Need for Speed Unbound Review
A continued course correction for the racing franchise
Need for Speed was once a storied racing franchise that was innovative and popular enough to warrant yearly releases, something that few genres outside of sports manage to pull off. After some spinoffs and remakes in the early 2010s, publisher EA and then-developer Ghost Games decided to go for a pseudo-reboot, complete with the re-using of the original name in 2015's Need for Speed. Unfortunately, things didn't pan out, and ever since then the series has switched to a less frequent schedule and has still been unable to return to form. With the newly released Need for Speed Unbound, now in the hands of developer Criterion with assistance from Codemasters, the series is starting to inject some life and a sense of purpose into the proceedings.
The narrative is sadly not leading the way in terms of improvements. Players assume the role of a customizable character that gets involved in the underground racing scene in Lakeshore City. But after a betrayal by someone they considered a lifelong friend and a cop crackdown, you're forced to lay low and start over with your mentor Rydell and his garage. A couple of years later, the racing scene re-emerges and so does your now-rival. With assistance from a new financial backer and Rydell, you begin a plan to participate in the Grand event in a few weeks.
Most players probably don’t pay a ton of attention to the plot in an NFS game, it just needs to be easy to follow, and engaging enough to propel the action. The revenge motif in Unbound is certainly straightforward – in fact, with one very simple and yet very cool motivational factor that we won't spoil here. However, the problems lie with the characters and the writing. The series has always tried to be cool, but Unbound takes it to new, very cringeworthy levels in its attempts to relate to the youth and rap cultures. The writing and voice acting is atrocious and the opening few hours have a number of cutscenes that are annoying to get through. The main character also has some of the worst and most emotionless delivery of any game this year. It may remind you of that viral video of NBA stars trying to voice act in the NBA 2K series.
But things thankfully improve somewhat overtime, as you begin to focus on the racing and making money. The cutscenes mostly stop, and you just listen to occasional calls between the three main characters talking about nonsense and cracking oddball jokes. These radio calls are more tolerable and don’t try as hard as the main narrative moments – though a certain amount of cringe never dissipates in the dialogue, and returns in the finale. The story also tries to bog down the proceedings with a nonsensical political angle, as you hear about the Mayor running for re-election and her misdeeds. Cop corruption is not a new theme in the franchise, but these self-declared protagonists really don't have a leg to stand on when trying to be righteous, given their constant damage to the city, other traffic, and endangering lives.
Still, the game must be at least commended for picking a lane and sticking with it. It has a very distinct rap-culture foundation, which helps explain some of the dialogue. The pre- and post-race cutscenes have your character smirking and making other "hip" gestures. Understandably, the soundtrack is chock full of rap music, of varying quality and catchiness, including US and international artists. If you’re not into this music style, it may be tough to tolerate over the course of the game, though at least a few of the tracks have a shade of techno or lack lyrics. While the cars and the game world are the typical realistic aesthetic, there is also a very distinct visual style that is applied to certain elements. All people have a cartoon-like, cel shaded look, and the cars feature plenty of special effects on drifts, jumps, turns, and so on, perhaps comparable to Rocket League. The art style looks good enough that if you enjoy it, you'll be happy – and if you don't, it really isn't all that distracting and can be ignored.
Unbound very much builds on the foundations of 2019's NFS Heat, but it makes some notable changes across the board. One of the game's simple and yet innovative aspects is how career mode progress is handled. As before, the game is split between daytime and nighttime modes, and to switch between them you must visit one of the safehouses - this also banks any money you earned that day, which can be lost if the cops bust you during a pursuit. But what's interesting is that you're actually on a schedule – players get one week to get their car up to spec, and get enough cash to pay for the entry fee in the weekend qualifying race for the Grand. That means you get a limited amount of days and nights to get things done. It’s an original piece of game design that makes the career mode engaging and makes you work towards something tangible. Although it's still an open-world game, it makes the campaign feel like a series of days instead, where there is finite content to be tackled.
The entire career spans four weeks, with three weekend qualifying races and the Grand at the end of the fourth week, which on the whole may take about 15-20 hours to play through. Each week you are presented with a new weekend goal – you need to have an A performance tier car for week 1, A+ for week 2, S for week 3, and a car from each tier is required for the finale. There is also a fee to enter the weekend qualifier, so you have to balance your income between car upgrades and saving up enough. Mostly focusing on the highest-payout race events, there should be no problem with reaching the weekend with everything you need. However, if you somehow don't, the game resets to the final day to let you work at it again.
Your cash can be spent on a multitude of vehicles, though the car list is fairly restrained in brand variety. There's a scattering of Aston Martins and Ferraris, but for the most part it's about the BMW, Honda, Nissan, and Porche. The cars can all be upgraded mechanically, with entirely new engines, and of course a variety of engine parts that improve your performance rating and eventually raise your class. The difference in Unbound is that upgrades are purchased on a per-car basis, so with each new ride you're starting from scratch and need to spend a lot of dough to get it up to speed. This leaves the game's finances in a decent balance – you have to spend a chunk to upgrade the garage (to get access to higher tier parts), then upgrade your existing cars, and save enough for the race entry fees. You won’t have a ton to splash on new cars, so your collection will feel more intimate. The game does give you the occasional opportunity to win new cars outright, and the remainder of the money can of course be spent on visual upgrades.
Style is everything in Unbound, and it's actually the first thing you do to your car, long before anyone even mentions performance. All of the cars can be customized with entirely new body kits, or individual body pieces, underglow, air suspensions, and more. You can enable special audio effects, get different horns, tweak the exhaust sound and of course create wild liveries and share them with others. Players can put together some seriously sweet looking rides, and showcase them at the race events. As for the handling – it’s very much in the NFS vein of recent years, mostly arcade but with a unique and hard to get used to drift/cornering system. Players can adjust things like steering response, downforce, and how they want to enter the drift (if at all). Managing boost also remains key, by building it up with extreme maneuvers and close calls, and spending it at the right moments.
