Need for Speed Unbound
The venerable racer returns in zoomer regalia
THERE WAS a time when NeedForSpeed was a guaranteed chart-topper. Before there was ForzaHorizon, all festivals and physics, there was this. A FastandFurious analog with spoilers on its spoilers, every year exactly the same super-accessible arcade racer about underground tuner culture and corrupt cops. And we didn’t care that it became as formulaic as that other long-running bestseller, Callof
Duty. Until one day, finally, we did.
NeedForSpeed grew too big and popular to sustain itself. The sales were too good for EA to start tinkering with the formula, but the yearly releases oversaturated us with cars in widebody kits and stories of betrayal told exclusively through the medium of checkpoint races. The world that NeedForSpeedUnbound emerges into has changed. NFSHeat in 2019 was the franchise’s most convincing attempt at reinvention, but it couldn’t nudge ForzaHorizon off its throne.
NeedForSpeedUnbound needs to be something totally distinct to succeed.
Enter the new art style. This is an old franchise stepping out in its finest zoomer haircut and puffer jacket, hoping to find traction with the TikTok generation through a dramatic change of visual direction. It might seem like an incidental touch, but the anime-inspired smoke plumes and metaverse-ready avatars in
Unbound are a statement of intent for such an established series. When you drift around a corner and light up your tires a cartoon miasma appears. Painterly neon lines whizz around in circles beside your tires during a burnout and your car sprouts a pair of graffiti wings when you hit a ramp. This from a game that’s stuck to the same plot about double-crossing street racers and psychopathic law enforcement officials for two decades.
For the first time, NeedForSpeed looks the way it drives. It doesn’t entirely wave goodbye to reality but exaggerates and augments it. This isn’t how your car would behave if you flung it into a 90-degree turn at 120mph with a dab of the brakes, these are cars as you want them to behave. Cartoonishly compliant, twitchy things that don’t make use of a sim racer’s skills any more than a 4X player’s.
Unbound’s tonal shift finds cohesion between its presentation and its gameplay, but the handling itself doesn’t sing to you like a siren’s call dragging you away from Forza. It’s hard enough to get your head around the fact that you essentially brake by tapping the throttle, but it’s not the laissez-faire physics model that fails to inspire. Instead, Unbound often feels as though you’re cycling through micro-animations without much granular control. When you enter a drift, there’s no sense of your vehicle’s weight being thrown from one side to another, or the subsequent loss of traction on the loaded side as your tires reach their grip limit. It feels like the game has recognized inputs that initiate a drift.
Most of the time, it’s enjoyable enough. It serves the style of racing Unbound offers: light on the corners and braking zones, focusing more on hitting top speed and holding it for as long as possible while snaking through busy urban tarmac. But when you’re in a tight race and a lowspeed corner appears, you want to be able to edge ahead due to your superior control of the vehicle. And Criterion’s handling model just doesn’t offer that.
Not that there isn’t skill in going fast. The margins between decent and good driving are all about boost generation and management. A slightly confusing double-layered NOS boost system fills up as you do dangerous stuff—driving into oncoming traffic, near misses with vehicles, or drifts—and offers additional shots of boost for chaining these feats. If you game this mechanic hard, you can
be boosting for half the race or more, and that makes a big difference to your times. It’s just a different discipline than many racers ask of you.
What’s likely to get you far more invested is the returning heat system. In the last NFS, this introduced a bit of risk-reward via the day/night cycle: all the cash you earned during the day would be in jeopardy if you were caught up to no good at night and got busted. That same system’s intact here, but the day/ night cycle has been expanded to a full working week of events, with showcase races each Saturday with massive buy-ins and vehicular prizes.
What it’s lost since the last game is the heat multiplier, which encouraged you to annoy the cops in order to raise your heat level before the end of the night. With a x5 heat multiplier on your rep, you’d bank huge XP and unlock new cars and parts that were previously out of reach. That’s gone, and it feels like a step backward. If anything, we wanted to see the next NFS game double down on Heat by introducing something like ShadowofMordor’s nemesis system to racing games—cops you form vendettas with, take them down for huge bonuses, get busted and lose a car. That type of thing.
What there is in place of that excellent idea is a rather more straightforward daily routine where you tick off as many events as possible before your rep level makes the game too annoying to play and you call it a night to reset your heat and bank your cash. The cops here are as dogged as ever, more than willing to risk their lives—and those of absolutely anybody else in the vicinity—to apprehend a driver who flouts the speed limit. And once again, it’s not even clear how the chase AI really works: is it better to hit max speed and hold it until they lose touch, or keep taking turns? It’s been 20-plus years and we still don’t know.
It might be straining to appeal to the youth, but NFSUnbound is still a loose and colorful racer, capable of whipping you up into its nonsensical plot and getting you to obsess over your next car for its duration. Beyond that, there is an online multiplayer mode, but it’s already ghostly quiet despite the EA Access program offering 10-hour free trials. There’s nothing wrong with it—playlists of events from single-player, accessible in PvP races of up to eight, generous cash rewards—it’s just that nobody’s playing.
NFS has always struggled and Unbound doesn’t appear to be a turning point.
Nor is it quite the return to glory and prominence that NeedForSpeed once enjoyed. It’s more feature-rich and mechanically complex than all of its predecessors—it’s just that its rivals are a lot better than they were circa 2007. The distinctive new look is a great success, and although the handling has some quirks it’s engrossing to figure out the boost system and max its potential. A braver Criterion and EA might have made more of the heat system, finding a new identity in that brilliant risk-reward mechanic. But even though it doesn’t go as far as it could have, Unbound is a deeply worthy addition to a genre that lacks all-out arcade kicks. –PHIL IWANIUK