Hot Wheels Unleashed: Reliving My 8-Year-Old Self


I remember being at the toy store as a kid, tugging on my Dad’s sleeve and begging him to get me a Hot Wheels set. Every quarter when I got my report card from school, I was that giddy child that always looked forward to seeing what my grades were. The better they were, the more money my Dad gave me to treat myself. Some kits were too expensive for him. Others he was willing to get, even though it might not have been as nice as the other.

I’d eagerly take that set of tracks home and, with the help of some of my older brothers, we put it together. I remember one track that I constructed that, even though it was simple in design, it had one of those accelerator things where the car starts. Once the toy car touched it, it would go flying with great speed, enough that it could go around an upside-down loop without falling. That car would loop around the track, hit the accelerator, and just keep going until the accelerator was turned off. It was fascinating to see that as a child.

There was another kit that I had, which I think was a car wash thingy? As well as some other kits that unfortunately have escaped my memory. Even without a track kit, getting the cars themselves were a blast; I’d take a few out to the back deck of the house and ride those along the railing with great enthusiasm. It’s kind of a shame that I never kept any of this stuff as I grew up. It would have been nice to relive the nostalgia.

Understandably, with Mattel – the company behind the Hot Wheels franchise – being American-based, those of you outside the US probably aren’t as familiar with the brand. Hot Wheels was designed as the competitor to Matchbox, the difference with the former having their cars based more so on fantasy design, rather than being smaller incarnations of production cars. Hot Wheels are exactly what you’d expect from a toy car – generally consisting of a plastic or metal body/chassis and wheels that allow it to be raced around by a toddler or young child’s hand. Though they can be raced anywhere, they’re primarily designed to be run on a track.

Hot Wheels track example

With the unrelenting success of the Hot Wheels brand ever since it was introduced in the late 60s, it’s not surprising that Mattel would branch out their formula into other types of media: movies and games. Not that I want to bore you much longer with details concerning my childhood fascinations, but I also remember playing one of the games on the GameBoy Advance. 20 years later, the series is still going strong, with Hot Wheels Unleashed.

Hot Wheels Unleashed was released on September 30 for Steam, Xbox, PlayStation, and the Nintendo Switch. Powered by Unreal Engine 4, it’s developed and published by Milestone – the company responsible for the MotoGP series and a few other motorcross/rally-style racing games. Today we’ll be having a look at the PC version through Linux, thanks in no small part to Proton.

Right away when launching the game, you’ll get to configure the graphics settings before getting into the fore. Smart move; no one wants to have to go through the intro or tutorial of a game only to find out their PC’s hardware isn’t good enough to handle the highest settings and have to suffer through low frame rates as a result.

After configuring the graphics options, you’ll get a couple of “Blind” crates; boxes that unlock a random vehicle when opened. Then you’ll choose what car you want to use from the cars you unlocked before heading to the Tutorial. While the tutorial is brief, it’s enough to give you a basic idea of how the game works.

HWU unlocking a Blind crate

You’re in control of a small toy car. Some of these cars are based off of real ones, such as the Dodge RAM pickup truck and the Audi R8 convertible. Others are more original, fantasy-like in design, such as a dinosaur-lookalike, a car with a shark head, or even a truck carrying a hamburger and fries on it’s roof. There’s actually no driver in these cars; they’re controlled by you, the player. You’ll either face off against a series of other toy cars, or you’ll be racing for the fastest time on the clock. Compete for first place as you drive through a track that may feature ramps, upside-down loops, shortcuts, hazards, and other obstacles that make the game ridiculously fun to play.

HWU no driver!

Frequently while racing, you’ll make use of Boosts. These boosts are charged automatically, and they can be charged faster by drifting or driving across specially-marked areas on the track. Some cars use a traditional boost gauge that can be used as long as it’s not empty; others have circles that need to be completely filled before it can be used. Once your car has collected enough, you can use the boost to catch up to your rivals or get ahead of the pack, but be careful – using the boost at the wrong time can get you off track. Literally. And when you’re off track, the penalty for respawning is pretty hefty. Often I’ve found myself at the end of the pack every time I respawned my car.

