Criterion Games' Need for Speed Unbound has revived the street racing scene yet again with another citywide takeover tale of carbon, concrete, and cash clips. For the twenty-fifth time, EA has backed the cult-classic racing saga by pushing the newfound chapter onto Xbox Series X, PlayStation 5, and PC. And it was only natural, of course, that we collected a copy to see it for ourselves. Or more importantly, to see how well it stacked up against its preceding chapter, Need for Speed Heat.
Need for Speed Heat 2.0
First impressions of Need for Speed Unbound told me one thing: Criterion Games clearly paid attention to Ghost Games' groundwork for 2019's Heat. So much that, if you were to glance down at the two games side-by-side from a bird's-eye view, you'd naturally assume that it was the same game, though perhaps just merged together into one hipsters-behind-wheels superbowl of carbon, caramel iced lattes, and skinny jeans. This isn't to say that “borrowing” one or two elements is frowned upon, though it did seem a little insulting to clock what could only be described as the same game repackaged, but with a few Roadrunner-inspired FX to boot.
The problem is, not a whole lot changed once I passed through the tutorial. In fact, entering Lakeshore City as a fresh-faced and utterly sprightly wannabe driver immediately took me back to Palm City. Or better yet, it took me back to just about every Need for Speed game ever created, bar perhaps one or two rarities that dared to break the formula. Lakeshore City, on the other hand, wasn't anything out of the ordinary, nor anything that came within spitting distance of some of the series' other original concepts.
Of course, Need for Speed being a racing franchise, I was never exactly expecting it to be laden with hearty clippings and powerful monologues and what have you. That said, I did expect to see something slightly different, and not a lazy cop-out with all the same blueprints as the last twenty-four instalments. And so, on that note, I was a little underwhelmed to embrace what I could only draw up as Need for Speed Heat 2.0.
Welcome to Lakeshore City
It goes like this: you're a new driver, fresh on the scene and looking to make a name for yourself. There's an old banger for a starter car, a day and night curriculum with a variety of street events, and a whole lot of “Heat” that you need to keep off your back. Ring any bells? Well, it should, as it is, in essence, the same basic setup as most chapters in the Need for Speed anthology. Was this intentional, of just ignorance on Criterion Games' part? Who knows, but it's evident a few textbooks were copied from during the preliminary board meetings, anyway.
Fortunately, there is a perk to knowing the ins and outs of Heat, and that's the fact that you already know your way around a good old fashioned cat-and-mouse chase. And as far as Unbound goes, these tend to happen during the night, when the Heat is ramped up high and the risk factor has doubled in value. It's the same story here, and your primary goal is to either outrun the 5-0, or bug out to your nearest safehouse with the cash you've accumulated over the night.
Events in Unbound are divvied up into two times: day, and night. During the day, you take on smaller events for lower rewards, as well as meander around picking up side jobs for spare change. But during the night, you attend Meetups, in which you compete for higher prizes. The only difference between the two, really, is the Heat level, as well as the risk of losing your accrued winnings if caught during a post-race pursuit. Your ultimate goal remains exactly the same: earn cash, upgrade cars, and become the local legend of P̶a̶l̶m̶ ̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶̶C̶i̶t̶y Lakeshore City.
Excuse the fact that the story is mostly the same as before, and you'll actually find that there's a solid racing experience to be had in Unbound. Gameplay-wise, it's actually buttery smooth and irresistibly satisfying—addictive, even. The drifting is on point, as are the basic maneuvers and abilities. But what really sets Unbound apart from its peers, is its clever use of comic book-esque visuals that almost pop off the screen whenever you activate a certain maneuver.
It's a novelty feature, sure, but there's definitely an appeal to the candy-popping neon art that Criterion Games opted for. Now, whether it was to draw eagle-eyed fans such as myself away from the fact that the game was cutting a little too close to Heat is another question. Either way, it worked, and it definitely gave the instalment a little more than one leg to stand on.
Anyway, Unbound's bread and butter content comes from its nighttime events. Similar to Heat, almost everything noteworthy tends to happen during dusk, a time in which street racers run wild, and cops loom between the nooks and crannies of the city, hunkering for a high-octane pursuit. It's times like these that get your blood pumping — especially when you're hot off the checkered flag with $30,000 in your pocket and ten miles away from your nearest safehouse. Moments like these, being pursued by a dozen blue and white neon lights, were when I felt the most alive. And boy, I was more than happy to go chasing that feeling for hours on end.
In spite of Unbound forever trying to spoon-feed me a whole lot of pop art visuals and cringe one-liners about BBQ briskets, I was honestly surprised to find out that the AI was actually tougher than most modern racing games. This isn't to say that its lowest difficulty setting was unforgivingly hard or anything, but there was definitely a learning curve that I needed to adapt to right from the get-go. And, like many racing games, one wrong move would pretty much put me out of commission altogether, leaving nothing but a depressing image of some blurry brake lights in the distance.
Upon completing the prologue, I learned one thing: if you can't pull off a slick drift or dodge oncoming traffic while punching 110mph, then you're only going to set yourself up for failure. The point is, Need for Speed Unbound is surprisingly difficult, and a chapter that, no matter how demographically sound it comes across as, really isn't for the rookie driver. It'll test your mettle, as it did for me over the course of my rags-to-riches tale while alternating between the lowest and the intermediate settings.
Need for Speed Unbound comes loaded with its fair share of customizable features, both in the character creation suite, and the actual workshop itself. Just as well, because any racing game that doesn't include an extensive range of tweakable elements isn't really a racing game. Or it is, but maybe not up to the same kind of scratch as a lot of modern games with custom wraps and modifications.
For starters, there's the character creator, in which you're pretty much forced to construct a generic hipster, complete with aviators, skintight leggings, and even a bro-out emote to boot. That's pretty standard, and it's unavoidable, no matter how many times you switch up the model and browse the catalogs. But fine, you know — whatever.
What's really important is the vehicle customization suite, something that comes with your typical modern workshop and sassy owner who apparently knows more about anything than you ever will. Again, that's standard, and almost expected at this point. Customization-wise, it's rather in-depth, and brings all the same—if not more—tiers as previous instalments. By that, I mean there's a myriad of options for you to choose from, which range from custom decals to fine tuning, and just about everything else in between. It's all there, and it pretty much retains the same level of depth as past Need for Speed games. And on that note, I had nothing to complain about; I could build a car and tune it to my liking, just the way Criterion Games intended right off the bat.
If you can look past the fact that Need for Speed Unbound is really just Need for Speed Heat in a cartoonized dust jacket, then you'll actually find that there really is great racing game here. Given the fact that the franchise is pushing its thirtieth anniversary, it is refreshing to see EA's devotion to the franchise still alive and kicking. And when all's said and done, that's really all fans of the series want: a quality racing game, with perhaps a few solid wraps and soundtracks to boot.
Don't get me wrong, Need for Speed Unbound has its flaws, as you'd expect to see from any game in this day and age. Besides the fact that it bears an almost identical story and day/night racing regimen, though, the gameplay is still just as top-shelf as it was way back when. And so, my concluding passage can really only be summarized in twelve words: if it's a race you want, then Unbound will provide one, tenfold.
Need for Speed Unbound Review (Xbox Series X|S, PS5, PC)
The Heat Is Back
Acknowledge the elephant in the room, and you’ll clearly see a clone of Need for Speed Heat. Look past it, however, and you’ll actually clock several layers of quality, most of which are embroidered with quirky visuals, challenging events, and in-depth customization elements. It’s nothing revolutionary, but fans of the saga are sure to get a kick out of it regardless.