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Hot Wheels Unleashed Devs On Making 2021's Most Surprising Racing Game

Developer Milestone says finer track and car details made all the difference
<i>Hot Wheels Unleashed</i> Devs On Making 2021's Most Surprising Racing Game
Screenshot: Milestone
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Italian studio Milestone is known for racing sims. MotoGP, MXGP, Ride, the World Rally Championship series—that’s all Milestone. Hot Wheels Unleashed, the surprise hit arcade racer featuring Mattel’s iconic toy cars racing through physics-defying loops and making heart-stopping jumps, is about as far from a hardcore simulation as you can get. We spoke to Milestone executive producer Michele Caletti about the challenges to applying the studio’s big racing experience into a much smaller scale.

Hot Wheels are tiny cars in a big world. The scale of Mattel’s shiny die-cast vehicles is a huge part of their appeal. Crossovers with normal scale racing games like Forza Horizon 3 are a lot of fun, but the vehicles always wind up feeling like real cars and trucks cosplaying as Hot Wheels. That notion was one the developers at Milestone took to heart while developing Hot Wheels Unleashed.

“Representing the cars like the actual toys helps because it reinforces the scaled feeling,” Michele Caletti told Kotaku in a recent interview held via email. One of the tricks to represent the Hot Wheels vehicles in their proper scale was not going overboard with details. “They have all the details of the original ones, if any more were added they would have looked bigger.”

A photo of a Princess Peach-themed Hot Wheels car in pink and yellow.
One of my favorite cars in my collection for obvious pink reasons.
Photo: Mike Fahey / Kotaku

A Hot Wheels car isn’t just a small version of a real-world car. Each tiny die-cast model has those signature plastic speed wheels with the unmistakable rims with those little pins in the middle. The paint applications have little imperfections. Some molding lines are visible. Though there are lines delineating doors, hoods, and trunks, it’s obvious these aren’t real moving parts.

The cars in Hot Wheels Unleashed look like toys From the sparkly flecks in the paint to the plastic textures on the wheels, there’s no mistaking them for real toys. You can even see the score marks on the plastic from where it came out of its mold.

A screenshot from Hot Wheels Unleashed showing a in-game car model close up.
Screenshot: Milestone / Kotaku

Maintaining the sense of Hot Wheels scale was also a big factor in how Unleashed’s real-world racing locations were built. “We discovered that when size cues are missing, like objects that are close and make evident the actual car’s dimensions, it’s very hard to judge,” said Caletti. To fix this issue, the developers filled the world with familiar objects to help reinforce the sense of scale.

The in-game College Campus track has books and furniture, filing boxes, and cork boards covered with flyers. The Basement has arcade machines, pool tables, and dart boards. I love driving past the basketball hoop in the Skate Park. It makes me feel super small.

Nothing but net.
Nothing but net.
Screenshot: Milestone / Kotaku

“Textures help too,” said Caletti. “Wood grain, floor cracks, fingerprints, it all subtly tells the actual size of the cars.” If you look to the right of the Rodger Dodger in the screenshot above you can see the telltale whorl of a fingerprint on the track. It’s barely noticeable when you’re barreling down the track at breakneck speed, but it makes a real difference to the look and feel of the game. All of these little texture and scale tricks come together to create a uniquely Hot Wheels scaled racing game. If Mattel’s cars could drive by themselves, this is what that would be like.

It’s a very different sort of racer from Milestone’s normal simulation fare, which Caletti told Kotaku led to a very different fan reaction. “Usually, players of our simulation titles ask about some detail of the (vehicle) suspensions or of the electronics. Here people were just having lots of fun, creating lots of tracks and liveries. It looks like a worldwide party.” It was almost too much. The developer’s forecast for player-created tracks and livery designs for the first week after Hot Wheels Unleashed launched was met in a mere two days.

A Hot Wheels Sandivore painted like a Halo Warthog in Hot Wheels Unleashed.
Screenshot: Milestone / Kotaku

“There are liveries that are so complex that they go far beyond the expected. They have reproduced some real ones that are just astonishing. They have made some other video game tributes, it’s incredible,” Caletti said. A quick search of the liveries for the Sandivore dune buggy resulted in a valiant attempt at a Halo Warthog. I also found a green version of the Solid Muscle pickup truck that someone had painted green, planted a white L on the side and named Luigi, so there are varying levels of creativity at play.

“Then there are the tracks,” continued Caletti. “There are some trends, you can find some with 50 loops or 20 snakes (interactive pieces of scenery based on Hot Wheels’ Snake Mountain playset), racing there is just hilarious. Then there are some “puzzle” tracks, where reaching the end requires some clever airborne techniques.” Puzzle tracks are particularly clever player creations that go beyond normal courses, requiring players to think outside the track, often launching their vehicles through the air to reach the finish line.

A custom track from Hot Wheels Unleashed that twists and turns about forever.
I think I am going to be sick.
Screenshot: Milestone / Kotaku

The Hot Wheels Unleashed community has really embraced the tools Milestone has provided, and there’s much more coming for them to play with. Though Caletti couldn’t say much, he did say that racing seasons would play a big part in the game’s future, starting with the recently-announced DC Super-Villains Racing Season, which starts on November 11 and themed vehicles and customization options for the in-game basement. Then comes the Batman Expansion DLC on December 2, which includes a Gotham-themed single-player challenge map and a new Batcave racing environment.

Somehow Milestone has turned this game about little cars into something big, and it’s only going to get bigger from here.