Free-to-play games often look appealing, but it’s difficult to know at a glance whether the business model is insidious and fun ruining, or reasonable and worth pumping a few bucks into. With Freemium Field Test, we’ll take a recent free-to-play iOS game, put it through its paces, and let you know if it’s really worth your time (and money).
I recently experienced a new benchmark for feeling old: once you start buying your child the very same toys that you enjoyed as a kid. That’s happened with Hot Wheels, and now my home is lined with endless orange track and dozens of little cars to accidentally step on. At least the cars are much, much cheaper than the mass of Thomas trains he now barely acknowledges.
Hot Wheels has spanned generations, and I suppose that’s part of why I took such a liking to Hot Wheels: Race Off for iOS and Apple TV. It’s fun for me as a one-time fan, and fun for my young son to watch and potentially play very soon. Honestly, I’m surprised at how hard I was sucked into it for a good few days. But while Race Off’s vibrant action is solidly entertaining, the freemium grind can be punishing—and it’s one that restarts with each new car you unlock.
Race Off nails the look of the Hot Wheels toys, with bright orange tracks placed side by side and ramping and looping in all directions, as well as a couple dozen familiar cars pulled from the real die-cast collection. It’s a large part of what makes the game feel so authentic, especially with even more elaborate-looking track designs off in the background—it sparks the imagination and almost makes me want to build a course with the real toys.
The fundamentals of the game are also tried and true, albeit from other sources. You’ll guide your car to the end of each side-scrolling course by using the gas and brake buttons, which not only control its on-track speed but also tilt the car when it’s soaring through the air. Tilting is essential to reaching the finish line, as you’ll need to maintain momentum through each leap and when trying to tackle the steep inclines and declines. That’s especially true since you have a constantly-draining gas tank to consider, although there are refills to pick up along the way.
This sort of tilt-to-survive vehicular gameplay seemingly began with Redlynx’s Trials series, which spans all the way back to 2000 and has spawned numerous entries, including Trials Frontier for iOS. However, many other studios have aped it for their own games, and Hutch Games appears to have based Hot Wheels: Race Off on its own MMX Hill Dash, which has a lot of the same kinds of terrain and objects in the world.
In any case, the side-by-side racing approach entertains in Hot Wheels: Race Off, as you attempt to survive each gauntlet and make it to the end of the track. Currently, Race Off has 50 single-player stages across five different environments and vehicle types, including off-road and muscle cars. Meanwhile, the multiplayer races are asynchronous: you’ll take turns seeing who can set the best time on a track or go the farthest before crashing and burning.
Hot Wheels has all of those tracks and cars, but how many players will actually end up seeing even half of them? Race Off doesn’t seem like a punishing free-to-play experience on the surface: there are occasional video ads, but it doesn’t have any kind of energy system to limit your play—you can repeat the same tracks over and over and over again. And that’s really the point here.
Progressing through Hot Wheels: Race Off is designed around unlocking better and better cars, and it’s not optional in many cases. You’ll play on courses that have incredibly steep climbs or other obstacles that your current car can’t overcome, and the game will toss up a message that says you’re out of luck until you unlock the next car. That’s… unsubtle. Unlocking a new car here happens once you fully upgrade your previous car, and upgrading your car comes from the in-game currency.
Each track is peppered with car-specific upgrade coins, so playing and replaying tracks is the best way to amass some bank to spend on upgrades. Coins can also be earned via the Stunt Chest, which is unlocked after you perform enough flips and jumps across each day—that’s a cool incentive to cut loose in each race. Additionally, you can supplement coins with gems, which are awarded via gift boxes, by watching an optional video ad, or paying real money.
You’ll get a free gift box after six hours of real-world time, typically with 175 gems after the most recent game update, and that can be doubled by watching a video ad. Otherwise, gem bundles can be pricey: from 5,000 gems for $3 to 125,000 gems for $40. Ultimately, I spent $10 for 25,000 gems… and used them up on upgrades within two minutes. It didn’t seem to go very far at all.
What’s problematic is that the grind for gems and coins escalates over time. Once you finally unlock a new car, it’s somewhat hobbled: it might be faster overall than your last ride, but its stats—like grip and stability—typically seem weaker than the boosted car you just ditched. So the slog begins anew, but it’s more expensive this time. And that goes on and on with each new car class and set of tracks, so that it takes more and more time to get your latest ride capable enough to beat the next course. Or pay your way to that point, naturally.
Still, it’s hard to be too frustrated at a fun free-to-play game that provides steady rewards and doesn’t have any obnoxious timers. With Hot Wheels: Race Off, however, you’ll need to be content with racing the same courses time and again to snag coins and improve upon your records—or willing to spend a little money here and there to jump ahead a bit.
I really enjoyed the ride early on, but in time, getting a new car manages to feel both rewarding and demoralizing: the former because you finally overcame the hassle, and the latter because it has just started all over again. That does wear over time, but Hot Wheels: Race Off’s good-natured, approachable fun is still worth savoring if you’re fond of the real deal.
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Andrew Hayward is a Chicago-based games, apps, and gadgets writer whose work has been featured in more than 70 publications. He's also a work-at-home dad to an unruly four-year-old.