Need for Speed: Unbound - Driving Its Own Road
Need for Speed has been around now for what feels like forever and in that time there has been some wonderful highs and some tragic lows. After the rock bottom landing of NFS: Payback and the FMV borefest NFS, things headed in the right direction thanks to the most recent entry, NFS Heat. Now a few years later we have NFS: Unbound which comes with a striking new look, focus on style and, in many ways, feels like the last chance to reignite love for the Need for Speed brand among gamers. I can’t say for sure on that score, but I hope it does, because this feels like the franchise has finally found a unique identity and ran with it for all it’s worth.
Once again there is a story in a Need for Speed game and once again it is a little on the cheesy side. Only this time it is tasty cheese, not the found-under-the-fridge cheese of some of the previous games. You take the role of an up-and-coming racer ready to take on the underground scene in Lakeshore City. You have a sweet new ride that you and your best pal put together and are working at a local tuner store with a father-like figure guiding your steps. But before long the mayor cracks down on racing, your best buddy steals your ride as well as every ride in the tuner store and you find yourself at the bottom of the rung, eeking out a living as an uber driver. Fast forward two years, the mayor is starting to lose her grip on the city and your ex-best bud is hosting a new racing tourney with big bank prize money. This is your chance to get revenge, build up your tuner shop once more, and most importantly, get your car back. Like I said, cheesier than a stuffed crust four-cheese pizza, but tasty all the same.
It does provide a great setup for what is quite the compelling single-player mode. Unbound is very much trying to be its own beast and not trying to compete with something like Forza Horizon (which would have been a mistake.) The day-night cycle from Heat has been brought back, but this time heat from the police can be earned during the day and will carry over into the night. Each race you compete in will earn a certain amount of heat, with heat being reset at the beginning of each day. This mechanic may sound simple but it adds a nice little slice of strategy to proceedings, especially when you consider any money you have earned isn’t actually yours until you get to your safe base after each session. If you get caught, you lose all of that session’s earnings. So the question becomes, do you compete just one more time and almost certainly find yourself in a police chase or do you play it safe and head for home while the getting is good.
The racing itself is a purely arcade experience that puts flashy fun ahead of physics and never loses sight of the fact that this is a game about pure adrenaline. The racing is almost always white-knuckle, as you need to navigate tight city turns, traffic and roadworks while trying to avoid the aggressive and quite competent AI in the process. Even on the easiest difficulty, Unbound offers a stiff challenge to racers, with every victory feeling earned. There are no easy wins and mistakes can cost dearly, especially in the shorter races. There is also a feeling that you don’t have to win every race to be getting ahead. In some instances, simply getting in the top 3 is an achievement that should be celebrated and the game goes out of its way to make sure you know that. This isn’t a game where it is simply a matter of learning how to drive and maxing out your car stats. Just like real-life street racing, winning takes skill, the ability to outthink and maneuver your opponents and more than a slice of luck. It is something that I feel has been missing from these sorts of games and is much appreciated.
As I mentioned before, Police chases are a big part of the game but here they feel much more balanced than in NFS Heat. In NFS Heat if you got in a chase with a 3-star or higher heat rating, it would take forever to escape, but here getting away is much more achievable. Sure the police force throws a lot at you, including helicopters and unmarked cars, but they can be escaped so it never feels unfair. The chases themselves are just like the racing, with edge-of-your-seat driving being the order of the day. It is a real rush escaping from the police and I feel like this is the best it has ever been in the franchise.
The biggest talking point in the lead-up to the game’s release was the new anime-inspired graphical flourishes and touches that the game has littered everywhere. For me, I love them. They really give a unique identity to the game and it instantly feels like something different, something that I haven’t played before. They also play into the game’s customisation options, with players not only able to change the look of their car but their snazzy anime animations as well. For those that aren’t in love with them, there is the option to turn them off, but really I feel that would just mean the game loses some of its flavour. The rest of the game looks fantastic, especially on a high-end PC. Racing games always look great with ray tracing and this is no exception. I found no problems hitting 60FPS with ray-tracing on my 3080 at 2K resolution so the game feels nice and optimised too. Without ray tracing, I could hit 120 without any problems at all. The game also runs well on lower specced systems with my laptop running it without issue, albeit without ray-tracing on.
If there is one annoying thing, one thing that got on my nerves, it is the “edgy-cool” vibe that the dialogue is going for. Call me a cranky old bugger, but it just became grating as racers constantly spat bad one-liners at each other as they battled around hairpin turns. It is the one thing that feels like a step too far to me and really began to irritate me towards the end of my game time. Speaking of, the game took me about 20 hours to complete the story which felt like the perfect amount of time. Once the story is complete, players can then go into a free-roam multiplayer session where they can find any remaining collectibles, take on other racers, and generally have a grand old time exploring the city. It feels very much like the implementation used in Burnout Paradise and that is a good thing. The game is fully cross-play supported too so there should always be plenty of other drivers out there to race.
Another thing that feels a little disappointing is the city itself. Compared to the rest of the game, it does little to set itself apart from things we have seen before. For much of my game time I felt like I was playing in a city that we had seen in previous NFS titles, so much so I even Googled to see if Lakeshore City had in fact appeared before. It hasn’t but the layout certainly feels like it has. I hope, as the NFS franchise continues its march back toward the podium, that in the next title the city becomes a real focus of the developers and they give us something a bit more exciting to engage with.
Perhaps the key takeaway from Need for Speed: Unbound is that Criterion is still the right developer for the franchise. This is easily the most fun I have had with an NFS game since Most Wanted and I feel like there is still plenty of room to grow. The unique flavour of the graphics, the tight arcade-style racing and the real sense of achievement from success in game is something that really makes this game worth your time and money. Some slight issues with faux-edgy dialogue and a forgettable city do little to sap enjoyment from what is one of the best pure arcade racers I have played in what feels like an age. It is great to see the old franchise back doing what it does best and I hope this is just a sign of even greater things to come.
Need for Speed: Unbound was reviewed on the PC with code kindly supplied by EA Games Australia