February 4, 2023

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Criterion takes the reins once again for an arcade racer to take on the all-conquering Forza Horizon.

Here’s a well-known story. A new Need for Speed ​​comes out without fanfare and turns out to be decent; even decent enough to feel like a return to form for EA’s long-running series after it went through a fallow period.

Thing is, I’d understand if you didn’t know: when it came out in 2019, Need for Speed ​​Heat got such a muted reception that it barely registered outside of the series’ allegiance. So it’s a pleasant surprise to see a sequel in Need for Speed: Unbound, an open-world racing game that builds on the foundations of Heat and heralds the return of the legendary Criterion as the main studio. And it’s frustrating that EA seems to have doubled down on doing nothing to promote its latest Need for Speed, because Unbound is more than a return to form. It’s the best Need for Speed ​​in a generation, and certainly the best since Criterion kicked off its first stint in the series with the sublime Hot Pursuit. In fact, it’s so good that I don’t think it’s too far off to give the all-conquering Forza Horizon a run for its money.

Digital Foundry was also impressed with what Criterion accomplished with Need for Speed: Unbound.

They’re two very different series, of course, but it’s in the differences between Need for Speed ​​Unbound and something like Forza Horizon 5 that you discover what makes this game so special. In Horizon, it can feel like you only have to drive 100 yards to be showered with trinkets and new toys; in Need for Speed: Unbound after a dozen hours I still only had one ride and could lose an entire evening of running events to afford a new air filter. It’s stingy, but it might also be Need for Speed: Unbound’s masterstroke.

Unbound leans heavily on its underground racing fiction, to the point that it defines the single-player campaign that, if you push it through to the grand finale, will run for over 30 hours. There’s some light framing (after a lengthy prologue) with a tale of betrayal, double-crossing, and ultimate redemption, but that’s aside. What’s really important is how Unbound doubles your and your car’s travel while forcing more horses under the hood and strapping on a few turbos.

Multiplayer is separate from the campaign, with the ability to load into an online Lakeshore with 16 other players and support races for 8 players. It’s slim but satisfying enough.

There is a fascinating collection of systems that support all of this. The campaign will take place over four weeks, each culminating in a special event stretching all the way to the grand finale. You can organize events during the day that gradually increase the level of police attention you receive, which then transitions into the night when patrols are denser and fiercer – and you can’t bank your earnings until you reach a safehouse with no police present. is present. your tail. It’s a rhythm that forces you more to explore the open world, activate speed cameras for a small price or hunt down billboards to smash through.

The open world of Unbound also proves to be quite immersive. The visuals help – unlike its predecessors, this is a 60fps racer, with the decision to scrap the last-gen versions clearly paying off – as does the styling, with colorful anime swoops and lines accompanying your action, while your avatar (which is fully customizable in a surprisingly wide fit) has a cel-shaded look. At first reveal I thought it might all be off-putting, but the final product not only looks great, I also found myself wishing it wasn’t so understated.

Car combat is never quite as crunchy as Burnout’s – how I miss that glorious takedown camera – but there are some surprisingly meaty systems powering the cop chases.

Lakeshore itself is a playful riff on Chicago, and another Need for Speed ​​backdrop where the roads always seem to be slippery and the cars always seem to be sweating. There’s a bustling downtown with bustling streets criss-crossing beneath elevated train tracks that host urban sprints that could have come straight out of Project Gotham Racing; in the suburbs and beyond, there are long winding roads that stretch over the hills and make for carefree blasts reminiscent of Criterion’s beautiful Hot Pursuit.

I loved Hot Pursuit, in part because if you squint you could pretend you’re playing the OutRun successor we’ve been waiting all these years for. Unbound isn’t exactly the better game – it lacks the simple elegance in design and controls, while the car combat isn’t quite as satisfying – but it’s certainly a superior Need for Speed ​​game to Criterion’s previous efforts, which go all in on the fantasy of figuring out a simple ride until it gobbles up the tarmac and spews flames. The fact that the journey you make with your starting car takes so long only makes it more meaningful.

However, be warned that Need for Speed: Unbound means you. Winnings are not guaranteed. Nor is winning back the money you have to cough up to enter every event – and often the margins are minimal. It can be frustrating, or it can blossom the relationship between you and your ride. The Honda Civic that I doggedly pushed through to the endgame is a virtual car that I’ve now grown deeply attached to; every time I ride it I can feel the hours I put into it under my thumbs, and can see the results of the late nights spent grinding so I could afford a tasteful purple neon underglow. I’ve gotten to know its weaknesses as well as any real car I’ve owned.

Need for Speed: Unbound looks mighty good in the right light – and Lakeshore tends to offer a moody, cloudy atmosphere during the day.

Customization in Need for Speed: Unbound goes deep. You can widen wheel arches, stiffen the suspension and put on some slick new boots (and like Heat, with which Unbound shares so much DNA, you can even tweak the timbre and bark of your exhaust note to a satisfyingly ridiculous granularity). You can even put a 300bhp six-cylinder in a Civic, which of course I did because I only want the best for my humble Honda, and every adjustment you make has an impact. You feel the extra horses, sure, but so do the tweaks you make to push your car between the axis of grip or drift handling. However, the drifting isn’t quite as satisfying as Criterion’s racers in their pageantry – it took me a dozen hours to get used to everything, which speaks to its depth, but also to the fact that it’s not as instantly thrilling as before.

Untied isn’t quite perfect in other small ways, either. Police AI is fine if you’re just driving around with no heat – and indeed there are some nifty systems out there that help you avoid being noticed while using the minimap in what amounts to a Pac-Man car game – but when things get rowdy cop cars often lose their heads. I’d love to have a bigger, wider car list, though I might just be aching like a Toyota fanboy robbed of the chance to do unspeakable things with an A70 Supra as the world’s biggest brand is completely absent. There are nips and tucks to be made in a handful of places that could really make this sing, and make it not only a great Need for Speed ​​game, but a great open-world racer as well.

As it stands, Unbound just falls short of that, but given the way it delivers a Need for Speed ​​experience that’s miles ahead of anything the franchise has offered in over a decade, I’m not complaining. We hope EA’s bizarre handling of this fantastic game doesn’t affect its chances, and that Criterion can build on its brilliant work for a sequel. Because then we could really have a Forza Horizon beater on our hands.

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