- Nice graphic style
- Lakeshore offers a variety
- Varied races and missions
- 4k60 on consoles
- Feels unfair at times
- Drifting erratically
- Story becomes predictable
- No police online
Need for Speed is nostalgia. Many gamers will remember the times of games like Hot Pursuit and look back fondly on the many police chases. Over the years, we’ve seen all kinds of games from all kinds of angles. The franchise made forays into auto racing and returned to street racing just as often. There, on the street, the series feels most at home. It is therefore no wonder that development studio Criterion falls back on that old recipe for the latest addition to the series: the street racers who compete against each other and have to watch out for the police, who are only too happy to handcuff them. Combine that element with a freely passable city, a good number of cars and races, and you have Need for Speed Unbound.
The setting is Lakeshore City, a city based on Chicago. That’s nice for people who know the city, but otherwise it doesn’t really matter. It is more important that there is a nice mix of streets in urban areas, roads through hills, long straight highways, and so on: everything for as varied a range of games as possible. That’s good in Need for Speed Unbound. You will of course encounter normal point-to-point races and circuit races in the story mode, but there are also special events around drifting and races where the emphasis is more on taking many turns. The fact that they are in changing locations and that you also drive increasingly faster cars keeps the game fresh for a long time.
That aspect is not so important in the beginning. In that phase, as the protagonist, you get to know Rydell and Jasmine. Rydell is a garage owner for whom you do chores and you often do them together with good friend Jasmine, better known as Yaz. However, when the garage is robbed, Yaz turns out not to be completely pure coffee and so the protagonists become squabbled. The game then picks up again two years later, when the protagonist tries to rebuild something together with Rydell with a kind of ‘Uber but faster’. However, thanks to a new lady, Tess, you come into contact with street racing again and Yaz also crosses your path. From there, a story about revenge, betting, and street racing unfolds that initially seems quite nice, but at a certain point becomes too predictable. That’s too bad, but at the same time, I personally rarely need a story to enjoy a racing game. The attempt is nice; the result is not optimal.
While the story fades a bit, many peripheral issues around it remain quite intact. For example, the conversations that the characters have with each other, often from the car, are entertaining. The cutscenes are graphically not of a special level, but they are good enough to hold your attention. By the way, the graphic level is a subject in itself. Criterion has opted for a very own, loose style for Need for Speed Unbound. The game mixes clean, normal visuals of cars and the game world with a cel-shaded, cartoonystyle for the special effects and the characters. If you play on the PlayStation 5 or the Xbox Series X/S, all this passes you by in 4k at 60 frames per second. We did see some light jerking occasionally while playing on our Series X, but nothing to worry about. However, we have not done extensive testing in this area, so whether the game performs equally stable on all platforms, we dare not claim.
The cartoony effects that come with a drift or using a boost take some getting used to, but then seem to scream: go crazy, have fun. With us, how we looked at this style changed from ‘kind of weird’ to ‘okay, pretty nice’ and ‘gosh, actually kind of nice done this’. The game doesn’t take itself too seriously and that’s nice. The DNA of Criterion is also visible in this: it is not for nothing that it is the studio behind the once immensely popular Burnout series that is behind this.
That also means that takedowns play a role in the game. The moments when you crash into another racer or a police car that crashes spectacularly are reminiscent of the heyday of Burnout. However, it stops there. Need for Speed Unbound is also a more serious racing game than the Burnout games were. This is also where Need for Speed Unbound is too much in two minds for me. On the one hand, it wants to be a laidback racing game, which you shouldn’t want to take too seriously. But on the other hand, it is a game that requires quite a bit of skill. This is certainly one of the most difficult games I can remember within the ‘street racing games’ subgenre. On medium difficulty, you will rarely win races. And you sit down on the lowest level,
… is what we initially thought and wrote down as a note. But as the story progressed and we got further, something started to stand out. Some races or events were extremely easy. The Drift events and the Takeover events, where you do a combination of actions that earn points, are super easy and hardly an inconvenience. You win with a smile on the number one. But the races are mostly very inconsistent. The common denominator seems: how you start is how you finish. If you quickly pass the AI racers and get into spot 1, chances are you’ll stay there too. If that doesn’t work out, you’ll probably be somewhere between 5th and 8th place the entire race. If you make a mistake along the way, winning will soon be impossible. We still understand the latter, although it is unnecessarily hard, but the rest of what’s supposed to make for the difficulty feels weird. In addition, the AI racers always accelerate faster than you and reach top speed faster. We tried several cars and built cars entirely on acceleration, but we were still no faster than the computer. That means that Need for Speed Unbound is not just difficult, but sometimes also simply feels unfair and that is disastrous for any game.
