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Preview: Hot Wheels Unleashed

24 Jun 2021

I was intrigued as soon as I saw Hot Wheels Unleashed announced, because it hit on one of the great things I love about video games: the potential for fun arcade racers that sit in the space between aggressive simulation and kart-based games.

Don’t get me wrong, I love me some kart games, and aggressive racing sims where you’re very concerned about the weight of tires and the different tuning options for your car’s engine have a place in this field. (Preferably a place away from me, but I don’t begrudge their existence.) But for my money, my favorite racing game in a long while was Split/Second, a racer that definitely featured a lot of racing but also a lot of fun set destruction, unusual action, and a unique central gimmick of demolishing the very track you were racing on.

Hot Wheels Unleashed struck me immediately as a chance to do something similar because of the very premise of the game. If you ever build a single little track for your Hot Wheels when you were a kid, you no doubt dreamed of having a full-sized space to just build an elaborate and massive track – and didn’t you also dream about letting the little cars drive themselves? How fun would that be?

So now I’ve actually had a chance to try the game out, which is releasing on September 30th on basically every platform under the sun. How does it play?

Toy Cars

The fundamental question for a game like this is what does the gimmick actually offer it. And the answer is that it actually offers a fairly nice slice of unreality to bathe in. Without having to worry too much about the constraints of reality, the designers have assembled a racing game in which your little self-propelled toy cars race along a dizzying selection of turns, loops, and general arcade fun.

For this preview build, the only option were quick races with a diminished selection of tracks, but that alone gives a sense for the fun of the game. It’s very much in the arcade style of racer. Tracks have speed-up strips, boost pads, and little areas that help your boost gauge fill faster. Yes, you have little boost charges you can hit for a burst of speed. You drift around turns, boost through things, and dodge obstacles – because of course some tracks do have obstacles. And every so often you wind up leaving the track and racing along a section of floor or table or something similar, often allowing you to make some fun skips or cut unique turns through larger objects.

So much of the fun here is really in the very tactile sense that these are small cars running along plastic tracks and the sheer joy of that fact. It’s really hard to properly convey just how much fun there is in the sense that these are, in fact, toys. Why do you have a race track with racing cars alongside school buses, garbage trucks, tracked tanks, and weinermobiles? Because they’re toys and they’re all meant to be toys. And while the open floor moments of the track have little sectioned-off areas with your expected route, there’s nothing stopping you from just cutting a turn more sharply and weaving through other obstacles as you head to the next section of plastic track.

Most importantly for a racing game, the controls all felt responsive, intuitive, and fast. There are only three buttons (brake/reverse, accelerate, and boost) along with steering, but you only need those three. Once a race is done you get plenty of playback options to watch a replay of the race that just happened. I had some grand fun with moments where, for example, I launched myself at the right angle to tumble onto another portion of the track and continue on with a bit of a shortcut. And of course there are obstacles, like you’d expect on Hot Wheels playsets, except now they work very intuitively and give you new things to avoid.

It is, in short, good clean fun in the best way racing games can be. While there was a little rubber-banding from the other cars, it never felt like it was there to punish me but more to ensure that the race didn’t become a perfunctory exercise after the first few moments. Nor did it frequently feel like a mistake would doom me; I usually felt like goofs could be recovered from or at the least learned from. It is, in short, a very fun racing experience top to bottom, even without the meat of things like a career mode in this particular build.

Toy Tracks

One of the parts that particularly impressed me is that the commitment to the toy aesthetic is evident right down to the cars themselves. Your cars are not miniature but otherwise normal vehicles that you are using for races; these are toys. They look like toys. Heck, they feel like design files for the actual toys rendered and textured but otherwise showing every seam and detail from an actual little Hot Wheels car, even when they’re in motion.

The same is true of the tracks themselves. There are the little plastic bumpers, the slides that link tracks together, and so forth. You can easily find yourself being stymied on a particular tracks’ open floor section by a table leg or a discarded nut and bolt in a construction site. What do these details do? Nothing. They just reinforce that this is a game about toy cars racing, and they even have little rarities and real-world toy details to appeal to collectors and fans of Hot Wheels. This is a very tactile game in a way that few are.

Music is usually not a highlight of racing games, but this particular one definitely has the chops. The tracks you’re listening to (not racing upon) are pretty generic, but they’re up-tempo, energetic, and definitely add to the feel as you’re moving through loops and cutting another turn. The most non-toy element are the sounds of engines revving, and honestly I feel like that was a necessary compromise just so you can tell that you’re accelerating. The toys make appropriate noises when they collide with something, thankfully, and there’s no crashing noises or sounds of shattering glass.

Toy Time

Back at the start of this review, I mentioned Split/Second. That is still my favorite racing game of all time, and unfortunately I don’t think Hot Wheels Unleashed is quite on track to beat that because there’s no promise of a mode wherein your car is racing while dodging an attack helicopter. That’s kind of extra.

What I will say is that I find that same kind of fun running through Hot Wheels Unleashed. There’s a sense of this being a fun, high-energy, quirky racing game with all sorts of neat twists to be discovered, cars and tracks to customize, and a general plethora of content to enjoy as you race through a game more concerned with fun than with pure simulation while also being more oriented toward racing than bopping your opponents with shells. Even after I was pretty sure I’d formed my opinion about the game, I consistently found myself going back to try another car, and that’s with a limited roster of toys and tracks to even try out in the first place.

Some people are going to look at this particular game and wonder why you should be excited about a game about tiny cars on plastic tracks driving around. But if you saw that and were immediately like “ooh, that looks like fun,” I’m happy to report that the game delivers on all of that fun and more besides. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a chromed car to drive around while dodging webs shot from a plastic spider.

Preview build provided courtesy of Milestone for purposes of evaluation. All screenshots courtesy of Milestone.