I used to adore the Need for Speed games. Underground on the GameCube was my obsession for a time with its combination of slick, night-time visuals and great-feeling arcade style racing absolutely slathered in early 2000s tuner culture. This time around we’ve got a full open city area full of events, traffic, collectibles and cops to escape; a hip hop laced soundtrack and cel-animation inspired visual flourishes. Need For Speed Unbound has some great aspects and absolutely kept my interest for the length of the campaign with new and faster cars to drive as I progressed – but a few annoyances dragged Criterion’s NFS experience down from greatness for me.
Unbound didn’t make a fantastic first impression on me. Likely due to my lack of experience with modern NFS games, I was expecting near Mario Kart levels of easy drifts and high speed races. I found the game much more demanding of control finesse. Especially in the fairly high powered car you get initially it was very easy to lose control around corners if I expected to just hold the accelerator and drift like it was Ridge Racer. Once I came to terms with actually needing to learn the racing model, adjusting handling of cars to suit my style I found keeping the car under control much easier. Challenging enough to feel rewarding (especially when the game rewards you with boost and a sweet visual flourish for nailing a corner) but still more forgiving than say Gran Turismo. Driving in Unbound feels pretty fantastic.
The game’s campaign is split into four weeks of driving in Lakeshore, each day split into day and night sessions and the week culminating in a qualifier event to eventually enter the Lakeshore Grand – the ultimate race to earn glory and fame. Each day and night will have a wide variety of events to compete in like races, drift events and takeovers (where you show off combos of drifts, jumps and target smashing) allowing you to pick your preferred way of competing. I really enjoyed the way the game is split into calendar days. It meant I could play for just a day, lock in some wins and reach a logical finishing point – or I could play an entire week in a play session if I felt like it.
It’s important gameplay wise too, as the more events you do in a single day, the more attention you’ll get from the cops. Racing for big rewards increases your heat level so there’s a constant risk/reward going on that keeps things tense. Winning big bucks only to lose your entire days winnings when you’re busted by the cops in the evening feels horrible, but is an effective way to encourage you to find better ways to lose the cops or maybe be a little more considered with how many events you participate in on a particular day.
The cops though, are one of my main annoyances with Unbound. They’re just so damned persistent. Things get easier as your car gets faster and more capable, but in the early days if you build up a decent heat level it can feel damn near impossible to lose the fuzz. Even when I had a fully upgraded, top of S+ tier car it was still more annoying than fun to lose cops given that the moment a helicopter flying overhead or a patrol car driving a nearby road spots you it’s fully back on with the map suddenly peppered with all terrain vehicles and police helicopters. Things get a little more manageable on the relaxed difficulty mode at least, but even there the police’s ability to spot and rain hell upon you at a moments notice gets tiring when all you really want to do is start the next event.
Unbound’s aesthetic is something that I think will be divisive, but personally I love the way it sticks to a very specific vibe. The visual style is semi-realistic with cel-animation flourishes which I think look fantastic, and the music is 100% hip hop. As someone who listens to quite a bit of the genre I recognised quite a few names, but there were some artists I’d never heard before. While I think I wore out the soundtrack by the time I finished the campaign, I love that the track choices had the breadth to introduce me to new music. The characters and dialogue you need to listen to while driving around though, I definitely found grating. It was hard to have all that much sympathy for a bunch of kids tearing up the streets, smashing up people’s cars and then getting on their high-horse about the cops daring to try breaking up their street races.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the Lakeshore Online mode of Unbound. It is entirely separate from the campaign, with a separate money balance and garage but functions in a similar way. You jump into an online city, drive around to events and invite the other players in the city to compete. I think if you enjoyed the campaign and wanted more, this could be a way to keep the whole thing going. I can understand why they’re totally separate garages, but it was a bit of a bummer to have to start from scratch again in the online mode for me.
There’s a lot I liked about NFS Unbound. I love that the game doesn’t expect you to come first to progress, and often I wasn’t even close. Higher places are in most cases just a slightly bigger payday so continuing on a 4th place still gets you some cash to upgrade and hopefully do better next time. I loved the commitment to modern car culture aesthetics, events like the takeover are a great addition along with the distinct visual and musical style choices. While I found the cops mostly tedious rather than exhilarating, once I lost them and got back to the racing I had a great time climbing the ladder, upgrading my cars, learning the city and eventually nailing the corners in races.
There's a lot to like in Unbound, but some of the characters and the tedious police chases bring down what is otherwise a thrilling high-speed race through Lakeshore.
Nailing corners feels fantastic
Huge potential for customising your character and your ride
Looks fantastic, smooth and mostly consistent 60 frames per second
Lots of options to let you play the events you want to play