REVIEW – When I converted my first Need for Speed Unbound car, I thought I would be really cool when I gave my restored Lamborghini Countach 25th Anniversary (1988) license plate that read “theGeek”. That coolness quickly turned embarrassing when the car was stolen from me at the end of the game’s prologue. Yes, I got a little Grand Theft Auto right at the start of the game – only it was on my account…
It was with this surprisingly strong narrative thread that Need for Speed Unbound started, and despite the series’ recent struggles and subdued marketing campaign, it proved to be a pleasant surprise overall. The classic racing game has finally reached its limits with an occasionally embarrassingly clunky story and repetitive objectives, but the journey to get there has been a lot of fun.
Need for Speed Unbound is surprisingly challenging, making every race count and immersive, with plenty of styles. In the break between Gran Turismo 7 and Forza Motorsport 8, d next spring, this open-world racing game boosts to a series that has been slaloming at a modest pace among the rest of the genre.
“Take me down to the Lakeshore City, Where the grass is green, and the girls are pretty”
If I had to pick one thing that Need for Speed Unbound does better than Ghost Games’ titles, it’s open-world development. Lakeshore City is a great driving “sandbox” full of challenges, collectibles, memorable landmarks, and unique regions. Lakeshore feels both well-paced and fun, in a way that Ghost Games’ more boring sandboxes never did. The cops are also well-handled, as they patrol realistically all the time and aren’t overly aggressive once you get into a chase with them, as in other parts of the series. You’ll always have to watch out for the cops, but they don’t ruin the fun as they did in some of the more recent entries in the series (especially Need for Speed Heat). There’s nothing terribly groundbreaking about Lakeshore City. Rather it’s just a bit odd compared to the huge maps found in other modern open-world racing games, but Criterion’s experience with these types of games comes through in a decent way.
It’s not a bad idea to tinker with the cars here either, to get them into your gear
Of course, well-designed streets that can be beautified don’t mean much if the basic driving mechanics of the game don’t meet your requirements. Fortunately, Need for Speed Unbound has this mostly in order. The game’s vehicles offer impressive speed and power, although their handling takes a little getting used to, as they can feel a little too responsive and slippery for some at first. It’s worth getting to grips with the ‘Handling Tuning’ menu as soon as possible, as it greatly impacts the game’s feel, allowing you to adjust the steering sensitivity, downforce, drift potential, and more. With enough tinkering, NFS Unbound has gone from an experience I didn’t really like initially to my speed in the first hour or two. I only wish there was a dedicated area to test out the handling settings – yes, you can drive freely in the open world, but an easily accessible, purpose-built test area would have been even better.
Need for Speed Unbound’s gameplay offers a wide variety of gameplay modes to keep you busy, from the usual street races to timed transport challenges and new Takeover events where you’ll have to drift, jump and smash various landmarks to score high. While the races are still a little more chaotic than I’d like at times, your path is more clearly marked than in the last few Need for Speed, and there’s less chance of going off course or getting lost. Hairpin turns have taken a back seat in favor of layouts where you can hit the throttle more often. NFS Unbound would benefit from the modern features seen in other racing games, such as driving line displays and the ability to rewind mistakes, but their absence isn’t too serious a blow.
The necessary sense of speed is there, but you are still limited
Need for Speed Unbound isn’t groundbreaking, but it offers a solid, open-world racing experience that balances a sense of speed with the series’ laid-back style. Unfortunately, the “Unbound” in the title seems a bit misleading, as the game has one of the most limited structures I’ve encountered in a racing game in a while. The game’s campaign is divided into four weeks of play, with players having to spend six days and nights developing their wheels and earning enough money to participate in the big qualifying races for that week.
That sounds fair enough, but most tournaments have steep entry fees and relatively low prizes, so you could easily lose money if you don’t place well enough. You can also make side bets with some competitors, but losing to them will put you even deeper in the hole. So what, right? Just win tournaments! Well, that’s easier said than done. In Need for Speed Unbound, your car’s rating plays a very big part, with races against higher-rated drivers often essentially unwinnable unless something miraculous happens. The game tells you this straight away, which can be a little demoralizing. A game called Need for Speed shouldn’t regularly tell you, “Hey, buddy, fifth place is the best you can hope for in this race.”
