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Need for Speed Unbound Review – Lengths Behind a Podium Finish

Need for Speed Unbound Review - Lengths Behind a Podium Finish
Image Source: Electronic Arts
PC

Need for Speed Unbound Review – Lengths Behind a Podium Finish

While it may set a new visual style, Need for Speed Unbound delivers familiar gameplay both good and bad.

Need for Speed Unbound on PS5

When it comes to the racing genre, it hasn’t always been the playground of games like Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo. Street racing has been a critical part of the genre, and the Need for Speed series is a huge part of that. However, the wheels have certainly come off in recent times, and the hope is that Criterion Software and Electronic Arts’ Need for Speed Unbound will be the key turning point for this particular franchise. Unfortunately, as much as it tries to speed ahead, this is one game that still has its grip firmly on the handbrake of the past.

At first glance, the most obvious difference with Need for Speed Unbound is the unmistakable art style. The vibrancy it brings is definitely a breath of fresh air, especially compared to the neverending arms race to achieve photorealism in games like Gran Turismo 7 and Forza Horizon 5. Best described as a mixture of comic book art and realism, the juxtaposition of realistic vehicles and cel-shaded characters work nicely to deliver a unique world.

Need for Speed Unbound gameplay
Image Source: Electronic Arts via Twinfinite

Effects are equally pleasant as you drive around the world, with larger-than-life graffiti accompanying every activation of nitrous or when a big jump is hit. Drifting is also more fun, thanks to the colorful smoke that comes from tires rubbing across the asphalt. Need for Speed Unbound is every bit as stylish as the marketing paints it to be.

Look beyond the visual stylings, however, and under the hood lies a racing game that is disappointingly familiar. Starting with the barebones narrative, Need for Speed Unbound involves a revenge story about a former friend who took your ride, but outside of the occasional cutscenes, it matters little as you drive around looking for the next race to engage in.

Rapper A$AP Rocky, who has been a big part of the marketing push for the game, does appear in Need for Speed Unbound, in probably one of the standout moments throughout my time driving around. Compared to the insignificance of everything else that is going on storywise, it isn’t exactly setting a high bar either way.

The bulk of your time in Need for Speed Unbound will be spent trying to qualify for the big races that happen at the end of each of the four in-game weeks. That means plenty of racing and events to rack up the necessary cash in order to have enough for the buy-in for each qualifier, plus upgrading your ride to stay competitive. All of that is pretty much standard fare, down to the unwanted attention of the police, who can bust you and confiscate all of your winnings for the day, which is a disaster.

Need for Speed Unbound cinematics
Image Source: Electronic Arts via Twinfinite

However, Need for Speed Unbound goes a step further compared to its 2019 predecessor, Need for Speed Heat. In that game, players could take part in legal street races during the day, and try to stretch the limits in illegal races at night. For Need for Speed Unbound, every race you take part in is against the law, which means there is always tension present, as you race to deposit your day’s winnings in a safe house before moving on to the evening’s festivities. Even with the transition, your heat level remains, and can further cause you problems if you are not careful. Considering that certain events may require specific heat levels or just more cash to get into, this is a balancing act that players will have to engage in whether they like it or not.

It is this issue that can make the starting hours of Need for Speed Unbound a grind. Competing with others is always going to be tough when you are driving subpar cars, so it is probably wise not to think about coming in first at the start. Focusing more on getting small wins and ensuring you don’t get the cops in your business is the way to go. Outrunning the cops in a slow vehicle is near impossible, and that is the reality awaiting players at the start, not to mention the undercover cops that start to appear later on.

In a way, it is reflective of the climb towards the top just like in reality, but it may not keep many players invested when victories are hard to come by. Of course, once you start making the dough and can afford the upgrades, races become tighter and players start having more of a say in the final placings. While it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, this progression and the work required can make for a satisfying time.

That said, once you are behind the wheel in Need for Speed Unbound, the experience is certainly enjoyable on most fronts. Depending on your style of driving, you can make the most out of the three types of cars in the game. Those in the Drift category are perfect for well-executed turns around corners without losing too much speed, while vehicles classed as Grip cars require a more nuanced take with cornering becoming a technical art. Neutral cars sit right in the middle, allowing players to sit comfortably on either side without over-committing.

Need for Speed Unbound events
Image Source: Electronic Arts via Twinfinite

It pays to pull off those perfect corners as well, as it rewards you with precious nitrous that can mean the difference between getting lost in the pack or leading the charge. Other techniques, such as drafting, driving against traffic, or making jumps help as well, and Need for Speed Unbound adds to the system with a separate meter called Burst Nitrous. Rather than providing a prolonged boost, this is best used for a short burst of speed when you need it, like coming off a corner. Nothing like a risky manoeuvre paying off with some smart boosting to get ahead of the competition.

Why that all matters ultimately comes down to the fact that the AI in Need for Speed Unbound tend to play unfairly. Races can become frustrating as competitors keep up with you even when you are boosting and they aren’t, and race leaders can sometimes build up an unassailable lead with no rhyme or reason. There are also instances when betting can dramatically increase the difficulty of a race, which, again, doesn’t necessarily make much sense.

Put that unfairness together with the annoying tendencies of the cops in Need for Speed Unbound, and the entire experience is full of peaks and valleys that curtail the progress that this game is supposed to be making. Beyond its art style that stands tall on its own, Need for Speed Unbound feels less like an innovation and more like a new body kit installed on an old engine. When the competition is already miles ahead, what this series needed was a nitrous boost of epic proportions, but sadly, it doesn’t seem like it will ever catch up.

Review Block

Need for Speed Unbound

3.5
/ 5

Fair

Need for Speed Unbound Critic Review
Reviewer: Jake Su | Copy provided by Publisher.

Pros

  • The art is amazingly realized.
  • Progression is hard, but satisfying.
  • Driving is accessible to all play styles.

Cons

  • The cop system needs tuning.
  • AI doesn’t play fair.
  • Narrative is barebones and forgettable.
Release Date
November 29, 2022
Developer
Criterion Software
Publisher
Electronic Arts
Consoles
PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, PC
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