Need for Speed Unbound
December 2, 2022
PC, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5
Criteria Games, Codemasters Cheshire
Need for Speed has felt like it’s been steaming for about a decade now, with 2012’s Need for Speed: Most Wanted arguably the last real notable entry in the series. That slip can largely be attributed to EA reassigning the franchise to Swedish developer Ghost Games, who spent the 2000s producing a series of technically competent, yet amorphous racers. Well, it looks like EA has finally seen the error in their ways, as Need for Speed Unbound marks the return of the makers of the Criterion game series with Codemasters Cheshire’s capable wingmen (formerly the Dirt franchise) providing support.
However, it should be noted that Criterion’s last Need for Speed game was also their last racing game, period. They’ve spent the past decade as a supporting studio focusing mostly on the Battlefront and Battlefield franchises. Did Criterion manage to smoothly return the gears to the Need for Speed and racing genre? It’s time for a comprehensive multi-point check of this trip…
If you’ve played Need for Speed in the past, you probably already know what to expect from this one’s storyline. There’s a surprisingly curated underground street racing scene that’s taking over the city (in this case, the Chicago-inspired “Lake City”) and despite your humble beginnings, you’re hell-bent on making it to the top alongside your foster sister Yaz. . Guiding you through all of this is wise mentor/father figure/garage owner Rydell (it’s all about the family, don’t you know that). But wait! There is a double cross! You lose everything and you have to start from square one! Can you still fulfill your dreams of racing glory and maybe even get your stolen car back in the process?
So yeah, it’s just another Fast and Furious heist, and it’s… well. These movies are popular and there’s a lot of complexity you can introduce to stories about cars driving really fast. I can accept cliches. However, the sweet chatter from the other characters the game gives you as you drive around town has me to my breaking point. This has been a thing in Need for Speed games for a while, and I don’t know why the developers thought it was such a good idea.
Admittedly, a handful of Need for Speed Unbound movies a look Adorable with its elegant cell shaded designs. While driving, controversial animations are only applied to small things like dust flying as you drift around a corner, with almost everything else rendered in a mostly realistic style. NFS Unbound’s cars and world are fairly detailed (though not on the level of something like Forza Horizon or Gran Turismo) and while you shouldn’t expect ray tracing or other high-end tech, the game makes better use of lighting, screen space, and reflections. , and HDR from previous entries in the series. Ultimately, the focus is on performance, as the PS5 delivers crisp, dynamic 4K picture at 60 frames per second. This is the kind of game that makes a better impression in action than in screenshots.
If I had to pinpoint just one thing Need for Speed Unbound does better than Ghost Games, it’s world design. Lakeshore City is an amazing car park, full of challenges, collectibles, memorable attractions and unique areas. Lakeshore feels drivable and a lot of fun to navigate in a way that Ghost Games’ cute sandboxes never did. The police are also handled well, constantly patrolling in a natural feeling way, but they are not overly aggressive as you get into a chase with them. Cops are something you always need to think about, but they don’t spoil the fun like they did in some of the more recent entries in the series (Need for Speed Heat in particular). There’s nothing terribly innovative about Lakeshore City, a bit outlandish compared to the sprawling maps offered by modern open-world racers, but Criterion’s experience with the genre shines through.
Of course, a well-designed map doesn’t mean much if the game’s core driving mechanics aren’t right. Fortunately, Need for Speed Unbound mostly delivers. The game’s rides provide an impressive sense of speed and power, although its control can take a little getting used to, as it feels a bit tactile and slippery at first. You’ll want to familiarize yourself with the “Handling Tuning” menu ASAP, as it has a real impact on the feel of the game, allowing you to adjust steering sensitivity, downforce, drift potential, and more. With enough tinkering, NFS Unbound has gone from an experience I didn’t really dig in the first 1-2 hours to something a lot more snappy. I wish there was a designated area to test your handling tweaks – yes, you can drive freely around the open world, but a purpose-built and easily accessible test area would be even better.
