Like Codemaster's 16-bit Micro Machines titles, Hot Wheels Unleashed takes place in that imaginary world we created when we played with toy cars as kids. The chubby hands providing the real horsepower are invisible, the courses turn plausible locations like garages and basements into wild track arrangements our parents would never sign off on. And the cars themselves have a seven-year-old's wildly optimistic take on the laws of physics.
That creative direction itself isn't especially surprising. But having played the so-so beta only a couple of months back, what I'm truly shocked by is how developer Milestone has managed to wrangle those elements into involving and often genuinely tense races in the final version, which hit Steam last week.
The cars are patently too fast for the narrow, undulating installations of branded circuit. They fly around like they've been shot out of the Large Hadron collider, and you're somehow expected to guide them through loop-de-loops and around hairpins, all while pinging off 11 other vehicles with all the predictability of a trading market.
While this made for quite frustrating events whose results felt arbitrary, like, very recently, Hot Wheels Unleashed has found a way to fine-tune the bedlam. The bounces are just that touch kinder, the steering more lithe, and the results prompt either genuine pride or an absurd laugh that bears no grudge. It's quite a turnaround, which anyone with an eye on racing games should be pleased about.
These triple-B style, instant gratification racers have been thin on the ground for a decade or more. Try and glean some enjoyment out of its Milestone stablemate MotoGP 21 within a five-minute time frame and you'll still be selecting brake discs when your self-imposed timer runs out. But here in the three-lap races of Unleashed, you get your fix, fast.
That's not to say there isn't a longform aspect to it. Hot Wheels City Rumble, the game's career mode, plots dozens of events out over an urban map, showering you in loot boxes and customisation bits and bobs as you go. We're not talking Destiny here, but there's definitely a voice in your head that wants all the cars (customisation items for the player-owned environment known as The Basement are considerably less compelling). There’s certainly an air of repetition, since events are broadly split down the middle by quick races and time trials—not to mention that the City Rumble map is absolutely vast—but boss fights and secret events do their bit to keep you exploring it.
Over in multiplayer racing, the atmosphere of barely tamed chaos finds more unexpected benefits. Given that clipping the barrier and going airborne at horrifying angles are commonplace, you can hardly blame a human opponent for making contact with you. So you don't. Feuds spanning aeons have been waged over contact through turn one in F1 2021, but here among the cheery sprawls of orange track and lovingly rendered miniatures, it doesn't seem in keeping with the spirit of the endeavour to hold a grudge.
Milestone makes its love for these foot-destroying vehicles clearly felt in both the visual detail and, more impressively still, in a handling model that discerns every vehicle from the next. Garbage trucks turn noticeably differently than school buses, Indy cars, or dinosaurs. The Formula Flashback has a different boost charge and deployment system than the Street Creeper. And that lends something more to collecting cars than simply satiating that voice in our head. Since they require different approaches to driving, you’ll uncover some unexpected finds that unlock more of your natural pace.
The sheer volume of its unlockable customisation items and vehicles, like the size of its career mode map, suggest that Hot Wheels Unleashed's developers are self-conscious about a question I asked myself several times as I played: How long can a player realistically keep coming back to this? It's certainly not a games-as-a-service model, much to its credit, and although the car handling is demanding, it isn't a time proposition like mastering MotoGP 21's braking. Personally? For now, the liberating anarchy of its racing is enough to keep me around for a few more races yet.