It’s been three years since the last Need for Speed game, the longest wait for a new entry in quite a while.
With leadership of the title changing from Ghost Games to Criterion, however, it’s perhaps understandable. Although Need for Speed Unbound, at its core, doesn’t feel revolutionary. It has some snazzy new visuals effects, sure, and cel-shaded characters, but 2019’s Need for Speed Heat has clearly been used as a base to build upon.
That’s not a bad thing, mind – we loved Need for Speed Heat. But there’s one thing that’s been carried over that’s still a little irksome: its focus on making you choose between grip or drifting when it comes to taking corners. Each and every car in Need for Speed Unbound, and there are some really hot rides here, are more or less naturally suited for getting sideways. You can then reinforce that tendency with certain upgrades, or try to swing it in the other direction.
The trouble is, it can be really hard to find the sweet spot. Just what does 50% grip mean, for example? The only way to find out is to hit the road and see if it feels right for you. Then, just when you’ve found the sweet spot, you get a new car and have to go through the process again. Instead of finding a handling model that’s fun for all, instead the onus is put on the player. Some might like the freedom to tinker, but others could very easily be put off.
Anyway, beyond that, Need fort Speed Unbound is perhaps the best Need for Speed game in a decade. Just like in Need for Speed Heat you’ll be going out racing day and night, with your activities being more risky when the sun goes down. There’s now more structure, however, with the game’s story taking place over the course of four weeks. And forget about rep – all that matters is money in this world.
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Each week, you’ve basically got to accumulate enough money to buy into the major event that takes place at the weekend. You’ve also got to have a car suitable to take part in the event, too. So, in week one you’ll need a ‘B’ class car, in week two an ‘A’ class car, and so on. Ultimately, you’ll need four finely-tuned cars and bucketloads of cash to enter the final competition and bring the story to a close. And while the characters may initially grate on you, chances are you might warm to them by the end.
Each day you go out morning and night, and what you get up to is largely up to you. You can head to car meets if you wish, and join events that range from straight-up street races to skill-focused Takeovers where scoring points is king. You can set up bets with other racers in these events, too, raking in more cash should you come ahead of them. The highest paying events, however, require a buy-in; win and you’ll be flush with cash, lose and you’ll find your pockets a bit lighter.
Other activities out in the open world include things like average speed trials and finding collectibles. These, along with a long list of challenges to complete, award small amount of cash, but they add up. More lucrative are the jobs often offered to you by your friends. Your boss will ask you to pick up certain high-powered cars and deliver them at speed, for example, while Tess has lots of people who’d like help with cars that have attracted a little too much heat.
Needless to say, Need for Speed Unbound has plenty for you to do. Chances are you won’t be done with the game’s campaign until you’ve invested at least 25-30 hours of your time, and there’ll still be reasons to go back. There’s also a separate multiplayer mode, where you can compete against others while building a separate garage of tuned-up vehicles.
Ultimately though, it’s the unique brand of racing action that only a Need for Speed game can provide that makes this a success. Engaging in street races is fun as it is, especially when bolstered by not one but two boost systems, rewarding those who take risks and drive skilfully, as well as the ever-present danger of being chased by the police. Unlike in Need for Speed Heat, the police don’t have to spoil your fun if you’re not all that good at avoiding them, either – multiple difficulty levels are available so you can tweak your experience to your leisure.
Criterion has certainly made its mark with this latest entry in the Need for Speed series, injecting a bit more fun and polish into the template created by Ghost Games. The result is an arcade racer that truly stands out from the crowd thanks to its visual flair and thrilling police chases. Providing you take the time to tweak the handling to your preferences, and you don’t mind the hip hop-driven soundtrack, Need for Speed Unbound is likely to be the most entertaining racing game you’ll play this year.