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Review

Need For Speed Unbound Review

Speed and style

It’s hard to think of a more iconic arcade racing series than EA’s Need for Speed, which has been ever-present across the console generations since its first release on the PlayStation in 1994. It’s been three years since EA and Ghost Games released Need for Speed Heat, which in my opinion was the best Need for Speed title in a long time, and Criterion looked to be building on the momentum started with Need for Speed Unbound, an entry that mixed Need for Speed’s gorgeous car porn with anime-style characters and visual effects. This made EA’s decision to almost stealth-drop Unbound puzzling, especially given that Unbound is a fairly solid arcade racer.

Playing Need for Speed for the story is a bit like saying you play Call of Duty for the story, however there are people out there that do (including myself for CoD), but don’t expect anything groundbreaking here. Unbound is set in the fictional city of Lakeshore and sees two aspiring racers from a local garage called Rydell’s Rides build their dream car to compete in the local scene. Unfortunate events transpire in the prologue that set the scene for the rest of the game, and two years later your character is ready to exact some revenge and become the king of Lakeshore’s streets. While the overarching rags-to-riches street racer narrative is predictable, there are story beats and scenes that do have their moments, although, expect the new-age lingo to be a little cringe if you’re on the wrong side of 30 like me.

Hush now, the teal mobile is back

Of course, racing is the beating heart of Need for Speed, and it’s on the streets and behind the wheel where the game does excel, although it isn’t without its speed bumps. Fanging around Lakeshore at excessive speeds (in first-person) while avoiding getting caught by the local law enforcement behind whatever wheels have taken your fancy is always a blast. Need for Speed has always had enjoyable arcade driving mechanics that offer a small challenge of getting used to a car before you’re driving around like Vin Diesel.

While Lakeshore has some nice streets to speed through, the game world does feel a little devoid of style in comparison to the neon-tinged flavour that Heat’s Palm City had. Pedestrians walk around without purpose (I mean they’re living in a car game) and can’t be hit. However, the same can’t be said for the environmental hazards throughout the world, such as street lights, road rails, and most trees and fences, which all pose little to no threat to your car, although it can be a little jarring when some objects do stop you in your tracks though.

As you’d expect there’s a bevy of licensed cars for revheads to get around and customise to their liking, as well as admire, with beautiful renditions of all your favourite brands and cars you can only dream of one day owning. Like previous titles, getting under the hood means you can tinker with your car to make it suited to certain surfaces or traits (such as drifting).

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The Phantom of cars

Early doors the game can be quite challenging – you’re not expected to be winning races from the get-go and it can feel like a bit of a grind to scrape together the cash you need to upgrade your wheels and to enter events. Making things even more challenging is the limited number of restarts available each day/night cycle, with four available for normal difficulty. It means you have to pick and choose when to use them and sometimes you just have to make peace with a bad performance.

One of Unbound’s annoyances is that sometimes no matter how well you race, the AI’s pace will often be just as good, and all it can take is a couple of non-perfect corner turns and you’ll find yourself falling down the pack. This issue extends to the nitrous boost too, which can see your speed increase but make up very little or no ground on the cars in front of you. It can make races feel a little frustrating when you know you’ve driven well but haven’t gotten the rewards to show for it.

Like in Heat, Unbound has a day/night cycle that sees different races available for each time, with each having different rewards and requirements for participation. All cash earnt during a session (night or day) can only be banked once you return to the garage or safehouse and if you get arrested or blow up at any time, you’ll forfeit all winnings for that session, which can feel harsh if you’ve spent a chunk of time making a stack of cash only to watch it go up in smoke.

The police chase sequences are easily one of the game’s strongest aspects, creating tense and thrilling moments, but when they drag on it does feel a little tedious

Unbound tasks you with competing in events across each day of the week for four weeks, with a big showdown happening every weekend. If you fail to earn the required cash to compete in the big-ticket event, the game will let you replay the Friday until you get enough cash. One design feature I do love is that each time you leave the garage you’ll exit from the closest safehouse you’ve unlocked to the event you’ve selected. It sounds like a small thing, but with no fast travel it can cut down on travel times, especially once you unlock a handful of safehouses.

