Preview: Hot Wheels Unleashed Is a Faithful Yet Lifeless Racer

Licensed games have had a great track record in the past decade or so. From superheroes like Batman and Spider-Man to sci-fi franchises like Star Wars to that bizarre retro platforming take on 2017’s awful Tom Cruise-led The Mummy, games based on properties from other forms of media have never been better. Hot Wheels Unleashed appears to be one of those games and has all of the right ideas that a Hot Wheels racing game should have, but it’s missing a soul.

Hot Wheels Unleashed Is a Faithful Yet Lifeless Racer

Unleashed’s visuals are the biggest and most immediate draw. Each car in the demo (the full game will have over 60) has been impressively rendered down to the finest detail. Glossier cars sparkle their candy paint while others are coated in reflective metals. Some have less exotic paint jobs, but almost all of them are covered in a swath of different materials that all look incredible when combined to form a full package. The vehicles weren’t just slapped with generic textures and were instead seemingly constructed piece by piece in order to result in a more accurate and handcrafted render.

Cars even take damage during the race and will have some nicks and smudges after they finish the race. The slight imperfections add life to the tiny vehicles because of how they emulate the wear and tear their real-life counterparts have after many fake races across the kitchen linoleum. The reflections off the metallic parts and overall technical chops are impressive, but these small touches are what bring it all together.

And the whole game retains its toy-like feel despite its solid graphical chops. They don’t look like Forza vehicles that have been shrunk down but accurate recreations of toys. Levels also retain this quality as well since they look like the orange snap-in tracks that come with the cars and not actual paved roads. Again, this is a testament to the quality of its material shaders that give everything the appropriate amount of sheen.

Hot Wheels Unleashed is Faithful Yet Lifeless

Playing Hot Wheels Unleashed is where the sheen starts to fade. Unleashed is a fairly standard racer without any particularly noteworthy mechanics. There are no power-ups or physical offensive abilities. Drifting is fairly standard and has no secondary boosting purpose. Every car does have a rechargeable boost, but it recharges passively so there’s nothing to master there. Flipping around in midair is possible yet those stunts aren’t part of a trick system. It’s mechanically functional and it feels fine enough, but there’s no depth to it — it’s as simple as it sounds.

It’s odd since Unleashed is suited to be a kart racer given its appeal to children and wacky assortment of cars. And embracing that style likely would have led to more systems that would, in turn, result in more complexity or at least some sort of personality. There are no racers in these cars to add any sort of charisma so races are quiet and tame, only filled by the surprisingly good and inoffensive soundtrack (that even responds to the race in certain scenarios).

The absence of a lighthearted tone gives it more of a sim racer atmosphere, but it’s not a serious sim racer at all since there aren’t hardcore elements like drafting or dynamic weather that affects the track. It’s either a sim racer cosplaying as a kart racer or vice versa. Although no matter what it is, it’s not a winning combination designed to last past a few split-screen races.

Hot Wheels Unleashed is Faithful Yet Lifeless

Hot Wheels Unleashed looks like it was crafted with care with its garage of vehicles that look like scans of the toys they were based upon. It’s also all presented well with an aesthetically pleasing menu and catchy soundtrack. And its racing controls are serviceable enough for those who just want a video game version of building a huge track in the living room and pushing a tiny car through it while making motor noises. But it doesn’t seem like much more than that, which is a shame since these Hot Wheels deserve to be even hotter.