For many, Hot Wheels was a cornerstone of childhood entertainment. Racing a set of micro-cars on bright-orange tracks, painstakingly pieced together into what you thought would make for a cool layout at the moment, offered a lot of amusement. The upcoming Hot Wheels Unleashed from developer Milestone looks to rekindle that same sense of fun and excitement with a full-fledged racing game, and now it's more true to the Hot Wheels experience we imagined as kids.
I recently got to go hands-on with a pre-alpha build of Hot Wheels Unleashed, racing across a set of constructed tracks with vehicles that pay homage to old-school and modern cars from across the entire Hot Wheels toy franchise.
Playing Hot Wheels Unleashed felt like I was getting reacquainted with the same excitement I felt when playing Hot Wheels as a kid. Some of the available vehicles in the pre-alpha included throwbacks to the '70s Rodger Dodger muscle car and the Dragon Blaster from the recent Color Shifters line of collectibles. In the final game, there will be more than 60 vehicles to collect and take for a spin. I found it fun to take the '90s Twin Mill for a ride, which was a favorite of mine back in the day. There's an undeniable sense of nostalgia in Hot Wheels Unleashed, and the game certainly leans into that when it comes to reimagining the micro-racing vehicles as high-octane speed machines competing in races on the iconic bright-orange tracks.
The full game will also feature a variety of tracks with different themes and backdrops. The ones present in the preview build showed a solid sampling of the more challenging race types you can expect in the full game. These tracks had names like Speed Vault, Spider Trial, Dragon’s Den, and Attic Troubles, to give you a sense of the difficulty and in-level gimmicks they had. In the preview build, we got to race on four tracks set in one of the game's backdrops, a garage, and the full release will include other settings to have your races. Like in real life, the various tracks are constructed in common areas around the house, including bedrooms, backyards, and even a kitchen.
In keeping with an arcade racer's tenets, Hot Wheels Unleashed keeps the racing mechanics simple, letting players of different skill levels jump in and start racing. The focus is on maintaining speed, building your boost meter with drifts, and staying ahead of the competition, but there are no power-ups to collect. Without worrying about tuning your vehicles, your success in the races depends on your skills controlling your toy car of choice and how well you understand the track. While Hot Wheels Unleashed does stick very closely to the familiar aspects of an arcade racer without adding anything entirely new to the formula, it still manages to offer a sense of quick fun and excitement that's accessible across the different tracks.According to the devs, every Hot Wheels car--each with its unique performance and handling--are viable for competition. As this game is an exaggerated and stylized racer, you can expect to encounter a set of challenges and obstacles on the tracks that will require split-second decisions to overcome the odds, and that's where Hot Wheels Unleashed feels at its best. One particular track that stood out was the Spider Trial, which, as the name suggests, features a live spider who shoots webbing onto the track, ensnaring racers who aren't able to dodge it.
Though Hot Wheels Unleashed is an accessible racing game, it was surprising to see just how challenging the races can get, all due to the aggressive AI. While I was eventually able to overcome the odds and get the best of the other racers, the game's early build still presented some jarring moments of overly aggressive AI making the races tough to finish in a decent rank. Even on the easier tracks, it was a challenge to keep up due to the rubberbanding AI, which resulted in other racers easily ganging up on my vehicle with collisions and overtaking me with sudden bursts of speed at inopportune times. Lead designer Federico Cardini told me the AI was still being tuned to be a little more forgiving to players, while still retaining a sense of aggression on the tracks.
This early build does nail the sense of speed and precision for a fast-paced racing game starring a suite of toy cars. However, it still keeps it simple when it comes to getting a grip of your chosen vehicle's sense of speed and handling. Cardini explained that shifting over to a more relaxed style of racing came from the development team's understanding of the genre based on their years of work on racing franchises like MotoGP and Ride.
"I'll be honest, from a development side, it made me ecstatic, I'd say. We are also fans of racing in general, and we felt like with an arcade racer like this, we could show our love for the genre," Cardini said while reflecting on Milestone's jump from racing sims to an arcade racer. "One of our most famous games is Screamer, from the nineties, and that was an arcade racer, and we have an incredible amount of knowledge and expertise on racing games. This is a great opportunity for us, where we can really create something unique for a game like [Hot Wheels Unleashed] that uses our years of experience on racing games."
In addition to the quick races that I got to take part in, there are also a career mode and time trials to jump into, which will tie into the game's unlocking of new vehicles and tracks. Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to experiment with the game's track editor, which sounds like it will be a defining feature of Hot Wheels Unleashed. According to the devs, every standard track in the game was built from the ground up with the track editor, and the same tools will be available for players at launch. Along with creating your custom tracks, set in the six different environments, you can also share them online to have other players try them out. The online network will let everyone share and download new tracks to race on, which will give players a constant stream of new places to compete with their chosen vehicles.
Hot Wheels Unleashed stands as a tribute to the entire Hot Wheels franchise and the impact it had on fans. I enjoyed my brief time getting reacquainted with the Hot Wheels series and remembering what I liked about the toy cars from my youth. So far, this is shaping up to be a solid arcade racer that understands what people love about the long-standing line of toy cars. Hot Wheels Unleashed is currently scheduled for release on September 30, for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and Nintendo Switch.
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