On our long list of “things we weren’t expecting to read” this year was renowned Italian motorbike simulator developer Milestone being the studio behind a toy car game.
It’s pretty out-there as concepts go, but nonetheless it’s true. Milestone has created Hot Wheels Unleashed, a game in which you muck around with the world famous diecast toys. In fact it’s not just the toys, but that legendary track too.
We’ve been following the game’s development pretty closely over the spring and summer, and even got to try out a restricted-feature preview earlier in the year, so naturally we jumped at the chance when a review code slipped into our inbox.
Hot Wheels Unleashed will release on September 30 across PC, PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch, and we’ve been playing the title on PlayStation 5.
Content and Value For Money
We’re going to start with the negative here on this aspect first. At launch you’ll find a mere 66 cars from across the Hot Wheels range — both real-world models and some of the brand’s famous fictional creations. That’s pretty adequate, but there’s a couple of kickers too.
Firstly, you have to unlock almost all of them. The cars in the game come at you by a “blind box” lucky dip mechanism, with a smaller chance to unlock cars with a higher rarity value. You get three of these boxes to start with, so chances are you’ll start off with three “common” cars, which just leaves 63 for you to unlock; you can’t even see them until you unlock them, though you can buy more boxes and a limited number of cars in a rotating shop for in-game credits.
Slightly more disappointing is the fact that there’s about the same number of cars again buried in pre-order bonuses and season passes. That means that if you really want to get into the car collection angle of HWU, it’s going to get pretty pricey.
That said, Milestone will be adding some cars for free in updates, and the 66 cars you get at the start is enough to be getting on with. This is aided by the fact you can dismantle duplicates to upgrade your favorites (though do be careful with this…), and there’s a full livery editor included.
The livery editor is a pretty impressive effort. Not only do you have full control over colors and sticker placement — with hundreds of included stickers and shapes to make you own — but you can even change the material of the various vehicle components, between different kinds of metal, plastic, and enamel.
HWU‘s single player hinges on a career mode of sorts. It goes by the name of “City Rumble” and essentially consists of the kind of road map you’d find on a kid’s rug. You must progress from race to race, occasionally taking on “boss” levels which feature some kind of background monster rather than a particularly difficult on-track opponent.
In fact it’s the track that is the opponent most of the time. There are ultimately only four circuit locations, plus a test arena and your “home” basement, but they really only serve as backdrops to the orange ribbon of crazy.
Over the early part of the career you’ll encounter a chunk of the obstacles you’ll have seen in various previews, but also some new and thoroughly insane items. We’re particularly “fond” of the reversing speed pads that suddenly flip to slowing you down to a crawl, and the zero gravity leap into nothingness that requires you to perform a half barrel roll in order to land wheels down on a new section of track above you.
And then there’s the track editor, which is just about the toybox of your dreams. Within an overall item budget you can create whatever Hot Wheels track you like — even including sections of invisible track that allow you to create giant leaps or scuttle around the floor — along with all the game’s power-ups and special track sections.
This can get a little bit awkward to manage at times, though oddly it’s less of a pain once you get out of the tutorial mode. The controls could be more intuitive — resetting your twisted piece to base configuration rather than stepping back to the previous action is irritating — and we’ve found the camera can be a bit limited too.
Otherwise you have pretty much free rein over your custom course, albeit with a couple of special pieces locked behind your City Rumble progress.
There’s still a little way to go until Hot Wheels Unleashed launches, and that makes it tricky to give a full assessment of the game’s multiplayer modes; they exist, they’re just not particularly well populated right now and we struggled to get any racing at all.
However, what multiplayer there is can just about be classed as the expected minimum. You ultimately have access to three modes, with two online and one offline.
There’s a split-screen multiplayer which allows you and one local opponent to race on any of the in-game circuits — though for most you will need to have unlocked them in the City Rumble single player mode.
Online you can race in a Quick Match, which matches you with a random selection of the playerbase, racing on user-created circuits based on a lobby vote. You can also create your own private lobby.
Your livery and track creations can be shared with the community, and you can download them from other people too.
Driving Physics and Handling
We can’t really judge Hot Wheels Unleashed‘s driving physics by the arcade-sim sliding scale we’d ordinarily use for simulation titles… because it isn’t one. You’re literally driving 1:64 scale cars around a garage floor, and the game doesn’t at any point pretend to be anything different.
