Milestone Interactive has been making licensed motorcycling titles for as long as there have been video games, motorcycles, and licenses. The Milanese studio’s first release in the genre was EA’s Superbike World Championship in 1999, and although it’s had dalliances with four wheels in the intervening years, anybody who plays MotoGP knows that this studio is the Polyphony Digital of bikes – an artisanal craftsman of rigorous two-wheeled simulations that will punish you, corner after corner, for even minor shifts in weight and brake pressure.
So I was a bit surprised when, out of nowhere, Milestone released Hot Wheels Unleashed.
Firstly: Hot Wheels had become Forza Horizon territory in recent years. Forza Horizon 3 introduced its looping tracks and primary colors to the preposterous ‘festival’ in 2016, and 2021’s Forza Horizon 5 followed that up with another licensed expansion. Those gravity-mocking tracks and chunky wheeled racers felt like well-covered ground. What could a new title add to Forza’s supremely polished contribution?
And second: what a left-turn this is from a studio whose bike racing sims are so demanding, so grounded in reality that you need to start braking on the motorway before you even take the turn off for the race track. Prior to Hot Wheels Unleashed, there was no evidence Milestone had either the appetite or aptitude for a fantasy arcade racer that takes place in a kid’s imagination.
As it turns out, it’s a match made in toy marketing heaven. Available on Xbox Game Pass, Hot Wheels Unleashed feels like a rigorous simulation of an impossible race; an imaginary category of competition that the Milan physics nerds nonetheless found a way to ground in reality.
In presentation and structure, it conjures something of the old 16-bit/PlayStation arcade racer heyday, when all the likes of Ridge Racer or Micro Machines had to do was offer you a big map of race events to get you invested in them. The town map that Hot Wheels Unleashed uses to plot out its escalating challenges feels like well-judged retro kitsch, but it’s deceiving - the racing itself is thoroughly modern.
The circuits lunge upwards at sheer vertical angles and fling you round loop-de-loops. Booster pads propel school buses forward fast enough to leave Earth’s gravitational pull. And yet, it still does feel like a Milestone sim to control.
There’s a knack to the handling. It rewards bravely holding the throttle and threading the needle through high-speed kinks, but it also requires a judicious tap of the brakes and some traction management through corners.
Milestone says it approached the handling model in the same way it builds the handling for a MotoGP or SBK game, focusing on the physical properties of the contact points between track and rider, the weight of the vehicle, and then fine-tunes all that data into something understandable, manageable, and infinitely more compelling than a toy racer has any right to be.
That's not a toy
It’s that fundamentally gripping racing that earned it countless 9/10s and even a few GOTY awards in 2021. But it’s the little details that elevate it, too.
Like the car collection. So much time and love has obviously been spent on capturing the vehicles’ die-cast chunkiness and tactile toy-like quality. In typically Milestone fashion, they’re the authentic toys themselves translated into the game, not hypothetical ‘what if the dino car was a real vehicle?’ constructions.
The paint dazzles and glimmers in just the right way. It feels like opening up a big box you’ve had in the attic for years, to find that someone’s archived the contents of that box into Unreal Engine 4 for posterity.
It also resonates with the racing community, I think, for being so silly. Sim racing has exploded in the last three years, propelled forwards into the mainstream by a pandemic that gave us all a lot of free time in our houses and a new generation of F1 stars who you’re just as likely to see on Twitch as Sky Sports.
And that’s been great – but it has led to a rather stern and serious culture around racing games lately. Hotlapping for hours, obsessing over setups, watching Jarno Opmeer and trying to replicate his exact brake inputs… these things are noble pursuits, don’t get me wrong, but as part of a balanced diet.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is your superfood salad. It boosts your endorphins with circuits you can’t possibly take seriously enough to get annoyed about. So you placed fourth on a giant toy track built around somebody’s living room. Life goes on. Immediately. In the next race, where the orange track takes you up an unfinished skyscraper.
It’s not a perfect game by any means, and the AI in particular could be accused of being either laughably docile or on rails, depending on your difficulty. But that’s the great thing about Game Pass, isn’t it? The games we try don’t have to be perfect. We can just dip into them and see if they speak to us. And if the words “New from Mattel…” cause a spike in your heart rate, this one surely will.