IGN Review of Hot Wheels Ultimate Racing
If you are brave enough to search for "Hot Wheels" in IGN's database, you would immediately be hit with 30-plus games involving the distinctive little devils. Although these games aren't exactly the most stellar out there, it does tell you one thing: people still like the Hot Wheels brand. And why wouldn't they?! They're tiny metal cars you can collect and smash into each other! Some people would even call them the original Pokemon. I wouldn't, but some people would.
With that said, Hot Wheels Ultimate Racing is the latest to use this hallowed brand. Surprisingly, the license is actually used well; each of the 26 cars have that distinctive Hot Wheels look to them (they range from the more futuristic, "wider-is-better" cars to the bullet-shaped dragsters) and can actually be customized to an extent. For example, you can change the window-tint color, decals, neon underglow -- that sort of thing. Performance upgrades such as different tires, improved handling, and better acceleration can also be won from races.
And believe me, you will need them.
Yes, not everything is happy in Hot Wheels land. For whatever reason, the developers decided to make it brutally unforgiving. Emphasis on the "brutal." Mind you, this is not just an excuse from someone who sucks at games (I actually got pretty good at this one, thank you very much), but the game is inconsistent with its harshness. You can be way ahead of everyone for two laps, barely nick a corner in the third, and find yourself in last place. It's kind of like F-Zero GX without the tight controls to justify the difficulty. There is no warning of where these cars come from or how they even got so close. Not to mention that your numbered position doesn't actually stay on the screen -- it annoyingly flashes in the upper left hand corner at the most random times. You will have to memorize the courses to get anywhere in this game.
Another weird thing is that the cars don't really control how you would expect them to. First of all, the handbrake (and normal braking for that matter) is useless; its screwy responsiveness will drift you right into a wall. The boost button should also not be held down when you want to blow past someone. Instead, it should be lightly tapped over and over like some schizo button pusher. It takes a while to get a hold of, but actually works when you figure it out -- just not all that well.
You see, the two keys to winning races are your boost (R1) and the ability to slow time (R2). Yes, even racers have bullet-time now. Slow motion is really how you're supposed to drift around corners; time begins to crawl and your turning becomes hypersensitive. This is handy when you're about to careen into a wall or mess up a jump. However, the gameplay's reliance on these two powers is actually its biggest problem. The only way to refill those abilities is by landing certain, giant jumps (which you usually need boost to even attempt) or by avoiding traps such as falling boulders and giant octopus tentacles.
You can see the problem with this. If you're out of boost and need boost to get more boost ... well, too bad. All you can do is cry for the rest of the race and then wait roughly 40 seconds for the track to load again. Although this does require you to use some forethought, the game isn't always consistent with rewarding your boost or slow motion. There were many times I pulled a perfect jump and got nothing for it, and a few times -- in contrast -- when I got stuck on an invisible ceiling, smashed headlong into a pit of doom, and still got a boost bonus. Not exactly scientific.
On the plus side, the 11 tracks (split between Volcano, Jungle, Death Valley, and Metropolis areas) do resemble the plastic Hot Wheel racetracks you can buy in stores. The tracks are generally twisty and bland but still have some personality thanks to the central trap or enemy (not sure why there's an octopus in the middle of the jungle, but just go with it) that resides in each one. Unfortunately, all of the graphics are muddy, and it's sometimes hard to tell where the road ends and walls begin. Some of the later stages are worth unlocking and there is some genuine creativity to some of the traps, but the frustration involved in unlocking them might dissuade people.
Each stage is a set of races with each race having some requirements to proceed (you must place first, in the top three, etc). However, if you mess up just one race, the entire thing is over and you have to go back to the first race. It's pretty annoying to perform perfectly in two races and then have your hopes and dreams crushed in the third.
If this isn't your thing, there are a few Arcade modes to try out. There's a Quick Race option where you can just pick a track and race, a Survival Mode where you have to win progressively harder races, and the normal Time Trial mode. Then, there's Collector. Collector will make you curse.
In this mode, you're the only car on the track and you have to collect scattered golden medals before a timer runs out. All the problems of the normal game are magnified here. Fall down a hole, and you reset at awkward places and can't grab certain medals until the next lap; some medals can only be grabbed with boost (boost you don't always have); and the worst thing is that you have to redo an entire series if you miss a medal on a track. Oh yes, miss one medal (out of thirty or so) on track No. 4 and you'll have to go back to the first track. Fun. Collector is a little bit better in multiplayer mode (up to four people ad-hoc) because the first person who gets more than 50 percent wins. And of course, you and three friends can also race in a normal Quick Race if you want to skip accursed Collector altogether (fun fact: all the stages are unlocked in multiplayer mode right off the bat ... this is a good thing for easily frustrated people).
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