Quite the opposite, in fact; it’s very clear that it is some bizarro Toy Story/Cars universe in which these little models are capable of driving all by themselves, and we’ve assessed it with that in mind.
On the one hand, you’ve definitely got all the tropes of this kind of driving game. There’s speed-up pads, boosts, power slides, magnetized areas for gravity-defying action, and even aerial after-touch to allow you to charge up your boost.
However there’s a strange depth to it all that really does bring out the concept that these are little toy cars, not just cars that look like little toy cars. This actually comes out not when you’re driving around, but when you’re crashing, or about to.
Take the power-sliding for instance. It’s incredibly easy to initiate: just dab the brakes while turning. What it’s not easy to do is control or hold in any way. In fact it’s exactly like someone chucked a Hot Wheels car sideways across a concrete floor.
Full-on crashing brings out the best of it though, with the cars again behaving just like a Hot Wheels model would. There’s no elasticity to it whatsoever; if you land nose-down, you will ping end-over-end until you run out of momentum, hit something, or fall 30 floors to your doom.
It seems like a really curious design choice, but considering all the arcade touches the fact that it really does feel like you’re mucking about with Hot Wheels adds an unexpected authenticity to the entire experience.
Right from the very first trailer, Hot Wheels Unleashed has impressed in the graphics department and it’s still the case in the finished product.
In the menus, the vehicles all look so close to real Hot Wheels it’s almost like you could reach into your display and scoop them out — though they are much larger if you play on any reasonably sized screen. Just to prove it, we went out and bought a Total Disposal (we’re nothing if not dedicated) so you can judge for yourself below.
There’s a mild downgrade in racing action, but generally things are whizzing past at incredible speeds and you won’t notice for the most part.
That sense of speed is also a key part of the action too. Everything comes at you quickly — with the exception of the track validation tractor — but also smoothly.
There’s a lot going on in the background and we haven’t seen any tearing, jaggies, pop-in or frame drops as the game screams along at 4K60. Your experience on eighth-gen consoles may differ, but the PS5 version is as solid as can be, as it was on the PC preview we played, and we’d expect the same of Xbox Series too.
While the environments are largely backdrop to the circuits themselves, a lot of work has gone into making them vibrant and the Skyscraper location is particularly stomach-churning when you miss a jump.
All-in-all it’s one of the best-looking games we’ve played on PS5 yet, and it’s all about toy cars…
For the most part the game’s audio design as as authentic as you can get for cars that don’t actually have any engines. We’ve run a wide variety of the machinery in the game and while we won’t say that they all sound truly different it’s certainly the case that those that should do sound different enough.
We’re slightly less enthused by the atmospheric sounds, of which there doesn’t seem to be any. That’s to be expected for the most part — the locations are after all without any human population, so there’s no cheering crowds or the like — but it does make the game feel slightly more sterile. Some of the animated pieces do make their own sounds, but it’s the aural equivalent of blink and you’ll miss it.
Of course with the loud engines and boost sounds, you probably wouldn’t be able to hear much ambient noise, and it’d be rendered even more inert by the overly loud music tracks. While largely theme-appropriate, it’s only vaguely tolerable at about 15% volume, and there doesn’t seem to be much variety.
We’re also not quite sure how Milestone came up with that sound for the finished “checkpoint” product. It sounds rather like Gerard Butler trying to do an impersonation of Michael Clarke Duncan while underwater.
We’ve genuinely not had this much fun in a racing game in quite some time.
It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. A few more multiplayer options wouldn’t go amiss, and this might be addressed by the “race seasons” scheduled post launch. We’d also recommend turning the music down a lot too.
The fact that a good chunk of the content is linked to game progress is irksome but part of the car collection vibe, and the City Rumble single player mode won’t take up too much time to run through — which might limit the game’s life without a vibrant online mode. We can easily see the livery editor and particularly the track editor helping to extend that though.
Ultimately a surprising amount of attention to detail has gone into how the cars look and handle. If it was any more like actually playing with Hot Wheels, the game would ship with a bunch of models and tracks in the box.
Hot Wheels Unleashed
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