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Hot Wheels Unleashed delivers the orange-track fantasy in a surprisingly good racer

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Well-balanced arcade-racing action with a distinctive Hot Wheels style

Hot Wheels cars race on an orange race track in a screenshot from Hot Wheels Unleashed Image: Milestone/Mattel

I don’t think I’ve thought about Mattel’s Hot Wheels in decades, but I’ll be circling Sept. 30 this year. Hot Wheels Unleashed launches that day, and the arcade-style racer couldn’t be in better hands.

Milan-based Milestone, known for hardcore, licensed racing simulations like Monster Energy Supercross 4 and the MotoGP franchise, gets an opportunity to stretch its legs creatively with the die-cast collectible cars, and they do not waste the moment one bit. A weekend with a preview build of Hot Wheels Unleashed showed me thrilling, well-balanced racing action, again and again and again. It’s not simply a roll-out of kart-racing tropes and power-ups in a Hot Wheels chassis. There’s enough variability on the track, in the vehicles, and scenery surrounding it all to make Hot Wheels feel like it has a canon, and you, the driver, are part of it.

The tracks, of course, are a second-grader’s dream come true. Again, rather than stitching together gratuitous corkscrews and ferris-wheel sized loops for visual effect only, the tracks I raced implemented such things with some kind of challenge or advantage in mind. The momentum in the corkscrews, for example, carries you into the corner instead of away from it — and that’s usually where the track does not have a guardrail. A huge loop might lead into a boost pad, multiplying your momentum (and providing even more with a strategic use of turbo boost). It might also spit you into an unguarded hairpin turn, sending your toy off the track and tumbling into the surrounding meta-environment.

The settings themselves figure greatly into Hot Wheels Unleashed’s winning aesthetic. What I saw had three different environments — someone’s basement, a college building, a skyscraper under construction — and then several pre-built courses wending through it. Some course segments zipped briefly across bare floor or someone’s desk before rejoining the plastic track, for example. In the basement, a spider is a track hazard, and its web becomes a kind of blue-shell equalizer knocking out the race leader. In the campus setting, I fell out of the “Applied Gravity” track, and rather than respawn on it, I just raced around on the floor, underneath stool legs and out into the library. I did fall from one part of the track to another a couple of times, but I don’t think it gave me a shortcut advantage. Still, kart-racing perfectionists will inevitably be on the lookout for such things.

Image: Milestone/Mattel

All this supplements a vehicle fleet that showed 33 cars in the preview build, with more than 60 promised at launch. The cars have variable handling, speed, and acceleration, and then usually some thumb on the scale to either moderate out raw power or to help the Total Disposal (a huge garbage packer) stay in contention. Drag racers like the Rodger Dodger, identified by their huge engine headers and cut-out hoods, have a clutch-popping start that wasn’t really explained, but took advantage of their acceleration. In exchange, they don’t have much of a turbo boost. Meanwhile the Bump Around — literally a bumper car — has one, very long, variable turbo boost that can be used to fend off the low-slung Twin Mill or the futuristic Exotique, both of which have speed and handling ratings of 5 out of 6.

Milestone says it’s constructed the in-world cars at 1:1 scale — which explains why your cumulative drifting distance is, delightfully, measured in inches. Their virtuoso detailing nails the surfaces, from the matte gray die-cast chrome of the exhaust manifolds to the pearlescent and metallic flake paint jobs common to 1970s and 1980s racers. I probably haven’t bought a Hot Wheels since I visited my grandmother in 1984, but the vehicle garage properly calls out each model’s year and series. Most were from the previous decade, and a few had platinum or other upgraded versions.

More to the point, in several rip-snorting hours with Hot Wheels Unleashed, I never felt totally out of it with any car, nor did I feel totally in it with the best ones. Track hazards were subtle and dangerous enough to keep me from steering on auto-pilot, even with the fastest cars at maximum handling. There were plenty of crack-ups that involved physics more sophisticated than just downforce and drift — several had me grinding a guardrail, skateboard style before falling into the M.C. Escher-like abyss of the Skyscraper environment.

But even respawning twice, I still pulled off a third place with the Roller Toaster (an old-timey van with a couple slices of King Thin on its back). It has a 1 of 6 speed rating, but the longest boost in the fleet. I think it’s great; kids will probably pick a favorite on looks, and it’s good that whatever it is, it can contend. And the more challenge-oriented adults will try to ace everything with the unorthodox rides.

Hot Wheels Unleashed launches Sept. 30, for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One.