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Hot Wheels Unleashed’s studio dreams big with a tiny toy idea

‘Should we go head to head with Gran Turismo? That does not sound like a great idea,’ says producer

A souped up 1940s-style roadster, entirely yellow, racing ahead of the pack
If you don’t like the all-yellow look of the Rip-Rod, or its plastic chassis, you can change the colors and surfaces with Hot Wheels Unleashed’s outstanding livery editor.
Image: Milestone/Koch Media
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

As a video games developer, Milestone is known for its motorsports simulations. Demanding motorsports sims, like the MotoGP and Ride series for racing bikes, and the WRC license back in the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 days.

That doesn’t mean making an arcade racer like Hot Wheels Unleashed was a vacation, or a lighthearted team-building exercise. Michele Caletti, the studio’s executive producer, saw the game as a vital opportunity to grow the 27-year-old studio’s business, in ways that sticking to the ultra-sim motorsports format simply couldn’t satisfy.

“We know that racing games are a niche, and simulation games are a niche of the niche,” Caletti told Polygon in an interview leading up to Hot Wheels Unleashed’s launch at the end of September. “The car racing game market is quite crowded; could me make a game to the level of, I don’t know, Gran Turismo? Technically speaking, yes. Should we go head to head with Gran Turismo? That does not sound like a great idea.”

At first it was a surprise to hear that Milestone had pitched Mattel on the idea of a Hot Wheels racing game, instead of Mattel coming to the studio or parent company Koch Media, which bought Milestone in 2019. Mattel’s collectible cars have a long video game history, but were last featured in their own console video game (as opposed to an expansion for another) in 2013.

But just because the chassis are die-cast metal and the vehicles are largely powered by gravity doesn’t mean Hot Wheels aren’t a natural fit for Milestone. Once Mattel green-lit Caletti’s pitch, Milestone brought its motorsports values to their toy line, the same way the studio would for the Monster Energy Supercross series, Caletti said.

“We understood that the license was never really treated with triple-A quality,” he offered, “so it was a matter of connecting the dots. We love simulations, but that doesn’t mean we don’t like arcade [racing].”

The 1985 Audi Sport Quattro prepares to land a jump on a red plastic track in Hot Wheels Unleashed
The Audi Sport Quattro is a Legendary-class ride in Hot Wheels Unleashed, for good reason. The toy is one of executive producer Michele Caletti’s favorites.
Image: Milestone/Koch Media

Some arcade racers, Caletti felt, can break down to a “scripted” experience — that their racing action is little more than a third-person camera winding through the track, almost on rails, with traction, course surface, and braking either irrelevant or heavily reduced as gameplay influences. Kart racers in particular don’t really incorporate physics, which lead to a very homogenized experience, and probably a reason why no Hot Wheels game in recent memory has stood out like Unleashed.

“We developed the handling system based on actual physics,” Caletti said, although in finished form, it’s nowhere near as strict as the physics and handling in Ride 4, of course. “So, [we were] bending the physics to be able to do some kinds of drifts, loops, jumps, landings, without bouncing your way crazily, or not being able to complete the loop.”

In my time with Hot Wheels Unleashed, I’ve found you have to really, deliberately try to stop in the middle of a loop-de-loop to fall out of it. But the fact that you can, and that you can crash out of the track entirely and spend the rest of the event just exploring the surrounding environment, speaks to Milestone’s goal of making this a legitimate racer, one that isn’t locked to a track or a few lanes within it.

This kind of quasi-realism also explains why Hot Wheels Unleashed doesn’t have a kart racer’s traditional weapons to sabotage other competitors or give your own ride super powers. It does use a boost (and at higher difficulties, you’ll be using it almost constantly), but that’s mainly because its application — high speed only — can be easily expressed in an environment where physics have the final word. Additionally, players recharge their boosts by drifting, which is another physics-based act Milestone managed to tie to a traditional arcade racer tool.

“The boost goes much beyond what is going faster,” Caletti said. “It can save your race. You drift, you put the car sideways, and you engage the booster, it compensates for the way the car tries to go [wide] of the [corner exit].”

A 1970s-style Hot Wheels racer with golden flake painting takes a long jump
A flaked green paint-job perfectly suits the 1970s-fabulous Twin Mill.
Image: Milestone/Koch Media

None of this is to suggest that Caletti and his colleagues brought a wonkish, gear-head point of view to a game about toys. Caletti said many of the designers have Hot Wheels collections of their own, and he has about 100 for himself. His 11-year-old daughter has an equal number.

That helped when it came time to represent all of the different materials and surfaces that make up a Hot Wheels car, or track, with virtuoso authenticity. “We were asking, should we make these cars in a way that they look like full-size cars, or toy cars, or video game, cartoonish cars?” Caletti recalled. “And the point was that nobody was making them in the most obvious way — that is, like the ones you can buy in toy shops, right?”

Hot Wheels Unleashed launched with a fleet of about 60 vehicles, all based on real Hot Wheels toys and listed by their series and year of release. Caletti’s own 1985 Audi Sport Quattro (a die-cast toy, not the actual rally racing legend) was part of the first batch of cars Milestone put together to pitch Mattel, and it’s in the finished game — with a Legendary rating and attributes to match. If the car rolls over, you can see its matte gray undercarriage, with the outline of the Mattel trademark and other writings; again, it’s exactly like the toy in real life.

And perhaps that little detailing explains why Milestone’s commitment to realism and authenticity, even for a series of toy racers, made the studio the only one that could deliver something like Unleashed. The sim-style physics and arcade-like cars and tracks give fans a racing experience they’d really only imagined — actually being at the wheel of their Rodger Dodger, Rip Rod, or Motosaurus, and taking that loop-de-loop with the throttle wide open.

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