When Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit came out in 2020, we were quick to praise the AR toy’s gameplay, but were put off by how much it cost for what was on offer. Now, developer Velan studios is back in the bucket seat again, and while it hasn’t managed to lower the cost of entry for its AR RC car tech, the new Hot Wheels: Rift Rally is looking a lot more robust than its predecessor.
The biggest change here, oddly enough, isn’t the new IP but rather the new system. While we’ll miss Nintendo’s turtle stomping plumber, Hot Wheels: Rift Rally is now a PS5 console exclusive, with an iOS version giving users the ability to play on-the-go via a direct connection with the car (no Wifi or 5G required). While the Switch is certainly portable enough, being able to pair the included RC car with your phone rather than a whole gaming system certainly gives Rift Rally a mobile edge that will help it compete with more traditional RC cars. It also opens the game up to players who don’t own a Switch.
Otherwise, the basics are pretty similar to Mario Kart Live. When you buy Rift Rally, which costs $130 for the regular bundle and $150 for the collector’s edition, you’ll get the game and a Hot Wheels Chameleon RC car, which has a camera mounted above it in a periscope position that’s similar to what you’ll find on Mario Kart Live’s RC cars. You can then boot into the game, control your car with your system’s controller (the iOS version will accept both controller and touch inputs), and watch the screen as the game overlays AR effects and goals over the footage being streamed in from your car.
As a game, though, Rift Rally is aiming for a more involved play experience than Mario Kart Live. That game let you race the Koopalings in single player or pass-and-play style co-op matches, as well as challenge other people who owned real-life Mario Kart Live cars to player-vs-player races. Hot Wheels: Rift Rally still lets you race NPCs and other players with Chameleon cars (both via split screen and cross-platform play), but is adding a campaign mode and a stunt mode to the mix.
In the campaign mode, you’ll navigate through a Super Mario World style map screen to complete various races and challenges, which you can play either single player or through pass-and-play. The objectives can be simple races to the finish line or can get a bit more creative. In my test time with the game, I hit virtual bells on the track to awaken a dragon, then dodged its fire breath as it took out my opponents.
Stunt mode is a bit like a free play mode, but introduces Hot Wheels: Rift Rally’s other new mechanic: the way the car controls. While Mario Kart Live lets you drift to build up a boost, that’s now supplemented with maneuvers like doing donuts, jumping off virtual ramps, or hitting wheelies. In stunt mode, you can chain those tricks together to pull off Tony Hawk style combos and earn XP. While your real-life car’s obviously not going to jump off a ramp that isn’t there and doesn’t quite have the dexterity to pull off wheelies or donuts, your screen will show your virtual car pulling off your tricks while your real world car adjusts its speed to match.
As for that XP, you’ll use it to unlock different cars, each with their own stats like acceleration or handling. Hence the Chameleon name for the car that comes in the bundle. You’ll map these virtual cars over the Chameleon, which will then change its driving behavior to match their stats. The devs assured me there’s no microtransactions here.
Each car also comes with its own special move, which is the replacement for Mario Kart style items. You’ll be able to do things like lay out virtual oil slicks to momentarily stop your opponent’s cars, both in the game and real life. You’ll also be able to spend points to modify a car’s stats and looks.
Course building works the same as it did in Mario Kart Live, as each bundle comes with four gates to build your course throughout your home. Unfortunately, you are maxed out at four gates in-game, meaning you and your friend can’t combine your kits to build an 8 gate course.
Collector’s edition bundles will also get an exclusive die-cast McLaren Hot Wheels car in the box, which will also unlock a virtual version of that car in-game. The only other difference between the collector’s and standard editions is that the collector’s edition chameleon is black while the standard edition’s is white.
The Chameleon itself was sturdy enough to survive crashing into walls and the gates during my time playing with it, though it’s not waterproof and isn’t designed for heavy damage like falling down a flight of stairs. It does come with a two-year warranty. Its 1080p camera provides serviceable footage, which is end-to-end encrypted to protect privacy. Velan is promising about two to three hours of play on a single charge, and the cable for charging the Chameleon comes in the box.
Hot Wheels: Rift Rally launches on March 14, and is already gearing up to look like a more worthy successor to Mario Kart Live than a plumberless game might seem to be on the surface. Here’s hoping for additional features, such as letting players without Chameleons join in with all-virtual cards, in the future.