Need For Speed Unbound advertises itself as having both a unique graffiti-inspired visual style and the most realistic-looking cars in franchise history. These two facts seem fundamentally opposed to each other, and that first impression is pretty much correct. Humans in Unbound are cartoonish escapees of the uncanny valley that feel in line with every trend-chasing project to release since Fortnite's rise to dominance. An entire game in this style that maintains Need For Speed's gameplay style would have been interesting, but it's almost as if EA and Criterion couldn't bare the thought of anything less than graphical perfection when it comes to the classic Cadillacs and Chargers on offer. The result is a dire clash of styles that perfectly encapsulates the rest of the experience regarding this long-running and lost in the woods series.
In single-player, you play through a run-of-the-mill revenge tale against a former friend who threw you and your mentor under the bus for whatever glory the street racing scene can provide. After an overlong tutorial, you see every event Unbound has to offer in the first handful of hours, leaving you to grind through races, cop chases, and cleverly obfuscated time trials to make bank and upgrade your initial junker to something fun to drive. Everything costs an astronomical amount compared to the money you make in early events, forcing you to learn the ropes and get acclimated to Unbound's particular combination of Burnout-style boost gathering and more traditional drifting and drafting if you want to get anywhere.
Multiplayer has the same event suite, just without some critical components at launch. It's hard to imagine that the single-player experience could be more stripped down than it already is, but cops, night segments, and the enjoyable Takeover challenges are not present when you're online. That last one stings since it's the only bit of variety Unbound offers that feels interesting. It's a callback to DiRT's Gymkhana events, where drivers combine drifting with plowing through the scenery and hitting big ass ramps in a race against themselves to earn the most points. One only hopes a forthcoming update brings feature parity between Unbound's two halves before the online community returns to whatever other racing game lies on the horizon.
No matter how many years go by, you can still count on Criterion to provide decent racing fundamentals, and Need For Speed Unbound doesn't buck that trend. Whether you're busting through billboards or trading paint with other racers, speeding down the track retains a good sense of exhilaration. The variety of those tracks is lacking, especially in a game where you're expected to play through very similar events over and over to gain currency and slowly creep toward a respectable racecar. The open world of Lakeshore feels more minor than I'd like, especially after races where you have to find out-of-the-way routes to shake off the cops. I always ended up in the same few spots over and over, relying on the 5-0 to get bored or accidentally drive off the docks into the titular lake.
Speaking of, police presence is an established part of the Need For Speed experience, but I don't see a massive benefit to their addition in Unbound. Almost every race will have cruisers join the fray, but they lack the aggression to affect the outcome. Even on higher difficulties, they proved to be only a minor hurdle on the same level as traffic in the oncoming lane while you're gathering boost. The issue is that you'll often have to shake your tail after races, which amounts to a lot of turning at every intersection and trying to confuse the AI. This sometimes takes longer than the races and feels like unnecessary padding, especially when it's so difficult for the police to bust you. Crashing into a wall or stopping to make a u-turn may let them catch up, but the time it takes for you to get arrested is an eon. This is for the best since the penalty is losing your monetary rewards for any given session, but that's all the more reason why it feels like filler.
While I could go on about gameplay intricacies for quite a while longer, nothing in Unbound makes that feel worthwhile. It's a run-of-the-mill driving game that will deliver the experience buyers expect if they know nothing but the name on the tin. What does warrant mention is the hodgepodge presentation and how that will likely detract from the experience for a good chunk of the intended audience. As already mentioned, the graffiti visual effects that pop up while driving are a distinctive touch, but they clash with the realistic city and cars. It feels like a compromise rather than an artistic vision, a way to try to appeal to multiple audiences without considering the greater game as a whole. It is a step up from Need For Speed Payback's lack of human character models, but the cel-shaded faces and repeated animations feel ancient compared to the stylish and odd FMV that graced 2015's adjectiveless Need For Speed.
The soundtrack is also limited in scope, focusing on newer artists and tracks at the expense of variety. Your nameless protagonist is only interested in the latest and greatest in the world of hip hop interspersed occasionally with dry narrative dumps about how abolishing street racing is the only goal of Lakeside's governing body. This is one game where the option to load up Spotify on an Xbox and replace the tunes with something more appropriate for high-speed chases came in handy. While I tuned out the soundtrack, I couldn't ignore the consistently below-average dialogue from your main crew and other racers throughout the city. From bland jokes to embarrassingly on-the-nose tangents meant to appeal to the youth, there's no story worth investing in outside the at least serviceable main plot thread.
Need For Speed Unbound Review | Verdict
The latest NFS will do for racing fans what the latest Madden does for the football crowd, but anyone outside of that niche has no reason to look in EA's direction. This is a forgettable car game with a muddled visual style and a lack of variety, another entry in a franchise with countless installments just like it. For years, Need for Speed has felt like a burnout, a franchise stumbling in the dark, searching for a sense of purpose through an entire lazy generation. Since there seems to be no end in sight despite this, here’s hoping that Need for Speed sees a radical retooling whenever it's inevitably dragged out again. But if
Payback Heat Unbound is any indication, it’ll be almost better left to rot in a junkyard.
TechRaptor reviewed Need For Speed Unbound on Xbox Series X using a copy provided by the publisher. The game was also released on PlayStation 5 and PC.
- Graffiti visuals are a great idea at times
- Criterion can still make a fun driving game
- Limited open world and track design make races feel grindy
- Realistic city clashes with cartoonish drivers
- Police chases drag on the campaign's momentum