The long-lasting Need For Speed racing franchise is back once more! After working on the last three fairly divisive titles, Ghost Games is pushed to the side in favour of Criterion, authors of the Burnout franchise and some NFS games in the 7th generation of consoles too. A short marketing cycle and a controversial anime-influenced visual style had some eyebrows raised, but Criterion’s return to the steering wheel is a positively surprising one: find out more in our review!
It wouldn’t be a modern-day Need For Speed without some cheesy yet fairly enjoyable premise, right? In short, after creating our cartoon/anime-style character (more on that visual choice later), our OC is introduced as one of the workers in Rydell’s Garage. They’re specialized in repairing and tuning cars and, as a not so legal side activity, also make good money and find new customers by being in the street racing scene. One night, everything goes sideways, as the cops interrupt an important event, and in the meantime a group of criminals robs Rydell’s Garage of virtually everything, including the cars. Two years pass with the garage going back to its repairing roots, and the player encounters his/her stolen ride. It’s time to roll back onto the streets and take what’s theirs.
The storyline, as said, is pretty cheesy, with most characters being one-dimensional and not very memorable. Truth be told, there’s also moments of surprisingly effective humor, with various dialogues making metacommentary on the franchise, taking shots on certain fanbases and IPs (such as a funny reference to a group of racers who focus on “the family” over 8 or 9 missions – wonder who could those be?) and so on. An inspired choice was giving names and faces to the various racers that we encounter during the events, with even a few short but enjoyable side missions where we get to know them a little bit better.
Of course, the retaliation to that crime won’t be involving the cops or via further violence, but this being Need For Speed, the player will have to get through weekly qualifiers and then reach the finals to be able to win back the lost car and face. This makes for an enjoyable formula, mimicking a bit the previous game, with the players having to race certain events during the day, then starting a nightly session as well. As more and more illegal races and cop chases are performed, the wanted/heat level rises, increasing the tenacity of the police agents in their pursue. If captured, all the money earned in that session is lost: so it’s up to the player determining how much risk is worth taking from time to time.
Round and round
The game’s progression system is certainly a unique one, in today’s age of car-collecting and RPG elements even in racing games, as there’s no levelling up bars and Need For Speed Unbound and the cars aren’t awarded to players at a faster rate than they can even drive them. It’s an antithesis to Forza Horizon by all means, forcing players to know and adapt to their cars, which showcase a heavy customization much like in Heat. Tons of upgrades can be applied to each car in exchange of in-game money earned via racing and completing objectives, which not only make the car faster and more manageable, but also unlock extra tweaks that can therefore be used. These range from optional traction control for individual vehicles or moving a handy slider to make the car more grippy or drift-prone.
This customization also applies to the visuals as well and Unbound once again takes inspiration from its predecessor to deliver one of the most thorough livery editors on the market, perhaps only beaten by the Forza games. Materials and colours can be finetuned with sliders, tons of different layers of stickers and decorations can be added to each car, with even lights under the car, tinted glasses and custom rims and tyre sizes can be used. And most importantly, each creation can be uploaded quickly to the game’s online library, a place where all players can then find the most stylish creations to download for free in a matter of seconds.
Players will absolutely have to become accustomed to the cars they get, because the progression isn’t too fast. In the game’s first weeks of the story especially, even completing every racing activity available per day/night will likely net you only a set of upgrades to your favourite car or, perhaps, the acquisition of a not excessively expensive car. Even then, with certain performance and budget requirements to fulfill by the end of the week, which is when the qualifier always happens, it’s hard to commit to spending too much money, especially considering that getting busted by the cops means losing all of the money gained in that session.
This is where we live
The open world the game is set in is a pretty standard urban setting, that feels like a more detailed, more varied and bigger version of the open world seen in Heat. Every area can become the streets of a high-octane race, there’s speed traps and zones, drift areas, destructible signs as collectibles, cool graffitis to find which unlock stickers for your cars and more. It’s very Forza Horizon-esque, though without that crazy amount of actual things to do. The side activities are some of the safest bets to get easy money as well, considering they are among the very few activities that doesn’t increase the heat/wanted level. Want an early headstart to have a fast car from the get-go? Spend a couple hours hunting down collectibles, and you’ll have enough money to upgrade your started car to a point that you won’t need to touch it again for a while.
Said open world feels great to drive in, with multiple off-road areas, construction sites, shortcuts, railroads, and even raised bridges to use strategically in the races and the cop chases, which come back with a vengeance. Nothing you haven’t seen before on the roads of EA’s franchise: cops have sports cars, jeeps, choppers, even spike strips. Like in Heat, getting captured is a hefty fine so staying out of their sight is crucial. Cars have a limited health, and if they’re destroyed, it’s an automatic arrest. Also as in Heat, players can repair the car by driving through gas stations – this time the number of times this can be done per session isn’t limited, but there’s a couple minutes timer to wait out in-between uses. Speaking of limitations, there’s a limited amount of event retries a player can use per session too, so sometimes it’s better to count your losses or limit your gains on a tougher event for the time being.
And then there’s the contentious aspect of this installment of the Need For Speed franchise: the anime-inspired visuals, a bullet point that’s been raising eyebrows ever since it first leaked. First off, I like it on the cars. The game’s realistic visuals combined with this anime-esque flashes, coloured smokes, giant comic book style effect bubbles really give the driving a unique visual identity. Less effective are the game’s characters, which feel fairly generic 3D models pushed through a “cartoonizer” effect. They aren’t bad by any means, and the player can customize their own character with a lot of depth and variety, but most bystanders and rival drivers’ look falls a bit flat. Perhaps they should have either sticked to realistic characters or bring them even farther on the “anime slider”.
Bubblegum pink Ferrari, yeah I’m so bossy
This time even the soundtrack is quite banging, with the likes of Charli XCX, A$AP Rocky (who even has his own special in-game events), Playboi Carti, Diplo, Buku and more, ranging from hip hop sounds to EDM, with pop and tribal influences as well – so your time driving around with the music playing feels a lot more rewarding from Heat’s limited playlist. It’s definitely one of the more interesting and varied soundtracks in a while, thus yet another aspect of the game where Criterion evolved the formula positively.
Need For Speed Unbound, even at its launch, is certainly rather packed with content. The story sees the player throughout 4 weeks of days and nights throughout many events, some mandatory and most optional, with players always being able to decide how many seen-before events they wanna rush through again for some extra cash. With tons of unlockable and upgradable cars, a robust if uninspired multiplayer and an open world with plenty of things to do, Unbound’s unlikely to last you less than a couple dozen hours, unless you get bored before the end credits of course. But boredom isn’t what I’d associate with the latest installment in this everlasting franchise: Need For Speed has found its identity, and while a few concepts require some finetuning, it’s the best episode in a long while and one of the most stylish and generally finest racers of the generation thus far.
|Reviewed on||Xbox Series X|
|Available on||Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 5, PC|
|Release Date||2nd December 2022|
|Rated||ESRB T for Teen, PEGI 12|