Criterion Games and EA’s newest entry in the Need for Speed franchise is finally here with Unbound. Interestingly, it was released with very little marketing and fanfare besides some promotional content with A$AP Rocky. Unbound is coming three years after Need for Speed Heat, developed by a different studio, Ghost Games. Need for Speed Unbound puts a fresh coat of paint on street racing and high-speed cop chases but is ultimately boggled by a lack of variety, endless grinding, and a repetitive gameplay loop.
Need for Speed Unbound takes place in a fictional version of Chicago called Lakeshore. Street racing is at the heart of this city, and it shows right off the bat with the streets filled with different racing factions and the radio talking about it nonstop. You play as an unnamed protagonist, whom you can choose a character to model after and customize, working for a friendly car shop owner named Rydell. Things suddenly take a turn for the worst when your supposed “best friend” Jasmine, or “Yaz” for short, double crosses you and Rydell and steals your car, along with all the vehicles in the shop.
Two years pass, and you scrape up enough cash to buy yourself a beginner ride as you embark on a journey to confront your old buddy and take back what’s rightfully yours. The story is nothing to write home about but is enough to set up the premise for a racing game. All the characters are well-voice acted, and each boasts distinct personalities, but not enough for me to invest heavily in them. I didn’t care about taking revenge on Jasmine because all I wanted to do was drive cool cars. Need for Speed games have never been about the narrative, so this one does more than enough.
There are 143 different cars to collect, which is an insane number. You got your Hondas and Subarus all the way to McLarens and Bugattis. Many tuning and customization options allow you to design a car reflective of the driver you want to be. This game has got the personalization factor down to the minute detail, including designing panels, calipers, brakes, tail lights, and even the license plate.
I could spend hours in the shop just experimenting with and perfecting the car I want to drive. You can also share your creations and blueprints online for the community to download and use, which is pretty neat. Unbound features a more arcade-style racing simulation system than other titles, such as Gran Turismo. There is more focus on driving on streets filled with other cars and pedestrians, which feeds into the nitrous boost mechanic with drifting and near-misses. The actual driving feels tight and responsive, with each vehicle feeling different and your engine upgrades making a substantial difference!
The downside to this enormous roster of wheels is the sheer amount of grind needed to even progress through the game, let alone buy every vehicle. Everything costs money in this game, including cosmetics that change how your car looks and don’t enhance its performance in any way. Sure, EA didn’t bring in the microtransaction shop this time with lame in-game currency purchases, but this game doesn’t do much better. You earn a measly amount of cash per race, usually in the hundreds and sometimes low thousands. Tuning upgrades cost thousands, and brand-new cars cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. Admittedly, this gets a little bit better midway through the game.
The single-player campaign is broken down into four qualifier races, spread out throughout four weeks, each requiring an obscene amount of money to enter and even cheaper enemy AI to attempt to defeat. The qualifier tournament consists of three separate races that each eliminate the low hangers of the previous race. It would be best if you placed first in the third race to progress to the following week.
A calendar system is utilized, with a week divided into days for you to explore the open world and enter races. If you don’t have enough money or your car is too weak to win the qualifier race, you can redo the previous day to grind for more money. I was worried the game would swallow the money I paid to enter the qualifier, but thankfully it is returned to you if you forfeit it. Lakeshore is an open world, and tons of challenges and side activities can be found, including hidden collectibles and delivering high-end sports cars.
Even though the game offers three difficulty levels, it doesn’t differ much in actual races. If your car sucks, you will still get close to, if not come in, last place, even if you play flawlessly. Unbound uses this weird system of limited retries per day, where you can reattempt a race several times before you are forced to stick with the last position you scored.
The lowest difficulty allows ten retries per day and the highest difficulty limits you to 2. Your car’s health and the cops’ aggression level are tweaked depending on difficulty, but to an unnoticeable degree. On the easiest difficulty, you will still get swarmed nonstop by upwards of 10 police cars on a Heat 5 level, resulting in a meager chance of escape. The overall police system is also half-baked and shallow, with cops accelerating from zero to your speed in under a second. The po-po also seems to focus only on you during races, not the other contestants. It’s funny that you can ram into a police car at Heat 0, and they won’t even care.
Get ready to cycle through the same races, open-world activities, and cop chases to grind out some extra cash. The lack of event types makes gameplay extremely repetitive, as there are only three: sprint, circuit, and takeover. The multiplayer online mode also shares no progression with the single-player campaign, another colossal letdown.
Most events require a buy-in amount, so don’t even bother looking at those if you are short on money. The most egregious thing of all is that the game bugs out and withholds your rewards after paying to enter a meetup. I paid $12,000 to enter a race that rewards you with a new Lotus Exige, only to complete the race and not be rewarded with the car. There is also no manual save slots in Unbound, so there’s no way to reload a previous save to get your money back. This is beyond frustrating, given how difficult it is to earn money, to begin with.
From a graphical perspective, Need for Speed Unbound blows it out of the water with its Jet Set Radio-inspired watermarks combined with photo-realistic visuals. The city of Lakeshore is stunning, with neon-lit streets filled with random passersby and graffiti-painted cars. Character models and driving effects have a distinct cel-shaded cartoonish style that puts a unique dynamic between the details on the actual vehicles themselves. It’s a brave new art direction that embodies the spirit of street racing and freedom of expression. Those who prefer more traditional visuals can turn off the anime-style effects in the settings menu.
Performance on PlayStation 5 is buttery smooth with a stable target frame rate of 60 fps while maintaining a 4K resolution. Unfortunately, unbound still runs on the Frostbite engine, developed by DICE for the original Battlefield titles, which is notorious for being difficult to work with. Battlefield 2042, alongside Anthem and Mass Effect: Andromeda, ran into development issues with the engine, but thankfully no technical issues are present with Criterion’s work on Unbound. Load times are near instantaneous thanks to the PS5’s SSD, although booting the game from scratch gets annoying due to EA forcing you to log in to an account if you want to play online.
Need for Speed Unbound is a game that favors glamor and style over substance. It’s an absolute visual and aural treat. Don’t get me wrong, the art direction is phenomenal, especially with the combination of unique cel-shaded effects and photo-realistic graphics. I mean, they even got A$AP Rocky to feature. I keep wanting to push the pedal to the metal and thoroughly enjoy what the game has to offer, but the endless bloat and grind to get there is beyond disheartening and frustrating. Criterion has promised free content updates in the future, so here’s to hoping it satisfies the needs of the Need for Speed community. But what Unbound has to offer at this moment is a high price tag, a cliche narrative, and an average racing experience.
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