Ignore the Hot Wheels Forza Horizon 3 expansion for a moment: has there ever been a good standalone Hot Wheels game? Like, properly good – not just good enough for a six-year-old who’s never played a racing game before. I don’t know if there has. If you say ‘toy car’ and ‘video game’ to me, I’d say Micro Machines; that’s the iconic marriage of miniature racing and video games.
However, now I’ve gotten my hands on Hot Wheels Unleashed I’m not so sure about that anymore, because this tiny 1:64 scale racer has just made a fantastic first impression.
Straight away the decision to present the vehicles as 1:1 reproductions of the actual toy cars pays enormous dividends. They’re not fanciful renditions of what these cars would look like in real-life, nor are they exaggerated or cartoon-like. They’re toys, presented as toys, down to their tiniest details. Not only can you spot the mould lines and the differences in materials (from the plastic windscreens and accessories to the die cast metal bodies) some of them even carry fingerprints that can be seen under the right light, like the characters in The LEGO Movie. They’re even stamped with the Hot Wheels logo and model name underneath their chassis.
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It took me a long while to even enter a race because I lost a huge amount of time looking through the car list and just inspecting them. I know my sons got particularly excited whenever they saw one they knew was in the Hot Wheels bucket tucked away in their wardrobe. There were 28 different cars available in the preview version, all of which hit pegs within the last 10 years (the menu notes when the model was released). That said, reissues like the classic Twin Mill obviously date back a lot further. At any rate, the full game will reportedly feature over 60 cars, so hopefully some older Hot Wheels cars will also be included. It would be cool to see some of the ’70s and ’80s models with the Redline and Ultra Hots wheels I remember from my own childhood, for instance.
Out on the tracks themselves, though, the cars arguably look even better – even after they’ve been scratched up and chipped during a race. They just look fantastically seated into the environments, and that seems thanks to some seriously impressive lighting that’s doing a very convincing job of really showcasing the contrasting scales on display here – the tiny cars and the mammoth, life-sized worlds.
This initial build of Hot Wheels features several of the games environments, including the garage, the skyscraper, the skate park, and the college campus. Some of the environments only had a single track available for this preview, but that was enough to experience how different the backdrops are from one another. The garage is quite a dark environment, but in a good way, because Hot Wheels Unleashed looks particularly slick in low light. The skyscraper boasts a lot more verticality, and a really impressive outdoor space that stretches out to the horizon with a fluffy layer of low cloud beneath. This is probably where the cars seemed at their absolute tiniest.
The tracks themselves are made up of big spans of plastic Hot Wheels track and sections of the world itself, so a circuit may utilise benches, vents, the floor, or indeed any other surface you could whip a die cast car across. The preview build didn’t feature the track editor planned for the game but I suspect the potential of that will be huge.
I don’t know that I’d say yet that there’s a big difference in the fundamental feel of the racing itself depending on the environment I was racing through, but I think the backdrops are very good, and notably varied.
Of course, speaking of the feeling of the racing itself, I’m impressed here, too. With classic Burnout-style brake-to-drift arcade handling mixed with a little Rocket League-inspired in-air control, Hot Wheels Unleashed is instantly playable for arcade racing veterans and seems easy to learn for newbies. Off-boost it may be a little slower than the average arcade racer but the positive side effect is that boost seems to feel a bit more meaningful as a result, because of that arguably more profound difference in speed. Boost builds nice and quickly, too, so it didn’t seem like a resource I needed to be stingy with.
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IGN spoke with developer Milestone recently about Hot Wheels Unleashed, and one of the key takeaways was that the studio is really seeking to capture that spirit of playing with toy cars as a young child. I can see that. More importantly, however, after this hands-on I can feel it, too.
Luke is Games Editor at IGN’s Sydney office. You can find him on Twitter every few days @MrLukeReilly.