Need for Speed: Unbound review – Crash and burn

What’s the last Need for Speed game that you’ve played? It might’ve been an OG like Need for Speed: Undercover, or maybe it was something a little more recent? For me, it was Payback, and what a hot mess that one came out to be. I really didn’t like it, and it wasn’t necessarily because the gameplay was bad — it was just hard to really see the fun. But, that was five years ago — and I wanted, or at least hoped, that this one would be better.

Spoiler alert, it isn’t.

We start our journey in building our character through a series of real-life brands, picking and choosing our identity for all the cutscenes and car chases our character will quickly become a part of. You’ll choose from a set of pre-made characters to base your look off — changing out your clothes for some branded apparel — and then you’ll get to the part you’re waiting for — the car.

The starter car is your first experience with a high-end vehicle with some insane base specs. Like picking out pokemon for petrolheads, you’ll choose from a 1998 Nissan Silvia K, a 1969 Dodge Charger R/T, or a Lamborghini Countach 25th. All with their strengths and weaknesses, such as something with high torque off the line or something built for drifting — whatever you choose will likely be suited to your playstyle. I went with the Lamborghini, which is a great top-speed track car with insane handling, and for the first couple hours it was a ton of fun.

That is, until you lose it.

The first couple hours of the game are really the prologue — you’ll get to mess around with some missions, chuck on a body kit or change out certain aspects of the car. You’ll also get to meet our main characters, some good (some bad), all in an effort to build up the brand identity that is Rydell’s Rides — a garage where you’ll spend all your time when you’re not out exploring or participating in missions.

Unfortunately, spoiler alert, one of the characters betrays you and Rydell, steals your car, and starts building a name for themselves in Lakeshore City. So, all the effort you’ll put into the prologue will be for naught, but, like a carrot on a stick you’ll probably feel the need to seek revenge and relive the experience of driving around the big city with an S-Class ride.

Or, at least, that’s what the game wants you to feel.

I experienced a lot of “this is what the game wants me to feel, but I really feel another way”. This isn’t only limited to the sub-par story, but also to the sub-par writing. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read more cringe dialogue. I’m sure the writers had good intentions and tried to make the younger generation feel like they were interacting with someone of their age, but believe me — having a character talk on the phone and say “yeah, I was like “Yo bro.” And yo, check this, bro, he was all like “if you know, you know, bro!” And you know what I said? … Brooooo!” is a very hard slog to listen to no matter your age. I know NFS games generally have pretty rough dialogue, but it felt like they really believe the audience would find this stuff entertaining — and sprinkled far too much of it in.

Of course, it’s a racing game — dialogue and storylines tend to be an afterthought to the driving experience. So, what’s that like? Well, it’s not too bad, but it’s not necessarily great. Sure, it’s arcadey, but do you go into Forza Horizon 5 expecting to play a realistic sim like Assetto Corsa? Of course not, because they’re two very different experiences.

Now, before we go further and dip into the bad, I want to tackle the good stuff. Customization, a big part of the Need for Speed experience. From body kits to your air induction system, there’s a lot to mess around with here. Your MO might be to build the biggest, baddest race car Lakeshore City’s Police have ever had the pleasure of chasing — but what’s the harm in doing a little aesthetic customization? The creation suite here is really enjoyable, and it’s cool to see what the community has already brought to the table.

The unfortunate part of that experience comes in the way of audio modifications. One of the most identifying parts of the car modding scene is, after all, your exhaust setup. Be it straight-piping or mufflers, they all affect the noise your ride will output. So, what does this game offer? A single audio clip with different amounts of pitching. It’s not FH5’s level of individual sound bytes, and that’s fine because I doubt they had that kind of budget. But, when the game’s identity is about car modification you’d really think we’d receive more than just the raising or lowering of the pitch. It’s something small, sure, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.

Now the cool part is the handling system, which seems to be really refined in this game. You can alter how your cars take corners, either by keeping them planted or allowing them to initiate a drift with ease. There’s a bit of strategy here; do you run something that keeps a high minimum cornering speed, or do you want to be actively building up your boost meter with a lengthy drift? That comes down to you.