With toy cars, the controls are about as arcade-y as you would expect. Rarely does the brake need to be engaged while drifting. Sometimes you may need to let go of the gas, however, if you don’t want to hit the edge of the track. But out of the 68 cars in this game, each have their own traits: speed, braking power, acceleration, and handling. Some cars are good at getting top speed quickly. Others may not be as fast, but provide an edge when it comes to turning.

HWU Car select

Colliding with a vehicle doesn’t do much of anything; at worst it might turn the opponent in the wrong direction. But again, for toy cars with a light amount of weight, don’t expect anything too exciting here. And if you’re far behind everyone else, as far as I’ve played I’ve never found an easy way to catch up with your rivals; pretty much all you have is your boosts, so charge and use them often.

The soundtrack mostly consists of lyricless, dubstep-style music. Nothing too remarkable about it but I’d say it gets the job done while being in the middle of a race.

It’s very interesting to see the world from a toy car’s point of view. See basketballs that are easily four or five times the size of your car! Go explore the world of someone’s basement, or start a race in the mouth of a plastic T-Rex at a college campus. I’m not talking just any ordinary basement: I mean something that looks like a sports bar, highly polished and furnished, complete with a pool table, a kitchen, a jukebox, and other bells and whistles. It would have been nice to see a mean cat come along and mess around with the track. It would be a monster compared to the tiny cars.

HWU cars inside a T-Rex

That doesn’t mean there aren’t hazards to be aware of, however. Some tracks have spiders that hang over part of a track and spit out cobs of webs. Others could have a cobra where you have to time your jump carefully, otherwise the cobra will have its mouth closed and you won’t be able to cross the gap. Still other times you may need to flip your car 180 degrees while it’s in the air because it’s being transferred to a magnetic track on the ceiling, and if you don’t turn the car over, the car will land upside-down, losing you precious time against the clock.

Some of the spider’s webs will already be on the track as you’re racing through. Even if you steer clear of them, you have to watch out; that spider can still spit a web right where you car is, and let me tell you, it’s not easy to dodge. If you get caught, your car will temporaily get trapped and be unable to move. If you have any boost left, it will come in handy, because you can get out of the web sooner.

In the Career mode, there’s a few “Boss” tracks – tracks that are easily twice as long as the rest of the tracks, and are filled with more hazards than just the spider. There could be a winding spindle that gets in the way as its moving and knock you off the track. A speed pad on the track may constantly switch from providing a speed boost to slowing your vehicle down. A series of fans could be blowing on one side of the track, with the intent of pushing your car off…you guessed it, the track. It’s definitely a great addition and adds a little more heat to the race.

HWU in-game

As you progress in the single player mode, you’ll unlock various goodies. Besides Blind boxes, you can earn two types of currency: gears and some other type. If enough gears are collected, you can upgrade the stats of your car, giving it a little more speed or cornering ability. The other type of currency can be used to buy more Blind boxes, or buy special types of cars.

Fortunately, there are no microtransactions in this game; Blind crates can be bought with the in-game currency. For DLC, there’s two Passes. The first adds:

  • 10 more vehicles
  • 3 customization packs (probably more cosmetics for cars and tracks)
  • 3 track builder modules (meaning more ways to customize a track)
  • 1 expansion (Batman environment)

The second Pass offers more of the same thing, albeit 9 new cars instead of 10. The first pass costs $30; the second hasn’t been revealed but it will likely be the same price.

HWU shopping for cars

Besides the campaign, there’s quick races that you can set up at any time. You can set up a regular race or a time against the clock on any of the tracks that you unlocked in single player. You can also play online against other players, or use local split screen with two players (perfect game to play with your kids!).

Speaking of online multiplayer, you can host your own private lobby, determine whether collisions are enabled or not, what type of cars can be used, and determine how stages are picked (either you choose or a voting process takes place). You can then invite your friends on Steam (or Epic Games Store, depending on where you bought the game). As far as I’ve tested, I couldn’t make my lobbies public.

The only way you can play against random players is by selecting the “Quick Match” option. Right now, no one should have any trouble finding a game to join, but you’ll most likely have to wait for the current race to finish before you can race yourself. There’s no text chat, but you can use voice chat if you’d like. Whether the game is crossplay or not, that I don’t know.

