Hot Wheels Unleashed 2: Turbocharged Review - Sharp Edges
I don’t know exactly what I expected when I first accepted a PS5 download code of Hot Wheels Unleashed 2 for review. Or, perhaps more specifically, I don’t clearly remember. I’m fairly certain that I had at least something of a basic expectation at the time, but the week that has followed has murdered any cohesive clarity with a shotgun, and instead created a miniature crisis about what the purpose of writing this review even is.
It wasn’t always this messy. Jump back to when it was my turn to be the kid in my junior high class who had come back from the holiday period on crutches, when he had his first issues of Hyper to read in hospital while undergoing realignment surgery on his left knee. The purpose of those reviews seemed really quite simple: what was the game like, and was it worth my ninety Aussie dollars or Christmas present request?
There was some other potential nuance beyond that, but ultimately not that much. It was still mostly about finding out if the thing was any good. I suppose that should still be the end goal of a piece of writing like this, but the caveats have become scattered everywhere by the shrapnel involved in the murder mentioned in the opening paragraph.
The shortest possible answer to the core question above is a simple ‘yes’. You could add some complexity to this by doubling the word count and adding an ellipsis to end up with ‘yes, but…’. That’s the easy version. If you prefer, though, there’s a squirrelly mess of words below that may or may not make it clearer if specific aspects of this game are worthy of your very likely finite money (or time).
To get this out of the way upfront: as with its predecessor from two years ago, this is a much higher-quality product than it could have been, and certainly better than my cynicism led me to expect. This is a video game made about a toy line, after all. It could (and, arguably, in a pure short-term capitalist sense, should) be a quick and dirty cash grab. That alone might be enough to vindicate a purchase if there’s someone in your life presently engrossed in the Hot Wheels brand. Might be.
Just because this Hot Wheels game is better than one might expect from something aligned with a toy license, however, doesn’t mean that it’s free of some of the less-savoury trappings. Right from the get-go, players are ‘gifted’ their first six vehicles, and the blister packs from which these come are prominently displayed as your garage receives its first recruits. This can result in a respectable selection to begin a by-numbers campaign experience from, but don’t forget that this is a game that advertises a total vehicle count of ‘over’ 130 (which puts the number at borderline double the previous game).
I didn’t collect all 130 (or however many more) over the course of my playtime. In part, this is because I simply didn’t care enough – I expanded my garage by a good amount, but really had no interest in being a completionist. This may be just as well – as with the previous game, additional cars here are purchased with price currency from races from a lineup that renews in accordance with a real-world timer. You can choose to spend a little more to refresh the lineup, and it’s true that you can actually see what you’re getting rather than going all-in on blind loot boxes, but the random chance aspect to this is uncomfortably close to gambling in a game that will likely appeal to a core audience that is school-aged. At least the reroll timer clocks in under an hour now, which still isn’t good but somehow eeks out points for being… a bit less sinister?
That this really is a game that will be played more by ten-year-olds than adults adds its own wrinkle to the recommendation process. At its best, the racing in this latest Hot Wheels is blistering madness – a ballet of toys racing upside down, dodging dynamic traps, doing loop-the-loops and power sliding around hairpin turns suspended above a model of a tyrannosaurus rex. It’s actually awesome. Really, truly f**king awesome.
Enter the first bit of shrapnel from that buckshot spread of caveats.
As wild as these races and events can become (which, to be clear, is pretty freaking wild), they demand a surprising amount from the player and small mistakes can result in disastrous returns. Sometimes missteps are unavoidable – a bit of unlucky timing on an animated obstacle that is alternating between two states can see a hard stop, an imperfect landing can flip your toy car on its head, a wide powerslide can see you miss a checkpoint and be reset back behind the rest of the pack. At one point, the game simply refused to acknowledge that I had hit a checkpoint until I changed vehicles.
Side note: You shouldn’t have to quit out of an event entirely just to switch cars. Quality of life touches aren’t a strong point for this one.
