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Need for Speed Unbound Review


Well, it is finally here, the long awaited new entry in one of my favourite racing franchises. 

On paper, Need for Speed Unbound looks like it has a recipe that Mary Berry would approve of – Criterion on board for developing duties, a storied franchise to play with, a history to plunder, and a newish generation of hardware to utilise the power of. Has the result been a delight to taste, or is there a bit too much of a soggy bottom? 

Like I’m going to tell you in the first paragraph of a review! Let’s hit the mean streets of Lakeshore City and take in the sights to find out. 

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As is common with not a lot of racing games, there is actually an overarching narrative to the single player side of Need for Speed Unbound. We are a new racer, and we build a lovely set of wheels with someone that we think is a friend. But, shock horror, it turns out that she is not a friend at all, and then the garage where we work is robbed and every single car stolen, including our precious one. Ringing any bells? Yep, Unbound most seriously wants to be Need for Speed Most Wanted – one of the finest games of the series – with a series of trials set for us in order to prove that we are worthy of getting our own car back, via a number of events that we have to pass. Basically, we have to start again, with a ropy B Class car, and start winning events in order to get money, to upgrade our motor and ensure it is ready for the Qualifiers, weekly events that not only require you to bring your best car, but also to have a hefty chunk of change in your back pocket in order to enter. Can you do it, or is the car gone forever? Will anyone care?

Before I go any further, I feel I must chat about the presentation of Need for Speed Unbound, mostly as it is somewhat challenging for an ageing gamer of my generation; one who is easily confused by Instagram and the like. See, the visuals on display are an odd mix of the photo realistic and wildly cartoon-like, with cel shaded characters and proper looking cars on screen at the same time. Occasionally it feels a bit jarring. And don’t even get me started on the stupid graphical effects when you are actually driving, with wings sprouting from the sides of cars (all the cars of your opponents as well, not just yours) when they catch some air, masses of coloured smoke coming off the tyres when you drift, and generally ensuring that Unbound is like looking at an episode of a particularly trippy anime about cars. 

The world of Lakeshore City is pretty good though, with a nice layout to it, and while the countryside does feel pretty sparse, you can at least try to go offroad to ditch the cops.

Sound? Well, the engine noises are nice, and are customisable as well, allowing you to have different exhaust notes to suit your taste. But the rest? The music is just noise, like a bunch of teenagers banging garden furniture together, while the dialogue is full of the kind of speak that “da yoof” will be familiar with. Honestly, I’m not the target demographic at all. Still, I guess it’s authentic to the streets. Isn’t it?

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But let us take a look at the actual game which is lurking under all these layers of frippery. And in those terms, NFS Unbound is pretty good, to be honest. With Criterion behind the wheel, it wasn’t really in any doubt, was it?

The game is divided up into two halves, and neither really has any impact on the other, which is pretty weird. See, if you build a garage of sweet rides in the single player mode, you’d like to take those rides out and pitch them against real people, wouldn’t you? Well, tough luck. Each section of the NFS Unbound’s garages are completely separate. And unfortunately, online racing feels pretty sparse – you can race, get money and upgrade the ride, and that’s it. I haven’t even seen a police car in the online world, and while in single player they are everywhere, it feels a bit jarring to scream around and there be none in the online arena. The multiplayer does work pretty well though, and with it being cross-platform, there is a good pool of people to race against. There are certainly no complaints from a technical point of view, anyway. 

The story mode is where you’ll probably spend most of your time though, and here the news is a lot better. One thing the game doesn’t tell you in the tutorial is how to change the camera (it is the Y button) and once I’d figured it out, Need for Speed Unbound gets a ton better. You see, in front bumper view, you don’t have to look at the stupid driving effects sprouting off of your car, instead able to concentrate on the job in hand. 

It’s here where we find things running day and night halves, and there are a lot of things to try out in each. In the day, the races are worth less money, but equally have less police heat to be picked up. Each event you take part in raises the police heat level by a little bit, all the way up to five, and once you hit that top level, you might as well kiss your car and any money you are carrying goodbye. You see, in each session, you have to make it back to the safe house in order to bank your winnings – if you are busted, or more likely wrecked by the cops, they take your entire stash and you earn nothing for the night. Or the day, for that matter. Honestly, at night the city is crawling with police, and they all have eyes like hawks, able to spot you from a thousand yards away, seemingly. This then leads to some tense moments as you play cat and mouse with a helicopter for instance – get into a tunnel is my advice.

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The actual racing is pretty good, and very firmly on the arcade end of the spectrum. You can tune your car to be more drifty or more grippy, but it really doesn’t make any difference to the gameplay, as a lot of the tighter corners have to be drifted to have a chance of getting round. Meanwhile the AI drivers are as cheap and nasty as ever, always one inch behind even if you empty your nitrous tank on a straight; the slightest mistake will see them leaving you in the dust, with no chance of catching them up. It feels oddly imbalanced in the AI’s favour, and while it is certainly challenging, it can be annoying to clip a passer by and see all other racers go streaming by while you struggle to get back up to speed. 

There are a decent array of races though; point to point and circuit races to have a crack at, and there is also a new event called Takeover that seems to be an attempt at making a Gymkhana type event work in NFS. The sad news is that it really doesn’t. You have to drift, jump and break stuff to keep a chain going. I’ve found that the AI will happily score upwards of twice my amount and it’s hard to see much of a way of challenging them, even driving perfectly. After a while I just left them alone, to be honest. 

Through the calendar week that holds Unbound together, it’s up to you to take in separate sessions every day and every night, building “bank” and upgrading your car to make the right class for that week’s Qualifier. Come the end of the week you have to then take part in a series of events, with the goal of being left in the final. If you win the final, you will get a car, but if you fail, you have to try again. Here another surprise pops up – there are only a limited number of retries in each session, and if they are exhausted on the Qualifier, you are sent back through the week to try the build up again. You are also sent back if you don’t have enough money for the buy in. Time travel in NFS, who knew?

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But this game is not just about the racing, oh no. There is an incentive to go and drive about the city, by day or by night (in a law abiding manner, honest, officer) and look for various collectibles that have been hidden about the place. There are billboards to smash, a lot of which will require some planning as they are a long way off the ground, Bears to collect and also various bits of “street art” to find, which unlock new stickers for your cars. In addition, there are a variety of challenges to find and take on, from drift zones where you have to score a certain amount of points, through to speed traps and even speed zones. Is it called an “homage” to Forza Horizon 5 when bits are pretty much copied wholesale?

To conclude, Need For Speed Unbound is an attempt to recapture the glory days of the Need for Speed franchise, and to a large degree, it succeeds. There are annoyances, such as the cheap AI, ridiculous driving effects and music, and the ability to steer your car in the middle of a jump, but against that is set a strong upgrade mechanic, fun races and great set pieces, not to mention some intense police chases.

Need for Speed Unbound isn’t Most Wanted, but it wants to be. And this is an aspiration I can get behind. 

Need for Speed Unbound is on the Xbox Store


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1 year ago

I wasn’t impressed with this new Need for Speed. The story sounds exactly like Payback (you get your car and rep taken away) with some weird graffiti like effects while you race. I think 4 is being very generous, but still a good review.

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