Need for Speed Unbound review
need to know
what is it? The former king of arcade racing returns with a bold art nouveau style.
Expect to pay: £60/$70
release date: come out now
Developer: standard studio
commented on: i7 9700K, RTX 2080TI, 16GB RAM
multiplayer game? Yes
Association: Official Website(opens in a new tab)
Once upon a time, Need for Speed was as sure to be number one on Christmas as the Simon Cowell reality show winner. Before Forza Horizon, all festivals and physics, there was this. A Fast and Furious sim with spoilers, the exact same super accessible arcade racer comes out every year about underground tuner culture and corrupt cops. And we don’t care if it’s as formulaic as the aforementioned contest winner’s handpicked Leonard Cohen cover. Until one day, we finally did it.
Need For Speed became too big and popular to sustain itself. Sales were too good for EA to start tinkering with the formula, but we’re oversaturated with yearly releases, projectors in widebody kits and stories of betrayal told exclusively through checkpoint races. The world has changed with the advent of Need For Speed Unbound. 2019’s NFS Heat was the series’ most convincing reinvention attempt in years, but it couldn’t knock Forza Horizon off its throne. No one can bridge the gap with the behemoth of Playground Games right now. Need For Speed Unbound needs to be completely different to be successful.
(Image source: EA)
Enter a new art style. It’s an old collection, wearing its best Zoomer hairstyles and North Face puffer jackets, hoping to appeal to the TikTok generation with a big change in visual direction. It might seem like an accidental touch, but the anime-inspired smoke and virtual universe-ready avatars in Unbound are a true statement of intent for such an established series. When you’re drifting around corners and lighting up your tires, there’s a cartoon miasma like someone just blasted a nearby Borderlands game. Neon painted lines fly around your tires as they burn out. As you climb the slopes and get some air, your car grows a pair of doodle wings. It’s a game that’s been telling the same po-faced plot about double-cross street racers and psychopathic law enforcement officers for two decades.
For the first time, Need For Speed shows how it drives. It doesn’t completely get rid of reality, it exaggerates and augments it. If you actually put them in a sharp 90 degree turn at 120 mph and didn’t hit the brakes, they wouldn’t behave the way they did, which is how you want them to behave. Cartoony submissive, twitchy stuff that doesn’t make more use of a sim racer’s skills than a 4X player’s.
Unbound’s tonal shift finds cohesion between its presentation and gameplay, but the handling itself doesn’t drag you away from the almighty Forza like a siren call. As in Heat, it’s hard to understand that you’re actually hitting the brakes in this game by stepping on the gas, but it’s not that the laissez-faire physics model isn’t inspiring. Instead, Unbound often feels like you’re looping micro-animations without much fine-grained control. When you get into a drift, you don’t feel the weight of the vehicle being thrown from side to side, nor the load side then loses traction as the tire reaches the limit of its grip. It feels like the game has recognized the input that initiates the drift.
(Image source: EA)
Most of the time, though, that’s enjoyable enough. It serves the style of racing that the Unbound offers: corners and brake zones light up, more focused on reaching top speed and maintaining it for as long as possible while meandering through busy urban tarmac. But when you’re in a tight race and there’s a low-speed corner, you want to be able to lead because of your excellent control of the vehicle. And Criterion’s processing model just doesn’t have that kind of effect, that kind of granularity.
That’s not to say there aren’t tricks for going fast. The difference between decent driving and good driving is all about assist generation and management. A somewhat confusing two-tier NOS augmentation system fills in when you’re doing dangerous things — driving into oncoming traffic, narrowly missing traffic, drifting — and provides additional augmented shots to chain these feats. If you play this mechanic hard, you can get a boost halfway through the game or more, which can make a big difference to your time. That’s not the same discipline that many racers demand of you.
But what you really crave to hear, of course, are the stories. Thanks to Yaz’s musical skills and your driving skills, a couple of kids raised through the foster care system start making waves in Lakeshore’s street racing scene. Rydell, the grizzled mechanic and mentor, keeps telling you two to play smart, but Yaz doesn’t listen. Before you can say “2005,” there’s a scam, a stolen starter car, and a full-on prologue that’s admirably devoted to storytelling, though there’s nothing particularly original to say.
(Image source: EA)
But no one is here for Proust. In this game, you will drive cars, modify them, and then buy more cars to modify and drive. Any desire to reveal platitudes about the human condition is hampered by these constraints. In other words: it’s useless, pulpy, and mostly endearing because of it. The conversation did embarrass me, but I was 36 at the time. As far as I know, it’s probably still acceptable to describe something as “straight shot, yo.” Let’s be honest, even the great Forza isn’t known for its human and thought-provoking prose. The story here is a means to an end, enough to get you into the car.
What might make you invest more money is the heat recovery system. In the last NFS, this introduced some risk-reward via the day/night cycle: if you failed and got caught at night, all the cash you earned during the day would be at risk. The same system is intact here, but the day/night cycle has been extended to include events throughout the working week, with showcase races every Saturday, with great buy-ins and vehicle prizes.
Lost since the last game is the heat multiplier, which encourages you to actively piss off the cops in order to crank up your heat levels before the night is over. With the rep’s x5 thermal multiplier, you’ll rack up tons of XP and unlock new cars and parts that were previously out of reach. Now that it’s gone, it feels like a step backwards. If anything, I’d like to see the next NFS game double down on Heat’s excellent system and bring something like Shadow of Mordor’s Revenge system to the racing game. Specific cops who have feuded with you. Take them down for huge bonuses, get caught and lose a car. that kind of thing.
(Image source: EA)
In lieu of this great idea is a more straightforward routine where you tick off as many events as you can before your rep level makes the game too annoying to play, you call it night reset your heat and live Enter your cash. The cops here are as tenacious as ever, more than willing to risk their lives—and indeed the lives of anyone else in the vicinity—to arrest a driver violating the speed limit. Again, it’s not clear how the chase AI really works: is it better to hit max speed and maintain it until they lose contact, or is it better to keep taking turns? I still don’t know. It has been more than 20 years.
A word of caution by the way — if you’re just over 20, NFS Unbound will make you feel like you’re about 90. It’s not just the aforementioned zoomery conversation. There’s also a soundtrack based on a TikTok-ready Pixies cover and a “Hey, you fucking suck, I hate you” chorus. Anime-style visuals and quest titles like “Weeb in Need”. The character customization screen is filled with authentic branded clothing from the likes of Fila and Versace, and the game is full of fitted T-shirts and Vans. It was a string of laser-focused youth.
(Image source: EA)
It might have a hard time appealing to youngsters, but NFS Unbound is still a loose and colorful racer capable of pulling you into its seemingly absurd plot and keeping you hooked on your next ride for the duration of it car. Outside of that time, there’s an online multiplayer mode, but despite the EA Access program offering a 10-hour free trial, it’s been ghostly quiet. There’s nothing wrong with it–event playlists for single-player, access in up to eight PvP matches, great cash prizes–it’s just that no one plays it. NFS has struggled in this regard, unfortunately Unbound is not the turning point.
It’s not a return to the glory and prestige that Need for Speed once enjoyed, either. It’s more feature-rich and mechanically more sophisticated than all of its predecessors — it’s just that its competitors are far better than they were in ’07 or so. The distinctive new look is a huge success, and while there are some handling quirks, it’s fascinating to figure out the supercharging system and maximize its potential. A braver Criterion and EA might make more use of the heat system, finding a new identity in that excellent risk-reward mechanic. But even if it’s not where it should be, Unbound is a very valuable addition to a genre that lacks a full-blown arcade game.
Need for Speed: Price Comparison
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