Hands-on Hot Wheels Unleashed Preview (PC) – Serious Racing for Die-cast Die Hards

If I had one axle to grind with gaming in 2021 it’s that releases are a bit slower than usual. That being the pace, I figured I’d speed into an arcade racer being marketed to the young (but also young at heart). Surprisingly, I found myself enamoured with it immediately, because it lets you assign two boost buttons. If you’re a petrolhead and that doesn’t get your wheels hot, nothing will.

Much like the time when developer Codemasters took a u-turn back to Micro Machines World Series, Milestone — an Italian dev known for 25 years of racing sims – has downshifted on complexity to make Hot Wheels Unleashed.

That’s quite the pedigree to have under your hood and, to be blunt, something this IP desperately needs if it wants to qualify as a serious contender. There have been 26 major Hot Wheels games pooped out since 1984. Metacritic-wise, they represent an absolute pile up. Bargain bin bangers, the lot of ’em. Indeed, the only survivor among them is the Hot Wheels expansion pack for Forza Horizon 3. Shit was more lit than the Hot Wheels logo.

Hot Wheels Unleashed

This may throw some of you for a loop-the-loop, but I reckon Hot Wheels Unleashed reeks of quality, right off the starting grid. For starters, what we have here isn’t some kart racer filled with weaponry (which is weird because technically you can drive a bloody tank). I’d liken Unleashed to a Burnout without the road rage. A Split-Second without the weaponised setpieces. A pure racing experience with surprising open-world tendencies that’s aimed squarely at die-cast diehards.

It’s early in the race, but I think it’s worth getting revved up over. However, it’s important to know that I’ve only kicked a few of Unleashed’s tyres. The only game modes available to me were Quick Race and Split-Screen. The former lets you choose your car, a track and then compete instantly against twelve AI. The latter local multi mode was only a two-player max. That said, I’m told that come day one we’ll also get a Career Mode, Time Attack and online Multi for 12 players.

Likewise, I was only allowed to get sideways with 28 cars on 9 tracks – the full game will be rocking a total of 60 increasingly weird die-cast cars on 40 tracks. I can only hope it includes my personal favourite Hot Wheels, the Homer; stat-wise, it should be powerful like a gorilla, yet soft and yielding like a Nerf ball.

All of the circuits you’ll zip along on are cobbled together from those actual plastic fantastic track strips you can buy in the store. That said they’re modelled and set in actual physical spaces. Themed real-world environments that are way more interactive than you’d probably first imagine. I got to see four of those.

The first was the Garage, a once celebrated and distinctly 1980s car shop, now left in ruins. The second was a College Campus comprised of a library, classroom and chemistry lab, all interconnected by a main hallway. There was also a Skatepark that makes up for its lack of furnishings with fully sick ramps, rails and exposed beams. Finally, there were the impressive visuals of a Skyscraper under construction – truly the best environment you could have for a bunch of kids playing with toy cars. Safe as, mate.

Interestingly, I’m told there are two more environments yet to be unveiled. At least one of them will serve as a kind of home base for you. Details are scarce here, but Milestone says it will be a customisable space “looks-wise”. I’m guessing that ties in with the Track Builder that allows you to knock together a spaghetti mess of track pieces and then share your creations with the community – something you can also do with the livery editor.

It’s worth noting that playing through the Career mode will enhance your track building experience. As you mop up the events in it – be they races, time attacks, special challenges or boss battles – you’ll earn yourself track pieces and cars that seem to be rated via a loot system of rarity.

When it comes to fun-factor and handling, Unleashed veers towards decidedly “leashed” physics with the odd nitro burst of occasional hilarity. On the surface, what we have here is a simple drift system that is initiated with one pump of your brake, and then you can fairly easily adjust your over and understeer by either turning sharper, boosting or throwing out the anchors again.

Kind of like Burnout Paradise, which type of boost system you’ll get all depends on the car selected. Some come with multiple tiers, some don’t, and every vehicle feels like they have their own distinct personalities. For example, you might find a formula one variant that requires a grip racing touch. Others work better if you throw your buns out behind you and point your wiener hard at that apex sweet spot. Quick note: there’s a hot dog-themed car.

Enemy AI isn’t the most reactive I’ve seen in the genre, but this is all perfectly acceptable, preview build stuff. On the good side, your foes seem to intelligently select the branching track paths that best suit their vehicle’s strengths. Also, I haven’t witnessed them make any dodgy “do it yourself” shortcuts – something that’s incredibly satisfying if you manage to do yourself.

If you do go offroad, Unleashed will never grab you by the scruff of the neck. You can literally ditch the race and go bombing about the world like you’re playing some sort of interactive Honey I Shrunk the Kids movie.

That being said, I did have one moment of more-arse-than-class, when I pinballed myself off something to neatly wipe off half a lap and give myself an unbeatable lead. Doing this represents an incredible risk-reward. Cheer-worthy stuff if it benefits you – I just hope they’re more freak occurrences than learnable, massively exploitable things.

As for downsides, it seems to me that the respawning system is more up and down than the jump-happy tracks you’re racing on. It’s great that it’s basically instantaneous, but sometimes you’re thrown way too far back.Back to positives, though. The split-screen here appears to be in rock solid shape, but I really would have liked to have had access to a four-player one. I did the kid test by having my two sons play one another – specifically, they decided to settle some scores that I didn’t even know existed. Hotdog car v. Burgermobile and Stegosaurus sedan v. Veloci-racer.

I don’t think this is going to take the checkered flag when their family game night choices are Mario Kart or Crash Team Racing, but they sure had some fun and when I show them the track editor, it could reshuffle Unleashed right to a pole position start. That thing could be a game-changer.

It’s a long and winding road between now and Unleashed’s September release date, but I think we’re well on pace here. Of particular interest to me is the way cars in our garage can be upgraded by investing race won currency to boost the stats. Milestone has won some bonus championship points with me by saying that microtransactions are off the table.

Apparently, we can earn larger chunks of these “gears” by dismantling earned vehicles we don’t need in order to level them up through rarity tiers. Mind you, nobody will be able to chop shop their way into owning a special “Super Treasure Hunt” tier of cars. I’m guessing they’re secret collectables that must be found by snooping off-road.

So far as I can tell, Hot Wheels Unleashed is going to be as fast and furious as you please. Milestone isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel here, they’re just making them…uh, hotter. At the risk of sounding like a backseat driver, I’m hoping that a lot of development focus is going on the exploratory potential of these open-world levels and a track builder that’s powerful but also easy to use.

Only time will tell on these, of course. For now, Hot Wheels Unleashed is on the correct trajectory and flying high in my esteem. I’m keen to see if Milestone can stick the landing, farther down the road.

Hot Wheels Unleashed was previewed on PC using a code provided by the publisher.

Adam Mathew
Adam Mathew
I grew up knowing and loving a ludicrous amount of games, from dedicated Pong console onwards. Nowadays you'll find me covering and playing the next big things. Often on Stupid-Hard difficulty. Because I'm an idiot.

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