We had heard that Need for Speed would soon be making a return, but it still seemed like the news about Need for Speed: Unbound came out of nowhere. When this new installment in the long-running and now iconic series was revealed it was a surprise, albeit a good one. After all, these games have been good, addicting and pleasurable fun for decades.
Although this series has almost always been about street racing, previous entries hadn’t always embraced the culture, or the feel of street racing as much as Unbound promised it would. With its flashy visuals, unique effects and penchant for unskippable rap, hip-hop and electronica music above all else, it looked like the first in a while to truly embrace ‘being street.’ This also meant we were likely looking at the most unique game in the series in some time.
Need for Speed: Unbound is set in a fictional American city called Lakeshore, which mixes multiple different types of landscapes and terrain into one location, much like other games did in the past, including Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. You’ll race through city streets, and watch as tall buildings, bridges and electronic signs whiz by. Then, you’ll find yourself out in the sticks, in what is essentially farming country. Moving on, there are even some areas that remind me of driving through the Canadian Shield, meaning that the roads seem to have been cleared through massive rocks. Needless to say, it’s a pretty interesting and mixed map, which I liked. In fact, it felt similar to Burnout Paradise, which Criterion also developed.
Things begin after you pick an avatar, then customize their face, facial hair, makeup, hair, hair colour, eyes and clothing. What’s different here is that these characters are all cartoons, having been crafted in a way that makes you think of Cel-shading but maybe isn’t. Either way, they really stand out amidst the normal and lifelike cityscape, as well all the realistic looking cars and SUVs. This look carries through into the game, where all of your competitors are displayed using the same style, and each car has colourful effects coming off of it, not limited to just streaking brake lights. If you start to boost you’ll see smoke and other colourful effects, and if you go over a jump your car will sprout animated wings. The colours that make these animations up depend on what you’ve chosen in the garage; that being Rydell’s Rides.
That same look, feel and motif is carried over into the game world, where pieces of graffiti are treated as collectibles and also make for unlockable decals. You can also look for angry looking bear balloons, and drive through them to earn some money and clout. Obviously, finding all of the collectibles leads to unlocking achievements and trophies, but I don’t have the time for, or interest in, doing that.
Garages have been important settings in recent Need for Speed games, acting as safehouses and places where stories were told. That’s the case once again, as Rydell’s Rides is where your best friend, Yaz, works. At least, that’s the case at the beginning of the campaign; prior to Jasmine deciding to screw her friends and employer over. After that, and the introductory races that came before it, Need for Speed: Unbound jumps two years into the future. It picks up just prior to Yaz’s return, and the beginning of a high stakes racing contest that she’s set up with help of some financially sound friends.
The general idea behind this age old story is trying to get even against a former friend and potential family member who screwed you over. It’s revenge mixed with wanting what’s right, which is all mixed in with street racing, car geekdom and the love of speed. It’s a decent, but unspectacular story, with somewhat interesting characters.
For the first time, at least that I can remember, a Need for Speed game’s campaign is set up in the form of a calendar. You see, the Lakeshore Grand competition takes place over several consecutive weeks, and the events happen on weekends. In-between, the player must race in street races, compete in drift events and more, in order to earn money to buy new vehicles, soup up what’s in their garage and make sure that they have vehicles that are at the right level (B, A, A+ and so on).
Said events also require buy-ins; at least, for the most part. Early on, you’ll generally find buy-ins between $1500 and $3000, but they go up over time. In fact, the first Lakeshore Grand event costs $20,000 to enter. You’ll get more back if you win, but it isn’t guaranteed, and if you use up all of your allotted restarts (which is based on difficulty, and can be 0 to 10 per calendar day and night) you’ll have to go back to the Friday beforehand. There, you’ll be able to upgrade your car more, both by investing money and doing more events in order to earn additional money.
When you take an event on, you’ll see a list of those who are entering it alongside you. This provides a chance to see where the computer thinks you’ll place when all is said and done. On top of that, it also provides an opportunity to do another new thing: side betting.
After looking at the expected results leaderboard, one can choose to do a side bet with another racer. The amounts will differ based on who it is and where they’re expected to place, meaning you can bet as little as a couple hundred or closer to $1000, even early on. This amount is then added to or taken away from what you end up getting based on where you placed. Of course, your buy in is also considered. Thus, if you had $2200 and had to pay $2000 in entry fees, then bet another $200, you’ll need to win at least $2000 plus that side bet to pull even. If you don’t, you’ll be out money.
