Like any budding gearhead, I had bunch of Hot Wheels growing up. Too many, in fact. Small Sterilite containers full of the things. I was proud of my collection, but in retrospect, I cost my parents a small fortune in diecasts. Back in my day, you couldn’t just print your own Cugnot like the kids do now!
But toy cars used to be just one pillar of the Hot Wheels media empire — there were many video games, too. Most were forgettable bargain bin schlock, though some certainly stood above the rest. With the rise of mobile gaming it’s been a good while since we’ve had a full-featured Hot Wheels racer on consoles. That’ll change this September with Hot Wheels Unleashed from developer Milestone. I had the chance to try a PC preview build of the game this week.
Milestone is known mostly for its two-wheeled racers. Save for a couple of rally titles during the middle part of the last decade, the Italian studio has concentrated on MXGP and MotoGP, as well as its own Ride franchise, which is sort of like the closest thing anyone makes to Tourist Trophy these days. A carefree arcade racer, then, is not something this team has much recent experience making.
On one hand, that’s kind of refreshing, because there’s a real attention to detail present in Hot Wheels Unleashed you wouldn’t expect from a toy brand tie-in game. Take the cars themselves. I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but I’ve never seen toys rendered with this level of accuracy in a video game before. Rather than imagining Hot Wheels designs as real cars, Milestone went the route of making them look just like the diecasts for an inspired and cute touch.
The materials, like the metallic paint and injection-molded plastics, are uncannily realistic. The wheels have just the right shine to them. Even the seams on plastics are replicated, as are all the slight, minute imperfections you’d expect from dollar diecasts. The cars actually get dinged up and dusty as you race, sporting the battle scars of faded and chipped paint just like the favorite, well-worn Hot Wheels of your childhood. This game looks and runs way better than you’d ever think, judging from the name.
That extends, to a lesser extent, to the tracks. Hot Wheels Unleashed sports six environments. Four — a college campus, garage, skate park and “Skyscraper” city locale — were featured in the build I played. The courses themselves employ Hot Wheels’ signature orange plastic tracks, looping and weaving through these worlds, with boost pads and obstacles strewn about like barricades, spider webs and electric fans nudging you across the course.
The tracks and cars are sort of real-life scale, which lends the game a neat perspective as you speed past ordinary objects, like books and basketballs, that just happen to be relatively giant. But this also highlights what I consider to be something of a missed opportunity, at least of the courses I tried in the preview build.
The tracks aren’t really attached to the environments in which they sit. What I mean by that is, they tend to “float” in these rooms, and rarely incorporate the surrounding world itself. The vast majority of the time you’re driving on those plastic Hot Wheels tracks, and so a course set in the skate park environment could quite literally be placed in the garage one with minor changes. They don’t involve the world much of the time like they did in, say, Hot Wheels Turbo Racing or Table Top Racing World Tour.
Milestone said the physics in this build “are representative of the gameplay of the final version,” and that also has me slightly disappointed. The handling is certainly passable, and if you’re approaching Unleashed thinking “it’s a Hot Wheels game, not a sim, who cares?” I suppose you’ll be content. But I could never get entirely comfortable with the steering, especially while drifting.
When you’re not drifting, the handling is a little stiff and darty — certainly not precise in the way, say, Trackmania is, though not unwieldy. However when I tapped the brake and steered into a drift, I found the cars understeering a lot more than I expected, so much so that I was involuntarily wall-riding every tight or hairpin corner. It’s not undrivable by any means, but it’s also not natural or fun, which should be a priority consideration in every arcade racer.
One cool quirk I did notice was that the game’s boost mechanic behaves uniquely in different cars. There are several different “boost types,” in a vein similar to how Burnout Paradise and the later Ridge Racer titles employed boost, to add a little wrinkle of depth to the driving.
At this stage Hot Wheels Unleashed feels passable to play and looks phenomenal, certainly crossing the low threshold for a racer based on a toy brand. The game’s most interesting features and modes — the campaign, where you’re competing in a variety of challenges and squaring off with bosses to unlock increasingly rare cars, and the Track Builder — were not available to me in this preview build, but I’m looking forward to checking those out. Players can expect a ton of content, with more than 60 official Hot Wheels cars on offer (including classics like the Twin Mill) and more than 40 tracks. Milestone promises no microtransactions with this one too, which is always nice to hear.
Hot Wheels Unleashed hits pretty much every platform, including PC and Nintendo Switch, on September 30.