The cars are also extremely underpowered on unlock, which really gives you a sense of difficulty as you make your way through the early part of the game. You need to spend a lot of time grinding for money, just to slowly and surely enhance your ride. The heat system plays a massive role in this too. As you complete races and other missions, you’ll be put in the spotlight of the LSPD, who have a massive agenda of taking out any racers they see. Everything you do exists on a day-and-night cycle across four weeks, and the hours tick away each time you complete a mission. You’ll constantly be acquiring money throughout the game, and that’ll sit on your person unless you bank it at a garage. But, get busted by the cops and you’ll lose every single penny you have on you. It’s very, very relentless, but the stress brings a much-needed element to the experience.

At times, however, the difficulty doesn’t stack with the experience. Especially early game, the AI is stupidly overpowered for the races you participate in. The Rival AI system lets you bet on your race against other races — finish ahead of them and you’ll take whatever amount you placed in the pot. The thing is, they seem to have a big advantage over you — they’ll catch up if you over take them, wipe them out and they’ll recover so quickly they’ll already be picking up your draft, and they speed is insane. Plus, if you don’t manage to secure first place in the first lap or so you can kiss that position goodbye — for some reason, the first place AI will never make a mistake. Your first set of hours in this experience will likely be a slog, and it’s very hard to pick up the controller again when you realize every early-game experience is more of an arduous task than a rewarding challenge.

Of course, we need to address the elephant in the room. What’s up with the comic book styling of the characters and visual effects? In my opinion, it’s out of place. I understand they’re trying to branch out of Need for Speed’s generic formula and identity with something that stands out, but when your game is running on the incredibly detailed Frostbite engine (like the recent Battlefield games have been running) it’s a massive visual clash. In fact, I wouldn’t dislike it so much if it didn’t apply to the characters as they do the dust effects and pop-ups, or if we could at least tone it down to our liking. The characters just look weird, like they’re superimposed into the game, and that visual element quickly draws you out of the immersion.

Now, as much as I agree that an arcade-racer is nothing like any other racing experience, sometimes it needs to be more grounded, and I’m not talking about stuff like big-air jumps or recovering from a bad drift with an instant 50 miles per hour boost button. What I’m talking about is the egregious use of the damage system, which doesn’t feel like it does anything, and the severe amount of destruction your car can inflict on anything; bolted down or not. Other than walls, everything is destructive, and that’s quite a joke when you can drive straight through bridge supports, and carry on like everything is still intact. The damage system is only for body damage, which means there’s no incentive not to drive well when you’re out exploring. It makes it worse when there’s no punishment if you do crash out — just hit up a gas station and, for free, have your car repaired. I still haven’t worked out why exactly it is this way. Supposedly, if you crash out too many times in a mission you’ll be kicked out, but that’s something I’ve yet to experience.

Out of everything though, my biggest disappointment is the open-world. What’s there to do other than collect graffiti or complete the missions? Even running away from the cops isn’t too difficult, just either send them into a wall or take a sharp turn and they’ll crash out for you. The police AI is a little too stupid to make the open-world experience a relatively immersive experience. All you’ll be doing is completing a race, driving to the next spot, then completing another, maybe even completing a time-trial or highest-speed minigame, just to eventually head back to the garage to bank your winnings. There’s no incentive to explore when it’s just a collect-a-thon for wall art that’ll be keeping you busy outside of racing. I’d love to be able to stumble upon unique cars that I could race for pink slips, or find really vendors selling rare body and engine modifications, but that’s all just wishful thinking.

Need for Speed Unbound is a hard game to play, and I don’t mean because of its difficulty. No, Need for Speed Unbound feels like a tech demo in comparison to where it should be at. The damage system is flawed, the racing AI is far too overpowered for an arcade racer’s early experience, and it’s just generally not very fun. The best part of the experience is customizing your cars and showing them off in the creation suite. But, like rust on an old 1990 Toyota Camry, no matter how much you paint and buff it — you’re polishing a turd.

With a deep interest in writing, Ben followed that into a Journalism degree. As an avid lover for gaming, he is constantly expanding his library with console, PC, and VR games. He's obsessed with stealth games and loves hunting down the smallest of details inserted by devs.


Below Average

Need For Speed: Unbound

Review Guidelines

Need for Speed Unbound is an arduous experience, and not one I’d recommend if you’re looking for an arcade racer. The only good aspects are the refined handling system and the aesthetic customization of your cars, which is really brought to light via community creations. However, this experience is quickly overshadowed by the boring open-world, a meaningless collect-a-thon, unbalanced AI, and some of the cringiest story and dialogue I’ve experienced. It’s The Room of racing games.

Ben Lombardo

Unless otherwise stated, the product in this article was provided for review purposes.

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