The smile upon my face when I was a child upon receiving a new diecast car was so wide it could be seen from the moon. Probably.
For younger generations, toy cars are a window into an imaginary world where insurance premiums and traffic jams don’t exist. Where the living room is a racetrack, devoting boundless energy to the very important task of winning the sofa Grand Prix.
If you showed any four-year-old that you could turn their Hot Wheels collection into a living, breathing, on-screen experience I’m sure they will throw their mashed potato on the floor in excitement. Well, they do that anyway, but this would be with an extra special vigour that means you’ll be discovering blobs of food around the house for the next six months.
Hot Wheels Unleashed manages to do that with aplomb – it really is toy cars coming to life.
What really makes Hot Wheels Unleashed stand out is the detail. I could happily spend hours just scrolling through the car select screen. I think the lighting model here is the best work Italian developer Milestone has ever done. The way the light reflects off the diecast bodies and plastic wheels, plus the detail in the surfaces and how the metallic paint sparkles. They look like toy models, not shrunken cars.
There will be over 60 in the final game, and there were 28 in this early preview slice of the game. Each is distinctly different and based upon ‘real life’ fictional Hot Wheels models. There are takeaway delivery cars, wacky futuristic racers and even school busses and tanks.
But what would be the point of all this exquisite detail and vast vehicle choice if they all drove in the same way?
This is where Unleashed separates itself from previously licensed cash-ins because there is depth to the vehicle performance.
Each model has performance judged across a combination of four parameters: speed, braking power, acceleration and handling. Then, there are two types of in-race boost – one that starts and stops when you press or let go of A/cross or one that is in bitesize chunks.
Perhaps surprisingly, each car features unique handling characteristics that are noticeable to the point of requiring different driving techniques. Something big and heavy will take more effort to slow down and pivot enough to execute a smooth drift without touching the perimeter barriers.
You will have to learn each craft’s tendencies to get the most of them.
That’s if you’re taking things seriously. But where’s the fun in that? You can simply stick the game on easy or medium AI difficultly and just marvel at how the level design embraces verticality.
Set inside four locations – for now, two more will be revealed soon – and across nine track layouts for the preview, each is labyrinthine in construction, the famous orange plastic tracks sprawling across the areas.
Much like the vehicles, the lighting effects here are impressive, and every facet of a Hot Wheels playset is perfectly recreated. Right down to the almost imperceptible ridges in the surface to the sound of plastic wheels running over the surface or clanking into a wall.
The surrounding setting is rich with detail and the variety of layouts is bordering on astonishing. Over 40 will be in the final game, alongside a custom track builder.
Some events will have you jumping and bashing around a circuit for several laps, while others will be point-to-point affairs set across longer routes. It’s the latter race setup that will have your mouth agape with wonderment as you discover a track for the first time.
A start line inside a toy dinosaur’s mouth, massive jumps into a metropolis landscape, loop the loops that have you gasping for breath like you’ve just emerged from being underwater at a swimming lesson.
There are even branching elements where you have the choice of two paths reminiscent in some ways of the Motorstorm games but on a smaller scale.
You may come across a spider that traps you in its webs, requiring you to boost away from the sticky silk, or a set of fans that blow you off the optimum racing line. There are boost pads to drive over like in a wipEout title, or electro-strips that top up your boost level.
We couldn’t try the online multiplayer in the preview, but local split-screen was available, and it works admirably, with no noticeable reduction in visual fidelity – although we’ll have to see how it stands up on Switch or last-gen consoles upon release.
A key gameplay element, progression, was also absent for now. Perhaps understandably, the main Hot Wheels City Rumble career mode was off-limits – we simply ran a series of quick races. The cars available each had a rating pertaining to their scarcity, from Common to Super Treasure Hunt. How the collecting and upgrading of models is handled in the final release will be crucial to the game’s longevity.
Aside from the Prince-aping funky menu music, there is a lack of energy from the audio during the racing. Sure, the soundtrack is filled with deep bass and uplifting electronica, but the engine noises are more than a little bloodless.
The handling too could do with a little finessing. Drifting is key, initiated by a little tap of the brake as you twizzle the analogue stick for corner entry. But judging the right speed into a corner is a little challenging, as is maintaining a slide – sometimes you can find yourself making too many mid-curve adjustments and often you can simply wall-run.
I also found it difficult to judge where to place the vehicle pre-blind jump, often landing nowhere near the track. It could be that younger players may struggle a little bit thanks to a complete lack of handling assist options.
There is an absence of invisible walls, which adds to the challenge, and I applaud the element of the level design. If you see it, you can hit it. If you are high up and there is no barrier at the side of the track, you’re going to fall off with one slightly erratic thumbstick movement.
Thankfully, the AI also makes the same mistakes, and they feel extraordinarily naturalistic. If you’ve played many arcade racers, you will appreciate that a form of rubber-banding is the norm. It’s present here too, where if you fall back, the AI ahead will slow down to help you catch up, but you can’t really tell. They just make more mistakes, by misjudging a jump or smashing into a barrier.
This is not a finished version of the game, so we can’t be overly judgmental. I think some handling characteristics and difficulty balancing is required – the latter will definitely be addressed ahead of launch according to the developer. Also, right now, there is only one camera angle and replays don’t feature any trackside cameras.
But, the diecast models, visuals and track designs are all spot on and provided you select the right vehicle for the right venue, Hot Wheels Unleashed should reinvigorate a somewhat stale arcade racing genre.
Hot Wheels Unleashed will be available for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series, Nintendo Switch and PC on 30th September 2021.