Review: ‘Need for Speed Unbound’ is a fun ride that can’t seem to get out of its own way

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Need for Speed Unbound, developed by series mainstay Criterion Games, is a fairly enjoyable mixed bag, filled with cringe-inducing humor and plenty of high-speed chases. Of course, seeing as how this is the first entry the franchise has seen in years, you would expect that they came back with something special.

Well, we’ve been given exactly that. As the first current-gen Need for Speed, it looks and feels tremendous to play. Speeding through highways, trying not to slip off of a dirt road, or taking a ramp and zooming through the sky with neon cards for wings, all feel exactly how they should feel in a racing game. The game sounds exactly like it should too, although its customization options give you the opportunity to sound like a Transformer, with your horn playing one of several familiar jingles. As is the case with most Need for Speed games, the soundtrack is amazing, and I found myself turning the volume up often.

Unbound takes place in the fictional metropolis of Lakeshore, which is supposed to be a stand-in for Chicago. The city feels busy in all the right ways, as I’ve hit traffic more times than I count, and nearly every time I barrelled into a group of pedestrians, I chuckled as they jumped out of the way. Your character works in a garage with their father figure named Rydell, and the back-and-forth between these two in particular showcases some of the game’s best dialogue (not that there’s a ton to go around — more on that later). 

Screenshot via Electronic Arts

Disaster strikes at the garage, and all your cars, including the beast of a machine you drive in the prologue, are stolen. A whole two years later, an encounter with a woman named Tess causes you to ramp up your racing again, especially after you spot your stolen car. The story unfolds day by day, with segments being broken up into six days, each with a day and a night section. On the seventh day, you race in a qualifier if you have met the pre-requisites, leading up to The Grand, a prestigious race with a $1,000,000 prize. 

The races themselves are pretty by-the-numbers — I know for a fact that I’ve raced through the same streets maybe half a dozen times by now, but the race types have plenty of variety. There are your longer endurance races, shorter street races, drift races, and my personal favorite, takedown races, where you drift and boost your way through obstacles to increase your combo meter and earn points. There are also drift challenges, speed cameras, and ramps around the city for you to break records, hunt down collectibles, and have fun with. The online functionality is also solid if you are tired of going up against AI racers and would rather challenge other players online.

Then there are the side missions, where a fellow racer will ask you to help them escape the cops and bring you to their hideout, or the missions where Tess will send you to a car somewhere in the city, tasking you with dropping it off somewhere while sustaining minimal damage, all while evading the cops. But the best side missions are Rydell’s requests, as he’ll task you with picking up some of the best cars in the game, with a timed drop-off. Most races and missions net you some cash that you can use to upgrade your car and garage or purchase new vehicles. But there are some races that give you a car as a reward, and you can also bet against one racer in each race to earn even more cash.

Screenshot via Electronic Arts

Personally, it was a breath of fresh air to find myself actually paying attention to in-game conversations — instead of traditional cutscenes, most of the story takes place through off-the-cuff chatter, either in the garage or while you are driving around the city. But while I was engaged in the story, the dialogue is mostly horrible. It’s either cringe-inducing or laughably out of character, and the voice acting does not help — there’s a very large disconnect between what my character looks like, and what he sounds like. 

Even though I liked the story — it’s full of betrayal and twists, enough to sustain the 20-hour runtime — some of the plot elements let the narrative down. By my fifth ride, I did not want to hear another interview with the mayor, more episodes of the in-game podcast, or the umpteenth advertisement for Lakeshore’s llama restaurant. What’s even more bizarre is how the game veers into politics, with the city’s mayor introducing more and more cops to the area to crack down on street racing, and we, the audience, are supposed to disagree with her stance that street racing is dangerous, even though I’m pretty sure by my 50th race, I had killed just as many people, if not more.

What surprised me the most about Need for Speed Unbound is its art style. I thought the graffiti and cel-shaded look was going to be a tad overbearing, muddling up the heads-up display. But, to the developers’ credit, it proved to be one of Unbound‘s greatest additions. It’s never overused, and when it does make an appearance, it feels quite natural and additive. As a result, drifting around a corner has never felt quite as good as it does here, with a plume of cel-shaded smoke leaving the other racers in the dust. The customization options available for you and your car are expansive as well, and looking online at some of what players have created shows just how in-depth the wrap system is. Creating my character was not as in-depth as a 300-hour role-playing game, but I still appreciated being able to buy clothes for my character… only to put him in sweats.

Screenshot via Electronic Arts

It’s important for a Need for Speed game to feel like you’re going as fast as you possibly can; speed is a must. What drags Need for Speed Unbound down the most is how often it forces you to slow down, or worse, completely stop. There are 80 art collectibles throughout the open world that you can ride up to and collect while you are hopping from race to race. As I mentioned before, the customization in the game is ridiculous, and these collectibles widen your selection even further. But any motivation I had to collect quickly disappeared once I realized I had to slow down to a crawl to pick them up.

However, while prioritizing collecting art will undoubtedly bring you to a crawl, cop chases incentivize you to come to a complete stop and turn off your engine. Now, this would be fine if you were doing this once or twice an hour. But because of how the heat (read: wanted) system works, if you partake in one or two street races per six-day period, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get into one chase. I was not even halfway through my playthrough when I hit my 50th chase, although I had been tracking down some collectibles and doing more than two races per period at the start of the game. 

You can just speed away from the easier cop chases later in the game, but the helicopter and armored cars make things feel more like a stealth game. I found myself driving in the middle of a park and turning off my engine, hoping that the police car on the road would not be able to see me. Those particular chases were fun the first few times, but when I’m trying to get $40,000 back to my garage, it’s not stressful or challenging — it’s just annoying.

Screenshot via Electronic Arts

Because you lose your car in the prologue, you pretty much begin the game with a bit of a hoopdie. Pro tip — it might be beneficial to do the bare minimum at the beginning of the game, just so you can speed around to events and back to your garages quicker. Otherwise, you’ll spend minutes between events just trying to get to them, not to mention when you’re trying to evade the cops.

With that being said, most of Unbound‘s problems fall away once you upgrade your car or buy one during the second or third weeks. Before long, the game focuses on what the Need for Speed franchise is all about — the need for speed. For example, one of my favorite races takes place on a highway. Why is it my favorite? Well, because, for the most part, it’s a pretty straight path, which means you can draft and boost your way to victory. The only thing you need to worry about is hitting traffic, and when you start to push into those higher speeds, that is exactly what the game turns into. The experience becomes zen-like, even though you’re always cognizant of the fact that moving the thumbstick the wrong way, even slightly, might take you out of the race completely. 

Ultimately, the racing is just way too fun to get hung up on the issues, which are mostly small or easily forgivable. Of course, I would prefer it if the story was more engaging and the dialogue more realistic, and I could have done without the constant incentive to slow down. Still, if you want a spectacular racing experience with plenty of high-speed pursuits — and just as many opportunities to get some air time — then Need for Speed Unbound is for you. 

This review is based on the PlayStation 5 version of the game. A code was provided for review by EA.

Need for Speed Unbound
Good

'Need for Speed Unbound' is a refreshing entry in the franchise, with new visual effects that enhance its sense of style. But for all the good that it does, it commits the cardinal racing game sin by periodically forcing the player to slow down, resulting in a fun, but mixed gameplay experience.