David Coulthard is floating in a bowl of Honey Nut Loops. Damon Hill’s lost under my mate’s couch. Nigel Mansell has been involuntarily removed from the track, clamped in the jaws of Smurf the Dog who’s now wandered into the kitchen. And Michael Schumacher has, once again, retained the bi-hourly Muirskeith Road Grand Prix of 1995. The winner’s podium is a stack of POGs sat upon a bundle of Panini football stickers, and among the celebrity onlookers are Stretch Armstrong and Buzz Lightyear.
None of this is happening in Hot Wheels Unleashed, but as I’m tinkering around with its Track Builder – a time-sink side feature in developer Milestone’s latest series offering which hits all the right notes – I cannot help but be figuratively transported to my childhood. Back to a time where the high-octane projections of a once vivid imagination ruled my world, and when my automobile-related concerns were not about fuel shortages or getting my old Golf through its next MOT, but were simply about making miniature cars go really, really fast in the most mundane of household settings.
Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and the Hot Wheels series of video games knows it. Not only are the games inspired by the die-cast, pint-sized toy cars that were first rolled out in the '60s, the first video game incarnation landed on the Commodore 64 in 1984. The most recent Hot Wheels game arrived in 2017 – Hot Wheels: Race Off, for iOS and Android – and official crossovers have popped up in the likes of Rocket League, Need for Speed: No Limits, Forza Horizon 3, and Roblox over the last few years.
Hot Wheels Unleashed carries the turbo-charged baton into a new decade with yet more fast and frantic racing, set on winding tracks with loop-de-loops and speed boosts, that are built inside pool halls, industrial skate parks, construction sites, and neon-bathed custom car garages. There, the action unfolds in single or multiplayer – be that online or via local split screen – in a series of quick races, time attacks, or in City Rumble, a stage-by-stage story mode wherein you compete to win coins to unlock new cars (everything from Hot Wheels replicas, to novelty rides, such as Back to the Future’s De Lorean), loot box-esque Blind Boxes, and custom parts for track building.
All of that is great fun. But it's the latter part, Hot Wheels Unleashed’s circuit-crafting Track Builder, that’s where it’s at for me. It captures what made playing with the real-world miniatures so appealing: freedom. As a kid, building haphazard racecourses was always total joy – those precariously-constructed, gravity-defying circuits that started on your mate’s big brother’s pool table, and finished atop his wardrobe, having swooped under his couch, his computer table, and around his dog’s basket en route. Building them up, pulling them down, starting again, and deliberately engineering an impossibly-angled turn, or a death-defying drop was all part of the fun, as you played God of the grid, sending your make-believe drivers’ heads, and cars, spinning.
The Hot Wheels series of video games has dabbled in track construction before, but Unleashed’s take feels like its most accomplished. You’re given all the tools the devs used in building the game’s pre-set routes, meaning nothing is off limits. Anyone familiar with rival racing series TrackMania’s customised track-building will feel at home here, as you're tasked with snapping each track tile together, just as you would with real-life Hot Wheels. From the Basement to the Skatepark, the College Campus, the Garage, the Skyscraper, and the purpose-built Track Room, you’ll fill every nook and cranny with obstacles, boost pads, ramps, hills, and oh-so-many loops in your bid to build the best, most convoluted, and least restricted, race bowl.
In doing so, you’ll bend and stretch, and mix and match basic tiles with animated and ‘special’ ones, which range from high-powered fans that prevent your cars from breaching the barrier and spilling out of bounds, to web-spewing spiders that limit your speed. You can also tinker with the color schemes of your racetracks, and can raise and lower barrier heights to suit each twist and turn as you see fit. Add all of this to the suite’s ‘Interactive Objects’, which include momentum-propelling speedstrips, and turbo-recharging checkpoints, and your scope for creativity, and, inevitably, chaos, is huge.
With this in mind, Hot Wheels Unleashed lets players share and play one another’s creations online, and a handy ‘Validation’ feature prevents unfinished, and thus incomplete, tracks from being uploaded. This is what makes Unleashed for me, because, while the game’s pre-built offering is good fun, I’ve been so enamoured with its building suite and its scope for creative freedom, that I’ve hardly scratched the surface of its standardised races and settings. When its Track Builder can provide so much entertainment, though, I’m not sure that I need to.
Which, like the tracks I’ve been crafting behind the scenes in Hot Wheels Unleashed, brings me back full-circle. It’s been some time since I sent miniature cars swimming in my cereal, and while I’m pleased to say I’m still mates with the host of the Muirskeith Road Grand Prix that kicked off over 26 years ago, the tour has been inactive for some time. My 35-year-old mate even claims he’s outgrown Hot Wheels, but I don’t believe him. I reckon he’s caught wind of the fact I’ve just crafted a belter of a customised circuit in Unleashed’s Track Builder, and he’s too scared to race me. With Smurf the dog now watching on from the race track in the sky, now is my best chance for a spot on the podium. After all, I know the track better than anyone. I built the blooming thing.
Craving more wonderful wheel-spinning? Check out the best racing games available to test drive right now.