Need for Speed Unbound starts with choosing between a Nissan, a Lamborghini and a ’69 Dodge Charger. I chose the Charger because it’s an American car and there are few things more American than the car culture. So it’s interesting that British developer Criterion is back in the driver’s seat Unbound. From its characters to the ideas it explores to the town of Lakeshore and even how it plays, Unbound is a remarkably American game.
And like the Charger I picked to start with, it’s a good, if not a great, foray into auto racing. If it works, Unbound is like a well-maintained car: utterly cheerful, fun to drive around and a great way to explore a wide world. But like a vintage car, there are myriad little issues that crop up from time to time, and how well you deal with those issues will determine how well you and Unbound get by
what does Unbound Great doesn’t start with a car. It starts with the character you create. Once you’ve chosen from one of the available presets, you can dive into a fairly comprehensive customization suite, choose from a variety of clothing options including several well-known brands like Vans, and have the ability to tweak hair and facial features, among other things.
Once you’ve made your driver and you’ve got your car, Unbound throws you in Lakeshore, a fictional US town built on the foundations of Chicago, Illinois. In the story, your character works with your friend Yaz at Rydell’s Rydes, a garage connected to the local racing scene. The two of you, both products of foster care, watch the local racing scene and have repaired the car of your choice under Rydell’s mentorship.
The characters are well written and acted. Yours is reserved and just wants to race. A gearhead, Yaz is the more ambitious (and ruthless) of the two. Rydell is a former racer, now garage owner, mentoring you to win “the right way”. Of course, these personalities conflict and cause problems, and UnboundThe storyline of is surprisingly compelling.
Image via Electronic Arts
Unbound‘s cel-shaded graffiti style punk rock doesn’t hurt either. Street racing is inherently rebellious and Unbound draws on that energy with every part of his art design, from the way characters look to the graffiti-style visual effects that appear around cars as they accelerate, drift, or make jumps. The game’s backstory emphasizes this style as well, openly mocking the tough attitude of Lakeshore’s mayor, the incompetence of her challenger, the city’s police force, and anything else inconsistent with the game’s anti-establishment sentiment.
Some people might be put off by the characters, who are almost all zoomers and behave appropriately, but I felt the kids were fine and enjoyed spending time with them and the world that Criterion has built.
That’s good because you’ll be spending a lot of time in Lakeshore. Unbound is a combination of Need for Speed: Most Wanted, burnout paradiseAnd Need for Speed Underground. Lakeshore is an open world. You can take on many challenges scattered around the world – such as: There are things like mastering big jumps, running through speed traps, hitting top speeds, and breaking collectibles — but the real draw is the encounters that lead to them Unbound‘s race.
Unbound has a variety of meets: street races, off-road races, drift challenges, and takeover events, so there’s plenty to do. The trick is that in true street racing style, most of it requires a buy-in. You earn money (and sometimes cars) based on your placement, so every race is a risk. You can restart if you lose, though Unbound limits you to a certain number of reboots per day, so use it wisely.
Races also build up heat, which attracts cops who want nothing more than to jail degenerates like you and take your hard-earned cash. Cops will chase you during the races and often after them, so it’s important that you can escape. You can take them out by damaging them, but running away also works. As you attract more heat, the police presence will escalate accordingly, seeing the 5-0 send better cars and choppers to arrest you. If you get arrested you will lose any money you didn’t deposit.
Image via Electronic Arts
Money can buy new clothes and style upgrades for your car, including new body styles, paint jobs, and designs, but you’ll probably want to spend it on what’s under the hood first. Cars are classified by class from B to S+, and upgrading parts increases this level accordingly. Events only allow cars with certain stats, so you should choose the right car for the job before you head out, as you can’t change your choice until you return to a shelter, which advances time from day to night, and then up to the next day. The heat you gain is also transmitted at night, but the rewards are generally better too.
Choosing the right events, managing the heat you want to accumulate and being wise with the money you invest is all part of it Unbound‘s risk reward. There are stakes in each race; It feels awful to lose some of the money you’ve worked so hard to make, but winning big feels awesome, especially when you’re out of restarts. And as long as you make money, it doesn’t matter if you take first place.
The drive in Unbound feels fantastic and you have tremendous freedom to customize your car. In addition to the parts you can buy, you can customize your tuning by emphasizing things like lift and downforce or drift and grip. Each has its own pros and cons, and each car has its own natural strengths and weaknesses.
Better yet, cars feel noticeably different as you add new parts and play with tuning, so you can have a vastly different experience just playing with a few cars. How you build your cars and how much risk you want to take is very important, and that’s a good thing Unbound offers this freedom. When you build your car right and race it right – hitting your drifts, outmaneuvering cop cars, managing your boosts well – it feels amazing.
Unfortunately, that road excellence and UnboundThe strong structure of also highlights its problems. It can be difficult to win money if you don’t have a good car because you’re limited to certain races and you’re not just carried by upgrades. Likewise, it can be difficult to make money when you don’t have any money yet, as you’re limited to low or free buy-in races, and losses cost you what little you possibly have. This is especially annoying when you arrive on qualifying day and don’t have enough money to enter.
Image via Electronic Arts
Unbound Works around this problem by allowing you to repeat the previous day as many times as you like to earn the money you need, but the problem is getting through every dialogue you’ve already heard. Sitting multiple times in the same day quickly becomes boring.
But the real problem is Unboundis rubber banding. It’s good to stand out from the competition, but if you want the AI to do well, it doesn’t matter if it’s crashed into a dozen things and you’re hitting top speed right away. When an opponent is “intended” to be in front of you, they will find a way to get unrealistically close or even overtake you.
Rubberbanding is bad enough when you’re driving well, but it’s almost impossible to deal with when you make a mistake. This problem is exacerbated during qualifying races, where you only have a certain number of restarts and simply lose because the game decided how it’s going to be. Turning the difficulty down doesn’t help either. Too bad because Unbound‘s racing feeling fantastic if the AI doesn’t get in the way.
There is an online component for this Unbound, and it’s a pretty entertaining mix of what you’ll see in singleplayer. Unfortunately, what you unlock in single player doesn’t carry over to the multiplayer component, so you’re essentially starting over once you’re online.
Need for Speed Unbound – The Verdict
Image via Electronic Arts
- A captivating story with interesting characters.
- Stylish visual design emphasizes the game’s punk rock vibe.
- Driving feels amazing and there are tons of ways to tune your car.
- Rubberband AI can make races feel unfair.
- It can be harder to get much-needed cash if you don’t have any.
- Limited restarts are a source of frustration, especially at qualifying events.
If Unbound works, it’s like driving a beautiful, humming sports car. If it doesn’t, it’s like driving a rental car with a rough engine. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth the drive, but it does mean that some spots could use some tweaking to make this road trip smoother.
[Note: Electronic Arts provided the copy of Need for Speed: Unbound used for this review. Featured image via Electronic Arts.]