Unbound is the 25th installment of the Need for Speed franchise and while it’s had some ups and downs NFS has long been one of the best arcade racers available, with 2004’s Underground 2 my personal pinnacle.
Here we are in 2022, and this time EA want to do things a little differently, the game announcement was incredibly late (only about 3 months before release) and the cell shaded effects, and Next-gen only support caused a bit of a divide early on. With the promise of a new engine under the hood and new driving mechanics, we didn’t know what to expect, but something just felt familiar, in a very good way.
When I first started up NFS Unbound, that familiarity was evident straight away, it was clear it had its own identity, while still borrowing heavily from games like Underground, Heat and Most Wanted
The story begins with you selecting from a handful of models and some light customisation options to make the character your own, while cars and locations are all pseudo-realistic, characters share the same cell-shaded style of those divisive effects, it’s a little odd at first combining the two, and I honestly thought I’d hate it, but it just works really well, and it almost feels more fluent with the developers able to concentrate on dialogues and presentation rather than hair, wrinkles and life-like expressions.
Back to the story and you’re given the choice of 3 motors, with the one you select receiving a minor makeover so you can start your journey through Lakeshore City (Unbound’s fictional city, based loosely on Chicago).
Soon enough the gameplay loop is explained and you’re given 4 weeks to work your way up to “The Grand”, Lakeshore’s top street racing challenge.
Each day and night, you get to select an event and then you’ll have to evade the cops on your way to a safehouse to bank your winnings, improving your finances to upgrade your car and pay entry into the weekend’s main event.
It might not sound much, but with a few twists in the tale, and some expensive steps midway through Monday – Friday just isn’t enough and you’ll probably have to replay a few Fridays to earn enough extra cash for the cars, upgrades and buy-in required to progress.
The more money you earn, the more notorious you become leading to more cops that will react to your increasing heat, the problem is, if you’re caught by the police, you’ll lose any unbanked money, making police escapes just as important as the races.
The overall story, the delivery and even the writing of the fully voiced script, is pretty impressive for a Need for Speed game, while still very much a game world, it feels much more connected to the real world and EA’s promise to take a step-away from “fantasy” has definitely paid off.
Unfortunately the engagement does take a hit when you’re likely to find yourself retracing steps at the end of a week, but fortunately there’s fairly continuous progress with customisation options, so that new upgrade never feels too far off, even if you’ll have to redo a few events to achieve it.
Menus are all easy to navigate, and the map is large enough to provide plenty of variation, but not so big that you’d never learn a few shortcuts on your favourite tracks.
The most important area for a racing game is how it race’s, and while there were a few question marks, EA’s promise of new driving mechanics seems to have paid off. .
Cars do feel a little heavier than they used to, especially on shallow corners, but not unrealistically so, just enough to remind you this is quite different to the last few NFS titles.
This is mostly countered by drifting, and any remotely tight corner will benefit from a light drift. At first I really wasn’t sure about this, but an over-reliance on using my brake to initiate a drift was holding me back.
Just a slight pump on the accelerator was a perfect start to a much smoother drift, with tapping brake much more suitable for only the sharpest corners, or those you overshoot and need a quick save from the racing gods.
Before too long, I was doing well enough to enter a drift event with a little confidence, and started to use it more and more in races.
Obviously If you drift too much, you’re handling and speed are going to suffer, but it all pays into the under-arching loop of Risk and Reward..
Whether it’s speed around the bend, or the heat you build up, the cash of winning is matched by the personal achievement when those risks pay off, and with every big decision, there’s always sufficient reward.
Unbound soon shows it’s one of the few recent games that get that balance right, risks are dangerous but the rewards are worthwhile.
Moving on to presentation, and as you’ll see from the screenshots, Unbound looks gorgeous , 4K (on the series X) with a fluent framerate that never visually struggles, and whether it’s weather effects, time of day, the cars themselves or the surrounding location, there’s really very little to complain about.
Those worrying 2D effects are also far, far better than I expected, I was obviously relieved when I heard you could disable them, but there’s really no need. It’s all part of the presentation and adds to the overall look of the game. These effects such as glowing hubcaps cartoon-like wings and light trails from headlights, but in action they’re not annoying in the slightest.
Audio is another strong point, with a pretty good soundtrack, plenty of ambient sounds, the cars sounding fantastic, and for once, I’m struggling to criticise the audio.
The cars are rightfully the real highlight, with a wide range of motors, you’ll work your way through classics like the Mitsubishi Eclipse, or the Honda Civic, right up to the latest and greatest supercars.
All vehicles are graded between B and S+ and there are usually plenty of upgrades to move a car through a few ranks.
You’ll ideally want to keep one car at or near the maximum for each rank to increase the available events you can select from, but with 5 main ranks to worry about, it still leaves you plenty of opportunity to grab cars purely for the collection or to utilise the impressive customisation options.
The customisation options could have maybe been presented a fraction better, but it’s never going to be easy when there’s so many things to choose from to make each car your own, and for each motor, there’s more than enough options to change every aspect from pretty vanilla to some really sporty designs which would make your local car meet proud.
A mention back to the handling, I personally adapted, within a single race, but I can imaging some hardcore NFS fans might struggle to adapt at first.
Naturally these things aren’t all shiny with LED under-lights, so what are the negative points….
When you’re approaching the end of week two and beyond, those requirements shoot up, meaning anything less that perfect is likely to keep you replaying a few events.
its pleasing that your not expected (or likely) to win every race, but some sections just take a little longer than I’d like to progress.
The repetition of replaying Fridays is a little tedious, especially when you know it’ll be a while before you have the funds required. With only a handful of events in each area, which can also feel a little limited, but the risk and reward mechanics and the familiarity of those courses even the playing field a little.
It’s hard to be too critical, because I haven’t enjoyed a Need for Speed title this much since Underground 2. NFS: Unbound isn’t perfect, but it’s a massive step in the right direction.
Need for Speed: Unbound
I haven’t enjoyed a Need for Speed title this much since Underground 2. NFS: Unbound isn’t perfect, but it’s a massive step in the right direction.