Still, it’s not impossible to win. Fortunately, because otherwise you wouldn’t really get any further. The adventure is structured in such a way that you do certain races and events every day. Those races require a buy-in and hopefully you win more money than you put in. This way you build up capital, which you can then use to buy better parts for your cars. Finally, each week ends with a major qualifying race for an endgame event. So you’re constantly busy making sure your car is ready for the final race of the week.
Every time you do a race or event, your ‘heat’ also increases. That’s an indication of how much the police are looking for you. A flame is not so bad: the normal cars can spot you, but you are so much faster; that’s not an issue. From level two it gets more interesting. Then come to the somewhat heavier cars, which you can no longer pound to the side. On the third level, there will be lightning-fast Interceptors, which can keep up with you, but which you can then sell a beech for a takedown. One more level up and undercover units will enter the street, so you can’t spot them on your radar to avoid them. The last level brings a police helicopter on your roof. To avoid them, you will have to try to include more tunnels in your route.
Escaping takes a bit longer at the higher levels and the agents keep searching longer if they lose you for a while, but it’s not very difficult. Still, you’ll have to be careful. Need for Speed Unbound has an interesting system where you carry the money you earned that day or night with you. At the end of a day or night, you report to a garage or a safe house. Then you ‘bank’ the amount you carried with you and only then is that money safe. The heat is also reset after every night: you can start a new day calmly. The heat doesn’t reset at the end of the night, so it’s smart not to end the day on the fourth or fifth level: that makes it difficult to do much at night because the police are then within range shortest time on the heels .
Doesn’t always slide smoothly
The times when things go wrong, or almost go wrong, it is mainly because you hit something. That is of course part of it, but Need for Speed Unbound also feels strange here and there. You can take turns in two ways: either you try to drive a nice line and lose as little speed as possible, or you throw your car into a drift, earn a boost and use it to get back up to speed. That doesn’t always feel quite right. Sometimes we had trouble starting a drift and at other times we just wanted to brake, but the car seemed to be forced into a drift. The degree of speed loss varies considerably. One time you slide nicely through a corner and keep your speed, another time you brake much more.That is partly up to you: the sharper you steer in when drifting, the more transversal your car will be and the more speed you will lose. That makes sense. But too often we had the idea that there was another, invisible system active that also influenced it. This is difficult to explain in text, but it is a feeling that sometimes makes you suspect that you are not in full control.
It may sound weird or unfair, but that idea gradually started to dominate the game. If you’ve figured out for yourself that skill isn’t always the deciding factor and the game isn’t fair at times, you won’t get over that, even if that assumption were wrong. It robbed Need for Speed Unbound of the gameplay for us. On top of that, we also saw a bit too many replays in the third in-game week. You’ve already worked twice towards an important race and improved your car and the third time you get to do that tune again, it no longer feels so interesting.
(Yet) No police online
Besides the story mode, there is also the possibility to race online against others. You do that from servers with sixteen people and can race with up to eight people or with four people in the same party, of course in the same city in which you drive offline. There is, however, an important difference: at the moment, the police do not yet play a role online. That’s a shame because the police chases are an important part of Need for Speed games. It is strange that this is not yet the case online. Their presence will apparently be added later. The multiplayer has a separate progression from the single-player, all items you collect can be used in both.After the hours we had put into the single-player, we didn’t feel like driving the same races online again,
Need for Speed Unbound is a lot of fun at times and very frustrating at other times. The game gives you as a player too often the feeling that something is not right. In part, this is the phenomenon known as ‘rubber banding’, in part it is even more intense than that. It makes the game feel unfair at times and that is disastrous for your gaming pleasure. That’s a shame because the game is fun at other times. The way you have to protect your won money by sheltering in a safe house every now and then is nicely done and the police chases are of course also part of Need for Speed. The chosen style takes some getting used to, but ultimately works well for the game.Still, the feeling prevails that Need for Speed Unbound could have come out a lot better if there were just a few less frustrating elements in the game.