Events aren’t the only thing you can complete that will earn you cash, with speed and drift challenges, as well as collectibles scattered around Lakeshore also available to make bank. Furthermore, you’ll also get jobs delivering cars, usually much better than your own, and take other characters to safehouses, which unlocks them for your use. Plus, if you’re feeling confident you can make wagers with other racers for a little extra cash.

The heat system from Need for Speed Heat returns, which sees the cops’ interest in you vary based on your heat level, although it has been tweaked slightly. During the day the cops are less aggressive and it’s much easier to partake in the shenanigans that will boost your bank balance, while at night the risk of gaining police attention is much higher, which is obviously tougher but has its own rewards. Essentially, the higher your heat level, the better the reward is for escaping the chase. The heat you gain during the day will come with you into the night, and when you engage the police they will chase you, ram you (driving through gas stations will replenish your car’s health), and often mock your driving skills should you crash into objects or traffic.

Sadly, the frustrations with the heat mechanic that was present in Heat are still here. Heat levels four and five are relentless with pursuits that can last what feels like an eternity, and it’s where the fun starts to get bogged down. One night session I had about $20k ready to bank but my heat rating was at level five, and I spent over an hour trying to evade the cops and make it back to a safehouse. I reckon I managed to lose the police about eight times, with chases lasting sometimes up to 10 minutes. However, every time I escaped, I was usually spotted within a minute no matter how hard I tried to go undetected, and eventually I was arrested and lost all of the cash I had earned that night. The police chase sequences are easily one of the game’s strongest aspects, creating tense and thrilling moments, but when they drag on it does feel a little tedious.

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I swear this isn’t a fart joke

It’s fair to say that Need for Speed Unbound’s visual style isn’t going to be for everyone. Initially, I wasn’t a big fan of the cel-shaded art mixed with realistic visuals, and while I still don’t love it, I respect Criterion for experimenting and trying something different, and it did start to grow on me eventually. Impressively, the game’s technical performance can’t be faulted, with it running at a smooth 60fps at 4K on the PS5, which is something that other racers have struggled to achieve.

Final Thoughts

Sometimes all you want is a solid arcade racer that gets the basics right and isn’t hung up on car simulation antics, and while it has some issues, Need for Speed Unbound is certainly that game. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel and it’s hard to satisfy all demographics of Need for Speed fans given the series has been going on 30 years, but Criterion’s visual style experiment is worth applauding even if it’s not for everyone.

Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher

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Need For Speed Unbound Review
When Styles Collide
Need for Speed Unbound sees Criterion put its spin on the formula laid down by its predecessor and the result is a stylish racer that is mostly fun but sometimes frustrating.
The Good
Solid and fun arcade driving mechanics
Police chases can be thrilling
Visually striking
Smooth technical performance
The Bad
The AI can be a little too good at times
Police chases can become a slog on higher heat levels
Losing all cash when arrested can feel a little harsh
7
Good
  • Criterion
  • EA
  • PS5 / Xbox Series X|S / PC
  • December 2, 2022

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Need For Speed Unbound Review
When Styles Collide
Need for Speed Unbound sees Criterion put its spin on the formula laid down by its predecessor and the result is a stylish racer that is mostly fun but sometimes frustrating.
The Good
Solid and fun arcade driving mechanics
Police chases can be thrilling
Visually striking
Smooth technical performance
The Bad
The AI can be a little too good at times
Police chases can become a slog on higher heat levels
Losing all cash when arrested can feel a little harsh
7
Good
Written By Zach Jackson

Despite a childhood playing survival horrors, point and clicks and beat ’em ups, these days Zach tries to convince people that Homefront: The Revolution is a good game while pining for a sequel to The Order: 1886 and a live-action Treasure Planet film. Carlton, Burnley FC & SJ Sharks fan. Get around him on Twitter @tightinthejorts

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