Of course, you can buy better cars and/or upgrade your current car, but there’s also a level system, so if you have an A-category car, you can’t use it to muscle up in B-category races. Basically, there’s a very narrow window at the top of each level where your rating is good enough to win races, and as you improve beyond that, you move up a level and lose again. Combine that with how hard it is to win tournaments, the high entry fees, the low payouts, and the fact that the cops can bust you at any time and take your daily or nightly loot, and you feel like you’re constantly trailing behind the coolers. I’ll admit, several times by the end of the week, I’d be paralyzed without the money to qualify, at which point the game would remind me of a movie called Till Stupid Times and send me back to Friday’s rerun until I had enough money to continue. This seems to be a quiet admission by Criterion that their game development system doesn’t really work.
It almost seems like a “daily job” to experience the game…
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the appeal of having to earn your victories, but Need for Speed Unbound goes too far in this regard, and sometimes instead of what should be a liberating underground driving frenzy, it feels like a not-so-rewarding day job. As the story progresses, things loosen up a bit, although I didn’t start earning decent money until week 4. Eventually, I managed to raise around $1.5 million, but in this game, that’s not really that much, as you can spend that (or more) on a single car, a new engine, and some higher-level upgrades. Even as a millionaire, I felt like much of what I wanted was out of reach. In the end, when I finished the story of NFS Unbound, I had a total of nine cars in my collection, most of which I didn’t really choose as I unlocked them through events. Granted, if I had wanted to spend more time collecting cars and concentrated on that, I could have grabbed more, but still, I think my meager garage of cars is also a testament to the fact that this game is not structured in such a way that the rewards are not generous, or at least fair for the difficulty level of the game.
But, hey, if you don’t mind the grind, Need for Speed Unbound will keep you busy. It took me over 20 hours to play through the game’s story, and when you’re done, there are still countless cars and collectibles to acquire and challenges to clear. The game also has a full multiplayer mode, which essentially works like a simplified GTA Online, allowing you to cruise the Lakeshore and participate in events with others online. Progression in the online mode is also largely separate from the single-player mode (only collectibles and progression in open-world activities are shared), so you can get everything twice! Need for Speed Unbound keeps you occupied for a long time – provided you let it take up all your free time during this already busy period of gameplay.
Need for Graphics?
The story is only a small part of the racing game experience; presentation, world-building, and gameplay are all paramount. Need for Speed Unbound excels in the presentation because it’s not afraid to be stylish. One of the most significant visual differences from previous entries in the series is the use of cel-shading. Characters are vibrantly illustrated, and vehicles splash cartoon-like effects when drifting or giving a nitro boost. Racing games can all blend together in the genre’s pursuit of realism, so Need for Speed Unbound stands out from the rest by taking the aesthetic approach of Spider-Man: Go Spider-Man, which reflects the loose, lawless, face-to-face nature of street racing culture.
The game’s creators have chosen an excellent setting for this in Lakeshore City, which Chicago heavily inspires. It’s a city where street racing is commonplace, and people want to rebel against bureaucracy, so the setting was designed to fit the game’s mood.
The drivers of Need for Speed Unbound also leave behind caricature-like effects with their cars. While the game’s open world isn’t as varied as Mexico in Forza Horizon 5, notable landmarks and well-thought-out road layouts ensure that players will eventually memorize the map layout. Lakeshore City captures the essence of Chicago while also being a fun place to drive one of the many cars in the Need for Speed Unbound line-up. While you don’t need more than four cars to complete the main story, more than 140 vehicles are available for purchase, so there’s something for everyone. Fortunately, racing these cars is as satisfying as the experience of developing and customizing them.
Great driving fun offline and online
Need for Speed Unbound is far from inventing the Spanish language, nor does it sufficiently defy the repetitive nature of the genre. Still, it’s fun to play alone or online.
While its single-player campaign keeps you busy for a while, Lakeshore Online lets up to 16 players populate the map. In this multiplayer mode, you can interact and compete with players in the open world. The controls and physics that make single-player racing satisfying also work in multiplayer mode. However, this mode lacks features such as day-night cycles, cops, and takedown events, making it primarily for those who want to compete with others.
Need for Speed Unbound doesn’t try to be an ultra-realistic simulator or even a super comprehensive open-world online racing experience. It wants to be a stylish yet tough and rewarding ode to street racing culture. While not the best of its genre due to a weak story and repetitive gameplay, Need for Speed Unbound is a surprisingly entertaining racing game in a year that hasn’t seen many exciting racing games since Gran Turismo 7.
Now I have to explain to Aniko why theGeek’s car was stolen.
+ Good driving experience and sense of speed
+ The city is exciting, spectacular, clear and fun to explore
+ Nice selection of competitions and events
– Narrow development feels like work
– Trite, embarrassingly lame story and dialogues
– The open world is a bit limited and conservative
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Style: Car racing
Release: November 29, 2022.