The race events are started from various meeting spots around the map. Each race event has a set participant list, with cars falling into the same performance class but in different levels. Here Unbound has another simple but unique and engaging mechanic of being able to place bets that you'll beat a certain other driver. At the start of each career week, your car won't be maxed out in its class yet, so you are expected to come in mid-way, and can place bets against others. If you beat them, you get extra cash; in fact if you do poorly, you may not even recoup the entry fee and incur losses on a race instead. It's an interesting idea but one that falls short later in the week. Once your car is up to spec, it becomes trivial to win almost all events, and betting against others brings little joy. Still, it's a fairly unique idea that just could have used a bit more fleshing out. It also paves the way for the races to be meaningful even if you don't win – you still get paid, just not as much, so there is no grind to always try to be first.
Your AI opponents also make things interesting, even if they have slightly different performance ratings. On medium difficulty, the AI is highly enjoyable – in that, they are clever and aren’t easily pushed around, and yet they don't ride the racing line and make plenty of mistakes themselves. Seeing an opponent crash out to traffic or a barrier in the final lap is just so satisfying – and removes the frustration when it happens to you. There is no rewind mechanic here if you make mistakes – and you will, given how many tight corners and occasional barriers spring up on the road - just an option to restart the race. And again, in another unique career mode twist, you only get a limited number of restarts – just 4 on medium difficulty. It raises the tension and makes races a bit more involving (at least for yourself, as difficulty can be changed anytime). Police AI, which you'll get plenty of interactions with, are also good. They strike a solid balance between skilful and annoying, rubberbanding and clueless. Most of the chases are fun to deal with, at least initially.
Unlike Heat, your police wanted level increases with each race event, both day and night, and only resets on the next day. This means if you want to race a lot, you will be faced with a maximum level of police attention in no time at all. With each wanted level, new units are introduced: basic patrol, offroad, fast Chevrolet's, undercover units, helicopters and eventually heavy SWAT units. This is a neat design that presents a different set of options depending on who's chasing you. There is still no fast travel, so you must carefully return to the safehouse, lest you want to risk the day's earnings on a chase.
The problem is Unbound's cop design encounters needed much better balancing. By level 4 or 5, the map becomes absolutely crawling with police units, and you spend most of the time staring at the minimap just to dodge their cones of view. Escaping at the highest levels is not fun – it's largely annoying as you are overwhelmed with units that are difficult to shake. It's not a question of challenge, but rather how long it takes to escape the chases. In a way, this perhaps forces players to really manage their heat level and not be greedy each in-game day. Not only will you get into pursuits just driving between racing events, but the game also makes a poor decision to keep the chases going after the finish line. Cops often show up mid-race, but whether or not you are transitioned into a chase after the event is totally arbitrary. The game also has a weird design choice to spawn the cop right next to you, instead of the much more natural transition in Heat with the cops keeping their last position from when the race was ongoing.
It can also be a problem if the race you just completed was with a car not really spec'ed for a pursuit. Alongside the usual speed and corner-focused race events, there are drift events, as well as head-to-heads. There are new Takeover events mildly inspired by gymkhana, as you race around a custom track and try to rack up the score by knocking things over and get congratulated by performer A$AP Rocky. Still, there is a notable lack of variety in the race tracks offered – you'll be seeing many of the same circuits over and over, despite a decently sized world map. While there are plenty of offroad areas and dirt roads, they are much more likely to be used during cop chases than races, making the game's offroad handling tuning and performance parts feel unnecessary. In the downtown areas, pedestrians are also back, for that little bit of added immersion.
On the whole, the game does look pretty good. It's the first in the franchise to target 60fps at 4K, and while it stays at that target framerate, the visuals do occasionally suffer, even without high speeds. Texture streaming issues are also present even on static assets. Loading times are quick. Perhaps the biggest culprit is the draw distance - often shadows, objects and road details are loaded visibly late, making for some weird artifacting and pop-in, and becoming dangerous in the end-game when the speeds are excessive.
Beyond the career mode, players can also head into multiplayer, though it's fairly barebones. Players have to upgrade their garage again, but at least many of the special rides from the single player get carried over to online - though without any upgrades. Still, at least it avoids a lot of grind, and you can race in almost any category from the start. You essentially inhabit the same open world but shared with up to just 16 other racers, and no cops, which makes it feel quite empty. Given that the game is next-gen only, surely a higher player limit would have been possible. Further, the races can only contain the other players in your lobby, which makes it very tough to even get a full race together. Most events end up with just 3-4 racers. More traditional platform-wide matchmaking for races would have worked much better. There's also still no fast travel, which is a bit annoying, though you can join a race someone started from anywhere. At least, the collectibles in the multiplayer are shared with your solo career.
The phrase "style over substance" can carry a negative impact. But what if that style was in the form of a tricked out Lambo with a unique paint job doing a sideways drift that looked, in the words of NFS Unbound, totally sick, bruh. The latest entry in the racing series finally commits – to its visual style, to the music, to the attitude, and while it may not be to everyone's liking, it is at least commendable. The racing is solid and AI competitive, but some balance issues make high-level pursuits extremely annoying. The campaign is simple and yet unique and engaging enough to see it through to the end, though sadly there's not much motivation to grind the underdeveloped multiplayer. It’s a well performing title with fast load times, and it manages to keep the 60fps steady, even though some visual issues crop up in the distance. Unbound does enough things differently that it's worth a look for car fans, even if not all of the experiments pay off.