No other racing game released this year is quite like Need for Speed Unbound, and that can be hard to achieve in such an established genre so steeped in convention. Criterion has gone all in with a wild, animated visual flair that often seems like it’s been pulled from the pages of a comic book, even though the actual driving and split day/night structure of its races are instantly familiar to those of us who appreciated 2019’s Need for Speed Heat. The result is a uniquely stylized racer that regularly looks fantastic in motion, though the grating story mode transitions like a banana in the exhaust and the online mode just feels stripped down and unfinished.
While Heat barely revolutionized arcade racing, it was a pleasant surprise that put the floundering franchise back on track. For its efforts, developer Ghost Games… was disbanded, and the boozy series returned to the arms of former flame Criterion Games for Unbound, and it’s gotten a striking makeover. You can apply artistic embellishments, including smoke and artwork, to cars like any other visual customization item. There’s a variety of different ones to choose from, though they’re all pretty similar at heart, with the main differences between them mostly limited to the color of the smoke and the selection of graphics that pop off the sides of your car like wings. stowed, or flashed above the roof like a small, temporary hat. However, the effects you choose are applied globally to your entire garage, and it seems like a mistake that you can’t select custom effects for individual cars.
It’s all very stylish in an Into the Spider-Verse, street art kind of way, and I admire Criterion’s commitment to trying something that sets Need for Speed apart from its peers. It’s flashy and eye-catching, and it’s very well executed. It doesn’t look like a superficial layer of effects pasted over the surface of the image; it definitely feels ingrained in the 3D world. For example, donuts look especially cool because the special animations hold up well even with a very kinetic camera.
The juxtaposition between Unbound’s cars (which continue to strive for photorealism) and the cartoon characters and effects is a peculiar one. It’s not shocking, especially considering there’s been some big improvements with the lighting since Heat and, at its best, Unbound looks like a highly stylized, interactive trailer. But I can’t shake the feeling that it’s a compromise, by accident or otherwise, that the vehicles and world of Unbound haven’t been given the same treatment – like a modern 2020 Auto Modellista or Inertial Drift. Would that have been controversial? ? Probably. Division? Secure. But I think it would have looked better than this mixed solution.
Among the snazzy effects, Unbound sticks to Heat’s gameplay format more than I expected. This isn’t exactly a bad thing – Heat was a very welcome course correction after Payback and I enjoyed it. That said, it does make Unbound feel like it’s an evolution of Ghost’s work rather than something Criterion really put its own stamp on, as it did with the critically acclaimed 2010 reboot of Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit , and his take on Need for Speed: Most Wanted from 2012.
Unbound’s new Chicago-inspired Lakeshore map has some nice, grid-like streets and tunnels for its city races, but the city itself is actually a bit vanilla compared to Heat’s neon-bathed, Miami-esque Palm City. Unbound’s countryside is also quite typical and unmemorable – which, to be fair, was also a criticism of Heat. It’s just highways, country lanes, and trees draped over hills. There are some nice mountainsides with several hairpin bends for drifting, but generally there’s nothing interesting to look at outside of town.
In single player, Unbound’s agents work similarly to Heat, although I think it’s a small easier to slip out of their grasp this time. Unbound seems a lot better at detecting if I’m speeding in free space, so, unlike Heat, I’ve yet to get caught at random simply because the cops are near my otherwise escaping car. This happened quite often in Heat, so I’m glad it seems to have been addressed.
The strictly arcade-style driving model is also inherited from Heat, meaning cars can be tuned for grip, drift, or a balance between the two. I haven’t been able to figure out if it’s my riding style or my slider setting, but my attempts to tune the grip seem plagued by understeer. The drift handling is more reliable in my experience, and definitely my preference. The option to choose between a classic brake-to-drift cornering style or an extra throttle to go sideways also remains. Continuing to serve both camps is very smart.
Like Heat, racing is divided into daytime and nighttime events, but Unbound tweaks the formula slightly. While Heat alternates between sanctioned street races during the day and illegal events at night, all of Unbound’s races are banned 24 hours a day. Police heat built up during the day also carries over into the night, so it’s an interesting juggling act to decide how much police attention to take into the evening. Higher paying races require higher initial heat levels, but they also require higher buy-ins – so it’s actually possible to lose money if you underperform, especially as Unbound limits are restarted. I am not whole sold on the betting corner in general due to some very questionable maneuvers by the AI that stacked the deck against me, but when the stakes are higher the tension ramps up in a mostly satisfying way.
To its credit, progression through Unbound isn’t built around winning every race we face, meaning it can be consistently challenging without completely slowing our progress. However, building up the necessary cash to both make a competitive car and pay for the hefty buy-ins for the high-risk races can get a bit of a drag, especially at first.
There are three difficulty levels and Unbound can be a tough test at times no matter what you choose. It occasionally crosses the line from heavy to cheap, and there were times when an AI racer shot ahead so fast that no amount of perfect driving and boosting could stop them from letting me down.
It’s not a problem unique to Unbound to give opponents more or less the same speed as you in the millisecond you activate a nitrous boost. feel weak and ineffective. What’s more annoying, however, are the occasions when I blast past a crashed opponent, only to have them supernaturally respawn far ahead of me on the track. It’s extremely frustrating to lose to a racer who obviously cheated to finish ahead of you – especially when I had additional in-game money wagered to beat them and I was out of restarts.
Even in the tamest of environments, Unbound’s AI racers can sometimes be unexpectedly competitive. I was definitely a little surprised at how relentlessly the so-called “Relaxed” setting watches my kids struggle to keep up; at least I always was when I wasn’t too busy cringing at the dialogue.
Heat’s script wasn’t exactly in line to win an armful of Primetime Emmys, but it used to be a pleasant pivot away from the pish that was Payback. Unbound feels like a step back. The general story itself is innocent enough, but the hackneyed cocktail of 2020 teen angst and Tik Tok philosophy certainly pushed me to my limits. Personally, I suspect the mayor of Lakeshore is just tired of family minivans being speared off the road by 900 horsepower JDM missiles and innocent commuters jetted off the hard shoulder, so it’s a little hard to imagine empathizing with the cast’s constant nagging about their personal freedoms. suppressed by traffic laws designed to curb willful vehicular manslaughter.
Need for Speed Unbound screenshots
To be honest, I don’t know if there’s an elegant way for a 28-year-old franchise like Need for Speed to really speak to the full spectrum of its audience all at once, but I must warn you that if you’re an experienced mid-90s player I’d hesitate to suggest that you’ll feel very represented in Unbound. Certainly not by one of these young and slim Instagram influencer avatars, whose fashion aesthetic resembles a drug dealer at a music festival, a drug dealer at a football game, or brand stranger Weird Al Yankovic. The mechanical expression made possible by the deep car customization that previous developer Ghost began injecting back into the series during the Need for Speed reboot in 2015 has universal appeal, and all of that is still here in Unbound, but there’s definitely a generational disconnect in terms of the characters and tone.
Over there is a way to handle Unbound without this story layer, as the cross-play enabled online multiplayer is a separate mode that takes it away and focuses purely on racing and upgrading your ride. Unfortunately, that’s not all it takes away, and the online mode is missing quite a few features at launch – the biggest of which is Police. Unfortunately, when I say online and single player are “separate,” I mean completely separate. Your single-player garage and progress are not shared online, so you’ll need to build a new stable of cars. I must admit that after about 30 hours of working my way to the top of the story mode, the prospect of starting online from scratch took the jam out of my donut.