Game length? It’s hard to say. After sinking four hours or so so far, it’ll probably be another six before I complete the campaign. Another three or four to collect all the available cars and tracks.

HWU in-game

Did you know you can build your own tracks? It’s possible. There’s a mind-boggling array of customization options, like what kind of environment you want the track to be in, how long or how short a piece of track is, what color it is, whether it should have a railing or not, whether it should twist a bit…there’s a ton of options. You can set as many traps or hazards as you want, as well as place as many boost pads or blockades as you’d like, provided you stay under the building limit.

HWU track editor

When finished building a track, the course will then have to be validated by testing it and making sure the finish line is reachable. You can then share this track with others (this does not use the Steam workshop; the game uses it’s own sharing feature that you can access from the main menu).

With the customization of tracks also comes the virtually limitless customization of your vehicles, called “Liveries.” Each car can be customized not only by the paint color, but also the type of material the body of the car is made out of, from metal to plastic to enamel to glitter, and everything in-between. Stickers can also be applied and put virtually anywhere on the car, and the sticker can change size and rotate as needed. You can then upload the livery for other players to browse and use. It’s amazing to see how much care the developers put into just the customization aspect alone.

HWU car customization

Oh, one more thing that can be customized. Remember that super-furnished basement I was talking about earlier? You can customize that too, from the wall design to the color of the ceiling.

HWU basement customization

I do have a few criticisms. I would’ve liked to see weapons, kind of like Mario Kart. I think it would have made the game even more fun to play. Another point is, there’s not much for game modes. All there is is a race against 11 other CPUs or online players and a Time Attack mode. In a future update I’d love to see something like an Elimination mode, where the last car in a race gets removed every 30 seconds.

While the livery customization for the cars is great, unfortunately there’s only one camera angle that you can use during gameplay. You can’t get a closer view of the car or switch to cockpit view; the only way you can get a good look at your car is after you completed a race and you watch the replay, or use the Photo Mode from the pause menu. It would be nice to add those additional camera angles from the replay into the actual gameplay.

While tracks are mostly indoors, I think there could be even more variety by allowing seasonal hazards. Say, for example, a track that’s set outside in the winter – now the player would have to be aware of potential snow on the track and adjust to the way the car handles.

HWU drifting

Finally, the difficulty curve between Medium and Hard AI is a bit of a big one. I found Medium was too easy, so I adjusted the difficulty to Hard. While not impossible, it’s a bit of a struggle to keep up with the competition. There should be a difficulty setting that’s in-between to not be easy, but not overly difficult either.

Proton Compatibility

So, right out of the box (with both vanilla Proton and Proton GE) it launches and works. Even the multiplayer works just fine. On vanilla Proton the intro video is missing, and you’ll notice something off with the background in the title screen and main menu, due to the fact that it can’t play media files:

HWU missing background

Using Proton GE (6.18-2 at the time of writing this) solved this:

HWU video background working

The game runs very smoothly. Solid 60 FPS well throughout the time I played it (it can go past 60 if you want) at 1080p with an i5-8400 and GTX 1660. There were a couple of occasions where the lighting seemed off, like it was darker in some areas than intended. Not sure if this is Proton-specific or just the PC release in general.

I find Hot Wheels Unleashed to be a lot of fun. Not only does it bring back the Hot Wheels nostalgia that some of us may have had as a kid, but the gameplay itself is a blast, with hazards to avoid on certain tracks and being able to boost to get yourself ahead of the pack. Combine that with the many cars that can be unlocked, the ability to make your own tracks, and customize/upgrade the crap out of your car makes this a racing gem truly worth grabbing.

While PocketCars is nice, offering the same micro-perspective as Hot Wheels Unleashed, the game is still in Early Access, and there hasn’t been an update since August. Hot Wheels Unleashed will be a great replacement for now until PocketCars gets a little more TLC.

While I would have liked to see weapons, more game modes, more camera angles, and better difficulty options, for all I know these things could come in a future update. Environments are already planned for DLC. We’ll have to wait and see for the other features. But in the meantime, it’s definitely a game worth playing.