Three years after the release of Need for Speed Heat, Electronic Arts is now ready to showcase the latest Need for Speed title in its entirety. Need for Speed Unbound is the next title in the franchise and the first for the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. Generally speaking, NFS games follow a predictable, yet entertaining model: drive as fast as you can in the streets while avoiding getting into hot water with the police. The franchise has always been a safe haven for racing fans who want an entertaining racing experience with a few fantastical elements thrown in the mix.
The promotion of Unbound resulted in a bit of contention, thanks to a new artistic style and the omission of an old-gen release. Some in the community might still be upset at those changes, but after time with Unbound, Criterion and EA have certainly put together a classic that retains much of what players loved about Need for Speed games, while also putting forth an exhilarating experience.
A new beginning in Lakeshore City
The single-player campaign follows the main character’s exploits throughout Lakeshore City. At the start of the campaign, you’re taken in by Yaz and Rydell, the latter of whom was a former street racer who now owns a garage. In the prologue, you’re trying to establish yourself as an elite driver, but it all comes crashing down after one a friend turns on Rydell and yourself. From there, you will look to rebuild from scratch by competing in races and completing side jobs that pop up throughout the campaign.
The story, itself, is one that I personally enjoyed quite a lot, which might come as a surprise for series fans. It is a bit different from Heat, as it focuses more on your relationship with the likes of fellow competitors, and less on conflict with the police. In my opinion, that helps make Unbound’s story relatable, even if some of the situations seem so outlandish. Unbound strikes the right balance between providing an engaging story that hits on real-life elements like friendship and hard work but doing so in a manner that makes sense given the nature of the franchise.
Did Unbound bring the heat?
As far as the racing is concerned, the campaign is full of different events that should ring familiar to players of past Need for Speed games. Of course, races are a key component of Need for Speed Unbound, but there are new twists that spice up the action. Most of the competition comes by way of Meetups, underground events that involve cash payouts. Throughout each day and night, new Meetups will pop up across Lakeshore City. Some of these will be free, but there are others that will require a buy-in.
Another part of racing is Side Bets, a twist on the feature that was a part of Need for Speed. Rather than needing to complete a specific objective, the main player can bet on someone to finish ahead of at the end of the race. This, coupled with Meetups, make up the foundation of races in Unbound. On top of races, players will be asked to do side missions to make extra cash, and complete challenges to make progress through the game.
Since this is a Need for Speed game, you should expect to see the cops all around the city. If you have ever played an NFS game, you probably assumed that, but it’s worth mentioning for newcomers that the police presence is heavy. Be prepared to dart and dodge the police quickly, or else you may lose out on cash.
The gameplay itself is enjoyable. Races are intense fun on the higher difficulties, especially when needing to evade oncoming traffic and the cops. One key thing is that I do feel it is a bit too easy to get away from the police. That might be due to the fact that, at least in my experience, darting toward the off-road areas makes it much easier to speed away from chases. With all of the off-road terrain and non-city roads in Unbound, you almost have too many options for escape.
This is great from an exploratory point of view, as it does add more variety to the open-world experience. However, it hurt the gameplay a bit for me. Maybe a better compromise would have been to expand the actual roads of Lakeshore City, but this is something I can live with and not a major negative.
A different look
If you have seen even a second of Need for Speed Unbound, you might have noticed a few things about the graphics. More specifically, the anime-like graphics are an omnipresent part of the look of Unbound. Characters in Lakeshore City look a lot like anime avatars, while the cars in Unbound have special graphics that pop up whenever boosting or drafting out on the road.
Personally, I don’t have that much of a problem with it after spending time in the world. Was I a fan of the idea at first? No, not particularly. Do I love it after my time with Unbound? No, but I don’t dislike the new direction, either. I do favor trying to make the game look as realistic as possible because that fits in line with the Need for Speed games I enjoy. On the other hand, the anime-style graphics are not a dealbreaker for me. Basically, I could take or leave the more outlandish style, so I wouldn’t let it deter you if you’re on the fence. It’s not going to ruin the Need for Speed formula you know and love.
Outside of that, Lakeshore City itself looks gorgeous. Details on everything from buildings to even the roads look sharp and crisp. It does sting a bit that Unbound was not made available for either the PS4 or Xbox One. However, based on the graphics and how the game runs on a current-gen console, that decision did pay off. As long as you have a console it runs on, of course.
Need for Speed Unbound has been a blast to dig into. Between the story, the vibrant look of Lakeshore City, and gameplay that strikes the right balance, there really isn’t much to complain about with Unbound. Sure, it might not look like Need for Speed games of the past, and there are aspects of the campaign that feel simple. Nonetheless, Unbound offers an exciting experience, jam-packed with stuff to do.
9 / 10
|+||EA and Criterion took no shortcuts with content in the campaign|
|+||Gameplay fits nicely in between simulation and madness|
|+||Story is more thought-provoking and authentic than its predecessor|
|–||New anime-like graphics don’t add much to overall experience|