Review – Need for Speed Unbound
I would love to understand why is EA so reluctant to properly promote the more recent Need for Speed games. Especially considering that, for all intents and purposes, they ended up being pretty good racing titles aimed at a specific niche of arcade-loving racing fans. Lack of proper promotion and announcements happening mere months before these games’ releases make us all think these are flops in the making, only for them to be the complete opposite. It happened to Heat, and it’s happening now to Need for Speed Unbound. It’s a game that clearly features its fair share of flaws, but honestly, it’s my favorite racing title of 2022, by a very large margin.
Need for Speed Unbound is here to remind me that we’re getting old really quickly. This game is a clear nod to Need for Speed Underground 2 and Most Wanted, games that are nearly twenty years old as of the time of writing. We’re back with an open world full of clandestine races, unnecessary plots full of backstabbing and treason, and car tuning. Good, old, cheesy as hell, Xzibit-endorsed car tuning. After the resurgence of nu-metal, boomer shooters, and Blink-182, car tuning culture is making a comeback, and I couldn’t be happier about it. But Criterion (yes, they’re back!) wasn’t aiming at solely developing a generic love letter to Underground 2 and calling it a day. Sure, that’s what Need for Speed Unbound is at its core, but there’s more to it than just that.
What makes this game stand out right from the get-go is its presentation. Sure, for a next-gen only title, Need for Speed Unbound doesn’t take advantage of these consoles’ hardware to deliver Forza Horizon-esque visuals, but it makes up for it with a bucketload of style. It mixes realistic car models and lighting effects with cel-shaded characters and graffiti-inspired particle effects. Dust and exhaust fumes are rendered like the cel-shaded effects from the classic Auto Modellista from Capcom, while other effects show up onscreen as pieces of street art. Say you jump off a ramp; graffiti in the shape of angel wings show up onscreen, adding a ton of flair and personality to the game. What really impressed me about this implementation is that it is completely non-intrusive. In no moment do you feel fatigued about these particle effects.
I did mention cel-shaded characters, as Need for Speed Unbound is chock-full of cutscenes featuring them interacting with each other. Yes, this game is story-heavy, maybe a bit too much, but the plot isn’t inherently bad. Characters are well-developed, though they’re given terrible scripts full of cheesy slang, as if a fifty year old had written it thinking on how “the youths” would talk nowadays. It’s full of “fams”, “bruhs”, “Instas”, and even mentions of the word “weeb” to describe an anime enthusiast you meet at the beginning of your journey. The excessive dialogue is a bit annoying, for sure, but not a single character is offensively irritating. I was worried at first, not gonna lie, but I ended up liking some of them. Or I just ended up tolerating them, I don’t know.
Coupled with the voice acting is a soundtrack curated by rapper A$AP Rocky, who also shows up in-game to promote some events. This soundtrack won’t please everyone. I’m not saying it’s bad, but it’s truly an acquired taste, as it’s almost completely comprised of modern hip hop. A bit disappointing, to say the least. Sure, the first Need for Speed Underground had Lil’ Jon’s “Get Low” as its main song, and its sequel had that amazing Snoop Dogg version of “Riders on the Storm”, but these games also featured electronic and rock tunes to please everyone. Sadly, it’s not the case in Need for Speed Unbound. The soundtrack did eventually grow on me a bit, though, as it’s far from being outright bad. It just lacks variety.
With the presentation out of the way, it’s time to talk about the core gameplay loop of Need for Speed Unbound. It’s very reminiscent of Need for Speed Heat, with its day-and-night cycle, risk-and-reward system, and cumulative police heat meter which just resets every following morning. Its open world reminded me a lot of Need for Speed Underground 2 in terms of collectibles and overall design, but with a heavy dosage of Forza Horizon thrown into the mix. Besides races and cop chases, there are tons of speed traps, speed runs, easy money handovers in the shape of destructible bear statues, and ramp jumps scattered throughout the map, which give you hefty amounts of money. You should definitely do them as much as possible, for money is absolutely important in this game, while not being exactly easy to acquire, at least at first.
A few years ago, Need for Speed: Payback was released filled with lootboxes, card-based upgrades, and randomly obtained perks. People hated it. I hated it. It was less of a game of skill, and more of a game of chance. Need for Speed Unbound is all about skill. You need to work through the week to acquire enough money to improve your car with (very expensive) parts, and still rack up some extra cash to pay the entrance fee for an important tournament by the end of the week. The thing is, you need to spend money to earn more money. There is a huge “risk and reward” aspect to the races you enter. Do you want to risk losing money by entering a race where only the winner takes the prize, or do you want to focus on smaller races with less risk involved?
It doesn’t help that, at first, you have a pathetic ride with really underwhelming specs. Sure, the prologue has you driving a monstrosity to teach you how to properly play the game, but once it’s over, you’ll have to deal with, like, a preowned Civic or a Beetle. It takes time before your car can do something impactful, resulting in a somewhat punishing and grindy game at first. Once you start racking up some cash, as well as completing some delivery missions (this game’s “easy money” side hustles), you’ll finally be able to afford that new turbocharger, that six-gear transmission, maybe a brand new engine altogether. Maybe a Ferrari, a Koenigsegg (overkill, innit?), that classic Skyline we all know and love. And, of course, cosmetics. Lots and lots of cosmetics.
A racing game is nothing without its gameplay, and for the most part, Criterion delivers. Need for Speed Unbound is fast, responsive, and quite easy to learn. Like most Need for Speed games, it’s not meant to be a realistic simulator, with forgiving and arcade-like physics. It does, however, suffer from some confusing mechanics, namely when drifting is involved. Once again, you’ll suffer at first with the first few cars at your disposal being terrible at drifting, slowing you down to a halt when attempting to do so. Although I love the fact that the entire game is played with just two triggers and a boost button, I do feel like a handbrake option, in order to properly drift like a champ, would have been welcoming.
Small flaws aside, I had a ton of fun with Need for Speed Unbound. It’s the perfect balance of new and nostalgic the series needed, the perfect way to bring Criterion back to the spotlight with yet another excellent arcade racer full of fun mechanics and flair. It might be a bit frustrating in the beginning, given how punishing its first few hours are, but once you rack up some cash to afford new parts and cars altogether, the game becomes a blast. It may not have received the biggest marketing budget, and being borderline stealth released in December did it no favors, but do not miss this one out. It’s one hell of an entertaining racing experience.
Though not exactly a showcase of what this generation of consoles is capable of, it’s a ridiculously good-looking game that perfectly mixes realistic car models, lighting effects, cartoon characters and amazing graffiti-inspired particle effects.
Fast-paced, responsive, and easy-to-learn controls clash with a somewhat confusing drifting system.
Although the voice acting is really good, there’s just too much of it in a game where the plot isn’t exactly that interesting. The soundtrack is an acquired taste, as it’s mostly comprised of hip hop tracks, lacking the sheer genre variety the Need for Speed franchise has always been known for.
Fun Factor: 8.5
A really fun open world playground to explore, coupled with stylish visuals and really cool races. It’s a bit grindy and frustrating at first, but once you acquire some upgrades and new cars, Need for Speed Unbound becomes a joy to experience.
Final Verdict: 8.5
Need for Speed Unbound is available now on PS5, Xbox Series S/X and PC.
Reviewed on PS5.
A copy of Need for Speed Unbound was provided by the publisher.