Likewise, there are sharp corners and bits of scenery that can very easily bring things to a screeching halt. The rubber banding does a decent job of making it possible to get back into things, but this does assume that a sizable chunk of the track remains in front of you. There’s no rewind button, either. Rewind buttons are normal these days. F**king Forza has a rewind button. It’s like someone brought some of the rules and sensibilities of an adult, enthusiast sim racer and jammed them awkwardly into an arcade thrill ride that is largely targeted at kids. And then jimmied out the rewind button.
And this is the rub. With time, the driving engine becomes more familiar and you get a feel for how much pressure to apply to the brakes to properly slide around the corners. Eventually, it becomes a blast and frustrating crashes grow less frequent. But, the word ‘eventually’ is important here; Turbocharged is way less approachable than the vast majority of arcade-leaning racing games out there, which leads to a strange dilemma.
On one hand, are you willing to sit through the learning curve to be able to eventually tear perfectly around corners straight into a loop-the-loop? Maybe. What about a ten or eight-year-old? In this sense, it feels like the folks at developer Milestone forgot that they were supposed to juice that delivery of grapes and instead came back with some Sauvignon Blanc. It’s got a nice colourful label, and honestly, it’s not a bad drop, but it’s still not the right choice for the birthday party they showed up to.
This could perhaps be alleviated by the inclusion of split-screen. It’s only good for two players, but at least it exists. It’s unlikely to be much good with friends, though – anyone who owns the game will, more than the norm, absolutely wipe the floor with their guest.
And yet… all is not lost. In fact, scoring Turbocharged in some ways suffers from the same dilemma that comes with scoring a shooter wherein the two halves of campaign and multiplayer refuse to nicely line-up. Indeed, online play is present and accounted for, but that isn’t the wrinkle here.
It is entirely possible that there is a contingent of people for whom track creation will be reason enough to buy and dump hours upon hours into Hot Wheels Unleashed 2. The creation tools are excellent to the point where you could argue that they may be more gently inviting than the core racing itself. Even with a controller, it’s easy to jump right in and I would be surprised if it takes more than a week in the wild for the community tracks section to produce some absolute gems.
The catch, of course, seems to be that playing through the campaign seems to be a prerequisite for attaining all of the track pieces. Said campaign is really just a curated series of the different events available (traditional racing, elimination, drift challenges etc…) presented via an overworld and some low-rent animated comic sequences that make it clear that school-aged children are the core demographic here. In case that was somehow in question (which it actually is, pertaining to some of the other design decisions).
It’s here where the gambling vibes sadly return. Hot Wheels Unleashed 2, much like its predecessor, hands out different types of points and rewards like it’s a leaky pinata. Experience, money, upgrade points, track pieces… it all rains like confetti after each event. Great stock is being put in triggering the appeal of seeing the line go up, of watching the number get bigger. It’ll likely activate addictive personalities. Personally, I found it annoying.
But, that said, after a few hours of adjusting, I really did find the core racing to be great. Peel away a lot of the casino-like trappings and there is an excellent racing game in here, one that scratches an itch that is often left ignored. Some of the courses are truly creative, with thoughtful branching paths and well-considered stunt placement.
It’s a looker, too, for what that’s worth. At least on current-generation hardware. Each toy car is rendered in impressive detail with appropriate variations for how different surfaces catch the light. In fact, speaking of light – the reflections on display here are particularly impressive. And the backdrop themes for these tracks that have been slotted together from plastic? Well, I believe I already mentioned the tyrannosaurus. They’re great.
There’s a game in here that is easy to wholeheartedly recommend, but it’s caked in so much shit that you really have to ask a lot of questions about what you want from it, about what you’re willing to put in. And that’s before you consider things like Game Pass and PlayStation Plus Extra and if there are options there that might equally take one’s fancy.
Look, it’s good. When it comes down to it, it’s good. I’m just not sure if you should buy it.
Hot Wheels Unleashed 2 was reviewed on PS5 with code kindly supplied by Plaion Australia