Fire Cars, as my five-year-old son calls Hot Wheels, has been a staple in my life since he found a free-to-play Hot Wheels game on his tablet. Yes, he has a tablet. Yes, I’m a terrible father and I’m losing that title to a bloody touch screen. A touch screen and a regular screen, apparently.
Hot Wheels Unleashed takes the traditional toys and brings them to life in a fun, easy to play, and highly enjoyable arcade racer. I say “arcade” racer, but honestly, I don’t think I ever put coins in any arcade racing game that was as good as Hot Wheels Unleashed. But you get what I mean. It’s not a simulation. In fact, it’s a massive change of pace for developer Milestone, with the Italian outfit swapping out the two-wheel rides of motorcycle racing for the sturdy four wheels of little toy cars. It’s a nice change, though, and it’s easily one of the best games to come from the developer in a long time.
The concept is simple and it doesn’t do much to stand out from the norm. You race little toy cars around the trademark yellow and blue plastic tracks that have been elaborately built around everyday places. You’ll loop-the-loop in a stylish base basement; you’ll tear down the plastic around a skatepark – minus the drug-dealing hippies I had to contend with as a kid – and much more.
The tracks are nicely thought out and definitely more imaginative than anything I could put together as a kid – and as an adult, actually, so I’ll leave the track editor to smarter players than me.
The tracks are fair but challenging and full of little surprises. You’ve got booster pads for a kick of speed, barriers that’ll slow you down if you’re clumsy, spider-webs that’ll hold you back, and more. Some of the more extreme tracks – the “Boss” races – up the ante even more with the tracks actively working against you. Speed lanes can reverse to bring you to a crawl while obstacles are more tricky to avoid. Sadly, there are only five of these races throughout the career mode, but they were always good fun.
The controls are as standard as they come but they don’t need to be elaborate. Pull R2 to accelerate, L2 to brake, and X to boost. That’s all you need. Elegance comes in simplicity, right?
Car handling is a different matter, though, and I’m glad to report that each car really does feel different to the last – and there are many, many cars, including familiar modern machines, golden oldies, and some fun licensed stuff, like a Superman car, the Batmobile, and many more.
The big heavy-set machines are slower and early braking to hit the drifts just right is crucial, while lighter, more nimble cars need to be handled with care. They’ll fly down the straights but they’ll have trouble slowing down in time, and if you hit a jumping ramp you’ll have to fight to hit the landing right, otherwise you’ll careen off-course and lose valuable seconds and possible the race.
For me, this was fair. I’m a big boy and I’ve played racers my entire life, but my boy, Charlie, who is still finding his gaming thumbs, had some troubles. There are no assists like in Mario Kart, Nickelodeon Racers or Race With Ryan, and he often got frustrated, especially when he couldn’t control his car while it was in the air. He wouldn’t be able to hit the landing right and he’d get annoyed. My DualSense was constantly in danger…
Speaking of which, the DualSense support was really good. It wasn’t over the top, but quite subtle but ever-present. The speaker support was a real highlight with each clink and clank coming out of the speaker being satisfying and not annoying. The dull thuds complemented my poor driving, which is better than endless screeching.
Something that was annoying that I probably should have foreseen is the split-screen multiplayer. I only have one DualSense controller and I thought that maybe we’d be able to do split-screen with the DualShock 4 as player two. No bueno. If you’re on the PS5 version of the game, you need to have two PS5 DualSense controllers for two-player mode. In hindsight, it’s obvious, but it was still a bit disappointing, but that’s not really a problem with the game as much as it is with the hardware.
Still, we managed to have fun by passing the pad as we worked through the game’s career mode, which takes the form of a big city map littered with different activities. There’s a fair spread, too, with standard races, boss races, and time trials, as well as secret events.
Completing events earns you currency which can be used to buy blind boxes. Blind boxes contain random cars and you earn them through certain events or you can buy them at 500 gold-a-pop. It feels fair and I appreciate the game wasn’t trying to dip into my wallet every five minutes, and I’m sure fellow old-timers/parents out there will be happy to know they can give their kid a game that won’t pressure them into buying loot boxes. There are extra car packs that can be bought with real money, but they’re not intrusive and with so many cars already in the game, I don’t think I’ll be left wanting any time soon.
I played How Wheels Unleashed on PS5 and it looked, ran, and sounded brilliant. The cars are really well detailed and in those few seconds before a race starts, you can see the effort in every fake-metal crease and ridge. It’s impressive, and the tracks, too, have that polished sheen you’d expect to find at a Hot Wheels enthusiast meet-up. Come on, there must be a group of dads somewhere hosting bi-monthly car meets featuring their best oiled tracks and polished toy cars. I’m not one of them, to be clear, but I’m definitely a fan of Hot Wheels Unleashed.
Hot Wheels Unleashed PS5, PS4 Review
With more cars than you can shake a bit of plastic track at and a driving model that’s surprisingly good for an arcade racer, Hot Wheels Unleashed is an excellent racer that punches well above its weight.
Review Disclaimer: This review was carried out using a copy of the game provided by the publisher. For more information, please read our Review Policy.
Primary version tested: PS5. Reviewed using PS5.