This was the first time where I really felt like I didn’t have to win every race in a Need for Speed game, which is something new and rare. I would sometimes place fifth, but would still earn an okay amount. There was frustration to be found from the start, though, and it drove me to eventually drop the difficulty from normal to easy. You see, I’m normally pretty good at racing game, and would consider myself above average. I’m not an expert, and don’t have that kind of ego, but I generally do pretty well on regular difficulties and can hold my own against some others. The problem is that Need for Speed: Unbound has some crazy catch-up AI, which can come out of nowhere and overtake you when you’ve been a ways ahead. Hell, I almost lost the last event of the first Lakeview Grand after watching the second place driver collide with a police car, then get stuck between two of them.
I also realized that I wasn’t getting much better in terms of placement. I’d race a good race, but the drivers who got first, second, third and even fourth would seem like they were untouchable. Thus, I made the decision to drop the difficulty down and make the game more enjoyable. I didn’t feel like fighting it, hadn’t been sleeping well and wanted to enjoy it. Even then, I’m still dealing with the catch-up AI on easy.
Earlier on, I mentioned that there are drift events. Well, this game also features Takeover events, which remind me of something out of DiRT Showdown — a game I really enjoyed. These are run by a real-life rapper who appears in-game; that being A$AP Rocky. I’m only slightly familiar with him, myself, but he does a good job of voicing his character and talking to the player. He also fits with the theme of this game, which has been heavily influenced by hip-hop culture.
Takeover events are points based, and they award you for doing things like boosting, drifting and going through gates, along with catching air. The more points you earn the better, obviously, and the key to earning more points than everyone else lays in what you smash into while doing the aforementioned things. There are green boxes, purple drums and more to smash, and as you do you’ll build up a multiplier which goes up to five. It’s possible to keep it going for a while, but if you crash or are too slow then it’ll drop back to zero. They’re fun diversions, which I enjoyed and did pretty well at.
As you earn more and more money by competing in events during the days, then going back out at night (when it’s easier to get heat, which can follow you from event to event until you retire for the night), you’ll want to put it towards new parts, new kits, or new cars. There are a lot to buy and some are quite expensive, so don’t waste money on clothing unless you really want it, because it all ads up. You’ll also want to pay attention and save up for garage upgrades for Rydell’s, because upgrading his shop gives you access to better upgrades for your cars.
For the most part, the gameplay found within Need for Speed: Unbound is good and accessible. I personally found the base handling a bit loosey goosey, but it’s possible to change those things when you go into the tuning options at Rydell’s. Otherwise, it felt a lot like Need for Speed; something I’ve been playing since the PlayStation One. Of course, it does have some obvious changes, with most of them being effects and design based. Having to go to underground car meets to find races was also an interesting alteration, and something I had to get used to.
The main gameplay loop, though, involves completing events and then running from the cops once they end. Yes, police chases carry forward from races and into the after-race experience. This can be annoying, as the cops can often be in these games, and can lead to losing a lot of money. That’s because you only ‘bank’ what you earn from a day or night’s high octane festivities by going back to the garage and calling it a day or night. Needless to say, the first time I got cornered and lost $12,500, I wasn’t too enthused.
Visually speaking, this is one of the nicest and most creative looking games in the series. It was actually the first game I really played on our new TV, and it looked utterly phenomenal, even though I was playing on Xbox Series S as opposed to the X or PlayStation 5. This thing looks almost photorealistic, and its vehicles are very lifelike to boot. Hell, it also features civilians who will run from you when you speed by them or take a corner sharply, occasionally cursing you in the process. On top of all of this, the character models are unique, the weather is realistic, the city looks great and the effects make it feel different. Think of them as car graffiti.
The sound, on the other hand, wasn’t as good although it was still more than fine. The voice acting was solid, the writing was decent, and the cars sounded really good. However, the soundtrack wasn’t really for me apart from a couple of songs. This is very subjective, of course, being that I’m a metal and hard rock guy and Unbound‘s soundtrack is full of unskippable hip-hop and electronic songs/beats.
At the end of the day, Need for Speed: Unbound is easy to recommend. While it’s not my all-time favourite Need for Speed games, it’s definitely one of the better ones. It’s a huge improvement on Heat, and one of the best in recent memory. Thus, if you’re a fan of the arcade racing genre it’s well worth checking out.
**This review is based on the Xbox Series S version of the game, which we were provided with by EA.**
- A marked improvement over Heat
- Fast, fluid, stylish and engaging
- An interesting world map to race, lots to do, and tons to buy and unlock
- Default controls are a bit floaty, but can be altered
- Everything costs a LOT of money, and the game can be cheap in its challenge/rubberband AI
- It's too easy to get caught by the cops and lose money you've earned