Hot Wheels Unleashed Preview: Putting The Flame In The Game
Hot Wheels is one of the most recognized and renowned toy brands in the world, which gives Hot Wheels Unleashed a deceptively tough legacy to live up to. A Hot Wheels game from Milestone has even loftier expectations, as the studio operates as almost a racing team exclusively.
We're months away from the launch of Hot Wheels Unleashed, but after about a week with some modes of the game, I get the feeling Hot Wheels fan old and new will find something to enjoy with Unleashed, even if the game lacks just a bit of the childlike imagination the toys inspire in fans around the world.
At first, I was worried Hot Wheels Unleashed would be too adult of a take on the property. Milestone makes some great sim racing games, but historically, Hot Wheels games have always rightly been closer to kart racers.
I have to admit the impressive visuals are initially what threw me off. These games have never looked as good as this one, not even in the context of their own release eras. This feels like it must have the biggest budget of any Hot Wheels game to date.
So far, it seems like money well spent. I was able to play Quick Race in my time with the game, selecting from nearly 30 Hot Wheels originals, or "fantasy" cars.
Nostalgic or still impassioned fans of the flame will recognize many all-time greats and newer favorites too, such as Twin Mill, Rip Rod, Roller Toaster, and Exotique. Like most Hot Wheels games, Unleashed doesn't seem poised to offer licensed cars. Rather, this is about taking Mattel's in-house creations for a spin.
Each car has its own stats plainly visible when you're choosing which to use, making it feel more like other kart racers and giving younger or inexperienced players a quick guide on deciding their future favorites. The game even breaks these cars up into tiers, including Common, Rare, Legendary and Super Treasure Hunt vehicles.
That last group is based on real-life and normally the ones collectors pine for, though I couldn't seem to access it in the preview build. I'm told players can upgrade their cars in the full game too, both for fashion and function.
The cars are faithfully recreated too. In the selection screen, close-up models reveal uncanny attention to detail. The plastic windows reflect just as they should. Each paint job is remarkably life-like. I spent a good while inspecting every toy car, comparing them to the 600+ my son has in his bedroom. In the end, every detail major and minor is present in Unleashed and it's a joy to observe.
These touches are lovely for fans, however, they don't mean anything if the racing itself is subpar. But again, this is Milestone. The team seems poised to deliver a racing model that is easy for younger players and still has a skill ceiling (and an option for brutally tough AI) for more experienced racers.
The medium difficulty AI was already giving me a run for my money, though I was warned the difficulty isn't yet balanced properly, so I expect this to be sorted by launch.
Tracks themselves are perhaps the most exciting part. Split into difficulty tiers, even the easy tracks give off the high-speed hijinx fans love with things like boost pads and turbo meters always taking the speedometer to its limit. The best tracks are those in the higher tiers, where fantasy elements like spiders shooting webs at players and looping track pieces almost perfectly capture the spirit of Hot Wheels.
Where this element falls short, however, is in its atmosphere.
Though tracks are necessarily built much wider than their real-life counterparts, they're still mapped onto worlds much bigger than the cars, in an effort to capture the scale of the toys. But these college dorm rooms and skate parks feel rather lifeless as periphery scene-setting. Meanwhile, the soundtrack doesn't help either, as sterile, pre-canned rock music plays as you whip around every track.
Hot Wheels has done well to constantly reinvent itself in the real world with new toy lines like Hot Wheels AI, tons of licensed crossovers like Rocket League, always walking a tightrope between modernity and timelessness. Thus, I find myself taken aback by Unleashed's musical selection, which feels ripped out of the ads I saw as a kid 20 years ago. Adding more "life" to the world beyond the tracks themselves would go a long way to staying true to Hot Wheels.
In the full game, players will be able to take on a career mode including boss races, play multiplayer local or online for up to 12 racers, and — the best bit — toy with a track editor to build their own custom races. Nothing in the game is really more important than that, given the brand. Right now I have high hopes for this arcade racer, but I need to get my hands on that portion to deliver my final verdict on the game.
Hot Wheels Unleashed debuts on Xbox, PlayStation, PC, and Switch on September 30.