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Hot Wheels Unleashed preview: Nostalgia-fueled kart racing

When I was a kid in the early 2000s, I didn’t just play on my Gameboy Color and PlayStation 2 — I also played with Hot Wheels. I had a huge collection of the small plastic (and older metal) cars, and I loved racing them around in my childhood backyard. Hot Wheels Unleashed takes that childhood experience and cranks it up to 11, combining the old toy cars I know with high-speed kart racing.

My preview of Hot Wheels Unleashed, part of Milestone’s E3 2021 presentation, included a fairly small amount of content compared to what will eventually be in the game. Nevertheless, I was impressed by its visuals, open design, and shockingly enough, its variety.

A childhood dream

I only had access to quick races in my preview of Hot Wheels Unleashed. The game also includes a split-screen mode, but without another person to play with, I wasn’t able to try it out. Hot Wheels Unleashed will ship with over 60 vehicles to choose from and more than 40 tracks to race on, but my version came with just 28 cars and nine tracks.

Still, each vehicle and track that I saw managed to impress me. The cars themselves range from radical, ’90s-esque hot rods to the straight-up wacky, like a hot dog car or a tank. Regardless of which set of wheels you choose, they’re going to look great. Each vehicle is stunningly detailed, but not in a way that makes them look like they’re real cars. They still look like toys, with paint, plastic bits, and aluminum parts. Hot Wheels Unleashed may look realistic, but it doesn’t want you to forget that you’re playing with toys.

That carries over to the game’s tracks, which are mostly made up of the toy brand’s iconic orange track pieces. Of course, these maps aren’t as tame as the ones you can buy at the store. They’re fast-paced, with obstacles and rather open designs. You’ll find the usual subjects of kart racing tracks here — upside-down segments and loops mainly — but there are also some unique obstacles. Some tracks have spiders that shoot webbing on your car, stopping it in its tracks. Others have moving parts, like a snake that opens and closes its mouth, blocking cars from the track.

Some of those hazards on the tracks can be avoided entirely if you’re willing to take a gamble. Each map has an open design, meaning you’re not restricted to staying on the track.  Overshoot a jump or try to fly over a barrier, and you may end up on another part of the track. You can drive off in any direction if you want. And while that usually means you’ll end up crashing and have to respawn, sending you to the back of the pack, sometimes these off-road excursions lead to huge skips. This open design leads to experimentation, adding another layer of replayability to each course.

What makes Hot Wheels Unleashed truly unique is how it treats each individual car. Naturally, they all have their own stats, but some also have their own boosting mechanics. Players build up boost by driving and build it up faster by drifting. However, the way each car lets players access boost is different, with some splitting the speed up into two or four segments. One car I tried out opted out of that mechanic, instead giving me access to an entire bar of boost that could be burned through at once. If that variance is present throughout the lineup of over 60 cars coming to the game, I’ll be extremely impressed.

I’ve played Hot Wheels Unleashed for just barely over an hour, and yet it has already thoroughly impressed me. The demo left me wondering if there would be enough content in the final game, but that issue will hopefully be solved when it eventually releases. On day one, Hot Wheels Unleashed is getting a career mode, time attack, and both local and online multiplayer, along with a ton of tracks and vehicles. With all that on the way, Hot Wheels Unleashed will almost certainly be a kart game worth looking into.

Hot Wheels Unleashed will hit PC, PlayStation 4, PS5, Switch, Xbox One, an Xbox Series X/S on September 27.

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