Need for Speed Unbound offers a wide range of different ways to keep yourself occupied, from standard street races, to timed delivery challenges, to new Takeover events that require you to achieve high scores by drifting, jumping, and smashing things. While the races stay a bit more chaotic than I’d like at times, your way is much clearer than it was in Need for Speed the last few with fewer chances of running off the track or getting lost. The cornering emphasis is de-emphasized for hairpins in favor of layouts that allow you to put the pedal to the metal more often. NFS Unbound would benefit from modern features seen in other runners such as command line indicators and the ability to roll back errors, but their absence isn’t too much of a blow.
Need for Speed Unbound isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it delivers a solid bread-and-butter open-world racing experience with a great sense of speed and style. Unfortunately, the “Unbound” in its title seems like a bit of a misnomer, as the game has one of the more restrictive structures I’ve encountered in a racing game in some time. The game’s campaign spans four in-game weeks, where players must upgrade their wheels and earn enough cash over six days and nights in order to enter the qualifying race for that week.
That sounds fair enough, but most events have heavy buy-in and relatively low payouts, to the point where you might find yourself losing money if you don’t have enough. You can also make side bets with individual runners, but if you lose to them, you are deeper in the hole. But so what, right? Just win the races! Well, this is easier said than done. The rating of your car is very important in Need for Speed Unbound, as races with higher-ranked drivers are often essentially unwinnable except by some miracle. The game tells you this, which can be a little frustrating. A game called Need for Speed doesn’t have to 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 improve your current ride, but there’s also a class system in place, so if you have, say, a class A car, you can’t use it to beat level B events. There’s basically a very narrow window at the top end of each level where your rating is good enough to win races, and once you get better after that, you’ll level up and lose again. When you combine how hard it is to win races, high buys, low payouts, and the fact that the cops can bust you and take that day or night at any time, it feels like you’re always behind the 8-ball. I’ll admit, more than once, that eight-ball crushed me and limped me to the end of the week without the cash required to race the playoffs, at which point the game just pulled Groundhog Day and sent me to repeat on Friday until I had enough cash to keep going. This seems like a quiet admission on Criterion’s part that their game progression system isn’t quite working.
Don’t get me wrong, I have the appeal of earning your victories, but Need for Speed Unbound pushes them too far, sometimes making what supposed Being a liberating fantasy of an underground race feels like a terribly unrewarding job. Things loosen up a bit as the story progresses, though I didn’t start to bring in decent cash until week 4. I eventually managed to amass $1.5M, but in this game it’s not really that much, as you can blow that (or more) ) on one car or a new engine and some advanced upgrades. Even being a millionaire, I felt like a lot of what I wanted was out of reach. In the end, when I finished the NFS Unbound story, I had a total of nine cars in my collection, most of which I didn’t really pick because I unlocked them through events. True, if I had wanted to spend more time and focus on collecting cars, I could have had more, but still, I think my trashy garage underscores the fact that this game isn’t structured in a way that feels naturally rewarding.
But hey, if you don’t mind grinding, Need for Speed Unbound has plenty to keep you occupied. The game’s story took me over 20 hours to complete, and once that’s done, there are still countless cars and collectibles to acquire and challenges to clean up. The game also has a fully multiplayer mode that basically works like a simplified GTA Online, letting you roam the Lakeshore and do events with others online. Online mode progression is also largely separate from single player (only open world activity progression is shared) so you can win everything twice! Need for Speed Unbound will stick you around for a long time if you allow it.
This review was based on the PS5 version of Need for Speed Unbound provided by publisher Electronic Arts.
Products mentioned in this post
Need for Speed Unbound is the franchise’s best entry in a decade, though competition for that title hasn’t been particularly stiff. The game offers polished technology, good (albeit slightly outdated) open-world design, and a variety of events and challenges, but still lags behind the current open-world racer pack leaders. The fantasy of becoming the champion of an underground race is also hampered by a restrictive and ill-conceived progression system. Nostalgia fans will find a lot to like here, and more general gamers might want to consider a test drive once they tick the game off, but “need” might be a strong word to associate with the latest Criterion game.
- Good performance and sense of speed
- The map is well laid out and fun to explore
- The vehicle’s handling can be modified the way you like it
- Great selection of races and events
- The police AI is properly balanced
- Lots to keep you busy
- The visuals don’t break any new ground
- The world is a bit open and conservative
- Miserly progression can feel like a job
- A clichéd storyline and awkward dialogue
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