For the past 10 years, Beyond Games has been quietly releasing racing games that take some liberties with the standard racing-game formula. Beyond's latest, Hot Wheels Velocity X Maximum Justice, doesn't try to break any new ground. Instead, it focuses its efforts on creating a thoroughly over-the-top arcade racing experience, and for the most part, it's quite successful. An unfortunately stuttery frame rate keeps Hot Wheels Velocity X Maximum Justice from reaching its full potential, but the game is still quite enjoyable.
Surprisingly, Hot Wheels Velocity X Maximum Justice starts off with a modest little back story. The setup is straight out of Saturday morning cartoons: You play as Max Justice--student, street racer, and son of brilliant car designer and all-around scientist-at-large, Dr. Justice. When a gang of thugs led by Nitro Byrne trashes Dr. Justice's labs and steals his prototype for a stealth car, as well as the formula for a super fuel called Velocity X, it's up to Max to save the day. Just like in the average Saturday morning cartoon, story advancement and character development take a backseat to visceral thrills.
Fortunately, Hot Wheels Velocity X Maximum Justice is able to deliver those visceral thrills, and it offers enough gameplay variety to keep things interesting all the way through. In the adventure mode, each mission assigns you multiple goals, and you'll engage in straight races, races laced with wild, high-powered weaponry, delivery missions, and a good deal of arena-style vehicular combat. The size and design of the levels is well-suited to the action, and though the surroundings look nothing like your living room, you'll find obvious homages to the old Hot Wheels racing tracks in the form of loops, barrel rolls, and impossibly high-banked turns. You'll occasionally spend a few missions on a particular track--usually enough to get good and familiar with the layout--but the game usually moves you along before that particular level becomes tiresome.
If you feel a special affinity to any track in particular, you can revisit it in one of the other modes of play. The challenge mode is kind of like a less-punishing version of the license tests in Gran Turismo 3, in that you'll be presented with an objective, a time limit, and a finish line. The restrictive time limits keep these challenges, well, challenging, and most of them will require at least one or two runs before you'll figure out the perfect line to run. The drag race mode isn't really drag racing in the classic IHRA sense, instead putting you through multiple heats against several AI opponents who aren't the craftiest drivers but put up a good fight nonetheless. The battle mode is pure vehicular combat, complete with a sealed arena, lots of power-ups, and lots of bad guys. Finally, there's the joyride mode, where you can just tool around any of the levels that you've unlocked, without the pressures of an objective to hinder you.
The adventure mode strikes the best balance of play out of any of the modes available in Hot Wheels Velocity X Maximum Justice, but they're all enjoyable, thanks in large part to the game's outrageous physics model and control system. When you have all four wheels on the tarmac, the handling is forgiving, powersliding is an indispensable mechanic, and everything moves fast. And, the cars can move even faster by double-tapping the X button, which will activate your boost. But things get really interesting the first time your car goes airborne, because that's when you can start really making use of the game's stunt system. You can spin your car along the X and Y axes using the left analog stick, and tapping the L1 and R1 buttons will cause it to do barrel rolls to the left and to the right. Combining the analog stick with the shoulder buttons can put your car into some pretty insane positions, but if you're able to land the stunt, you'll be rewarded with a big point bonus and some extra turbo boost. In virtually any other setting, these physics would come off as way too absurd, but for some reason, under the pretext of a Hot Wheels game, they seem just fine. But the fact that it fits isn't as significant as the fact that it's fun.
It's fun, but it could've been really fun, had it not been for the game's inconsistent frame rate. The action never comes to a complete halt, but the game stutters almost constantly, which has a jarring effect and can keep you from really getting engaged in the game. This one problem is especially a drag, because it's the one thing that keeps the whole experience from gelling into something cohesive and highly entertaining. The overall look of the game is like a futuristic Gotham City, but with better roads and more-dramatic neon lighting. The levels definitely feel like levels, in that they are never so huge and sprawling that you might mistake them for an actual city. The toy cars that serve as inspiration for this game have, over time, gotten further and further away from re-creating actual car designs, opting instead for designs that look like concept cars from the future. Hot Wheels Velocity X Maximum Justice does good by these designs, giving you a huge selection of cars, all of which look like they should be going really, really fast. As for the sound, the voice acting during the prerendered cutscenes is provided by a solid cast of experienced actors, and it sounds good enough for a Saturday morning cartoon. The in-game sound effects are appropriately exaggerated, but the music is the sort of generic electronic stuff that is rather forgettable.
Hot Wheels Velocity X Maximum Justice would have been a much easier game to recommend if it weren't for its pervasive frame rate issues. Players looking for a fast-paced, well-rounded arcade driving experience will have fun with this one, but even fans of this style of game may want to rent it first. Or, alternately, players looking for a similar experience, but without the choppy frame rate, can check out EA's Rumble Racing.