports car. Oh and solid black on metal glitches out the renderer and gives you Vanta Black which is frikkin hilarious.

Overall I enjoyed this game, but I’m not alone in thinking that a £70 “ultimate” edition is fscking offensive. Forza Horizon 4 doesn’t punch much higher than that, and it’s a much bigger game in scope, scale, quality and effort. Though I don’t wish to devalue the effort put into the visual presentation at the core of this game, a £39.99 all-inclusive price would have been much more in-line with what Hot Wheels: Unleashed has to offer.