If you asked a friend what comes to mind if you mention the words ‘toy car’ and ‘video game’, it feels likely their answer would be Micro Machines. The original Micro Machines game is an iconic smash hit that helped catapult Codemasters from being a budget 8-bit games publisher to becoming one of the UK’s top independent studios. The quality of the series it spawned may have wavered over the years but there’s no doubt Micro Machines remains a household name when it comes to top-down, turbocharged, toy-based racing.
It feels a little less likely the answer would be Hot Wheels, despite more than two-dozen video game tie-ins stretching back to 1984 and a 50+ year history of being the definitive die-cast car brand on toy shelves.
It’s obviously much too early to predict whether Milestone’s upcoming Hot Wheels Unleashed can singlehandedly change that, but from the early glimpses so far it certainly seems like this experienced racing studio is on the right (orange) track.
“The first thing that we did in order to start with the right foot with the challenge was deciding to exactly replicate the vehicles that Mattel makes,” explains Milestone’s Federico Cardini, lead game designer on Hot Wheels Unleashed. “So the vehicles are a 1:1 reproduction of the toy cars – not some artistic rendition of what it could look like.”
“And so using this approach we actually added a lot of subtle hints around the entire game that actually suggest, or at least make you feel, that you are small. For example, maybe you don’t notice them while you’re watching a trailer but there are a lot of imperfections in the cars; there are the mould lines, which are the signs that are left when the car is cast from metal – or from plastic, of course – and then we have fingerprints on the track, which are almost invisible unless you see them from the right lighting, and then you have scratches. Our art direction department made a lot of research in order to get all those subtle details just right.”
Lighting is obviously the other key part of crafting an authentic, miniature appearance. It proved quite the challenge, according to Cardini, because “the environments are gigantic.”
“So you need to have, just from a technical standpoint, shadows and reflections and everything working both at the level of the camera of the player, and also at the level of an environment that is 64 times your size!” Cardini chuckles.
“This was actually the harder part of the battle, because the lighting bridges the gap between the cars and the environments, and the environments are actually exactly 64 times the size of the vehicles. We decided to start with these two pillars of, in a sense, realism – exact toy cars, exactly as Mattel makes them, and the environment exactly as they are in reality. No tricks attached. Now that you have this, when you see that first impression, it feels right. It feels right.”
Going for an overt, toy-sized take on Hot Wheels is not only a huge part of what distinguishes Hot Wheels Unleashed from Playground Games’ excellent Forza Horizon 3 Hot Wheels expansion from 2017, it means Milestone can be extremely playful when it comes to crafting environments. Cardini confirms there will be six environments in Hot Wheel Unleashed, all of which he insists will be unique in a certain way.
“The garage was our closed environment,” says Cardini, although he stresses there are three separate rooms in the garage and a lot of open space, adding that it’s “a more open environment that it may seem at first.”
“[The garage] was actually the inspiration for the entire game,” he says. “It’s something that sprung out by itself when we were deciding what to pitch [to Mattel] at the time. That environment is quite special, not only because of the general mood of the lighting, but the fact that it’s a little bit more of a night environment. The skyscraper is completely on the other end of the spectrum: above the clouds, there is sun coming in, a lot of space.”
gigantic. Absolutely gigantic.
“I think that something that is really hard for us to communicate with a trailer is that we have these environments that are gigantic. Absolutely gigantic. And there’s a lot more of the environments that can be discovered, both when you build the track around the environments and when you actually discover where you can place your track. Since you can build your track both with the orange pieces and the environments, the environments take on a completely different meaning depending on how you use the track editor.”
Cardini is very keen to see what players create with the track editor and is confident people will be able to stun him with what they put together.
“I’m really interested to see what you can do with the track editor, which might be something silly for me to say because we made the track editor so I know what it can do,” he laughs. “But you know that players are always better than the developers – and every week I’m surprised by the tracks that our track designers are building – so I’m really looking forward to being surprised by the players when they have their hands on it.”
Between Supercross, MXGP, and MotoGP, Milestone has a confident catalogue of licensed motorsports sims in its stable, and it’s built up a strong reputation in the motorcycle game market. Hot Wheels is something very different for Milestone and, according to Cardini, the team is “really, really happy” to be working on it.
“There’s a lot of energy in the studio right now, because we are working on something a little bit different from our roots – or our, let’s say, more recent history,” he says. “But I think that the good part is that we have taken this opportunity to work with the Hot Wheels brand as a challenge to grow as a studio, because we’ve always been arcade racer fans so we have a lot of knowledge in the field, even if we’ve never had the chance to show it.”
“And this is actually our opportunity. We decided to give to players our view of the arcade racing genre, which is also something that I’d say in the recent years has been – I won’t say lacking, because that’s not true – but I’d say limited in new entries or options.”
“Personally I just would love to hear the same reaction people had from the first trailer, which is, ‘This is how I imagined playing with Hot Wheels toy cars when I was young’. Because that was our intention.”
Luke is Games Editor at IGN’s Sydney office. You can find him on Twitter every few days @MrLukeReilly.